Who’s the best second option?

Middleton George
Khris Middleton and Paul George keep proving their doubters wrong. Photo from Sports Illustrated.

In the midst of the LeBron Jameses and Kevin Durants of the National Basketball Association’s star-studded landscape, so many names are lost in the mix. Whether they’re role players or up-and-coming stars, these days, it’s easy to overlook lesser-known talent in favor of the flashy and athletic superstars of the league. When they share the basketball with ostensibly higher-tier players who routinely churn out awe-inspiring plays, it’s not uncommon for less incendiary and vocal players to be slept on. Two such players are Paul George and Khris Middleton.

Khris Middleton vs Paul George comparison

They’ve have had to coexist around the All-World talents of Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Both have had to navigate the regular season taking the backseat to generational talents. They’ve also had to carry their teams in the absence of their franchise cornerstones in these playoffs.

Though they’ve had to settle for smaller roles, their games are neither peripheral nor pedestrian when you start paying attention. Who’s the better secondary option? Here’s a quick look at what the stats say.

Versatility on offense 

With their Batmans on the bench, both Middleton and George are routinely handed the keys to the kingdom to make plays and direct their team’s offense. Not only do they have the carte blanche as primary ball-handlers, but they also have the green light to take whatever shots they feel confident with.

40 points in the biggest game of his career.
Khris Middleton keeps proving his doubters wrong.
#FearTheDeer https://t.co/BXzLeMgW7P

Image

Khris Middleton—once upon a time in the conversation to join elite company in the 50-40-90 club—has neared that mark once more in the regular season. He posted norms of 20.4 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 5.4 assists on .476/.414/.898 shooting splits.

Once a franchise cornerstone himself with the Indiana Pacers, Paul George has been through it all. At age 31 and having gone through a tibia fracture, signs of a deteriorating game are few and far between. His scoring splits are a notch lower across the board, but only by the slightest of margins. For the regular season, he shot the basketball on .467/.411/.868 efficiency en route to 23.3 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 5.2 assists per game.

Who performs better without their alpha?

Another discussion to be had is this: how have the two fared without their fellow superstars on the floor?

Per Statmuse, Middleton averaged 22.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.6 assists in 8 games without Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2020-21 on .430/.455/.938. On the other hand, the Milwaukee Bucks were a net -0.25 in the 817 minutes with Middleton on the floor sans Antetokounmpo per PBP Stats. In those same minutes, though, the Bucks were actually more efficient (119.7 ORtg) than when the two played together (118.2 points per 100 possessions).

George posted the better overall production without Leonard, averaging 26.7 points, 7.5 rebounds and 4.9 assists in 11 games on .444/.326/.883 splits. However, the Clippers’ offense as a whole sputtered with Paul George at the helm. They scored 114.1 points per 100 possessions in the 793 minutes with PG playing without Kawhi, vs. a 125.11 offensive rating when they played together.

As the more athletic wing of the two, PG13 has posted the better individual production. However, Middleton still did it on remarkably higher efficiency that eclipsed his overall splits and helped his team more. As in most arguments on offensive ability, the difference is in efficiency. James Khristian Middleton takes the cake for the better secondary scorer for this writer.

Defense wins championships 

Comparisons between the two generally hinge on their completeness, and it’s hard to find any holes in their overall games. With their talents relegated to secondary roles, their defensive impact is rarely ever recognized. They’re both long and lanky defenders who can make life hard for scoring guards and forwards alike.

Though Middleton has never been an elite defender by any means, his length allows him to hold his own on that end of the floor. Unfortunately, this only offsets the effect of his lateral quickness (or lack thereof), and it shows in the team stats. Per PBP Stats, the Bucks concede more points (113.23 points per 100 possessions) with him on the court versus with him off (109.98 points per 100).

His matchup data from NBA.com/stats paints the picture of an average to above average defender. With Middleton as the closest defender, guards shot 48/120 (40.0%) while forwards shot 53.9% and centers 73.3%.

It’s easy to assume that Paul George is no longer the lockdown defender he once was, especially thus far into his career. But the same stats belie this. With George as the closest defender, guards shot 39.9% on field goal attempts, while forwards and centers shot 44.8% and 68.6% respectively. Opposing teams have also pounced on the opportunity to score 114.3 points per 100 possessions with PG13 on the bench, as this shoots down to 109.1 when he plays.

Who’s the better defender?

Even then, these don’t do justice to PG13’s defensive prowess.

Going by the stats alone, it’s clear that George is the better defender. His defensive rating per Basketball Reference beats Middleton’s with ease (110.0 vs 113.0 points given up per 100 possessions), and it shows in both the team stats and individual numbers. His defensive win shares also narrowly beat out those of Middleton (2.2), with the Clippers notching 2.3 wins off his defensive impact.

Clutch game  

By no means are secondary scoring options handed that title to demean their ability. In truth, the importance of second options on their teams is understated throughout the league, especially for Robins who aren’t established superstars. But just look at Steph Curry and Klay Thompson: more than anything else, second stars are there to pick up the slack when defenses clamp down on their superstars.

This begs the question: who’s the better player down the stretch of close games? Recent memory points to Middleton quite convincingly. Even with Antetokounmpo playing, the Bucks have gone to Middleton in the clutch. Where Paul George missed two crucial free throws against a stout Suns defense, Middleton sank them to ice Game 5 of the NBA Finals.

George vs Middleton: Who’s the better player when it matters?

When the possessions matter most, it’s clear who the more steadying presence is. In fourth quarters in these playoffs, George scored 7.3 points per game on .444/.295/.804 shooting splits. Middleton scored 5.7 on .440/.294/.920.

But narrowed down to clutch moments—defined as the last five minutes of games decided by five points or less—a clear winner emerges. Middleton is fifth in the league with 5.0 clutch points per game on .400/.222/.920 splits and a net +3.4 in seven clutch situations for the Bucks. Down the stretch of close playoff games, the Bucks actually called on its second star for 35.3% of its offensive possessions. In these situations, Giannis Antetokounmpo only posted a 29.4% usage rate. Not bad for a second fiddle.

George on the other hand was good for 1.3 clutch points per game in 11 clutch situations for the Clippers. He was a net -2.4 in these scenarios.

George vs Middleton: The verdict

Media narratives haven’t been kind to either player. The specter of his “Pandemic P” performances from last year’s bubble playoffs hung heavy over PG13 this season. Khris Middleton carries the reputation of being a glorified role player with inconsistent tendencies.

It’s tough to decide on a better second fiddle between two bonafide superstars in their own right. Both Paul George and Khris Middleton have had to move mountains to prove their naysayers wrong, but they’ve achieved that convincingly in these playoffs.

It’s tough to decide on a better second fiddle between two bonafide superstars in their own right. Both have had to move mountains to prove their naysayers wrong, and they’ve achieved that convincingly in these playoffs.

Defense aside, this writer has to go with Khris Middleton on account of his efficiency, leadership, and clutch performances—all of which are ideal from a second star whose shots are limited by his ball-dominant partner.

Leave a Comment