By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)While watching former Sixer Michael Carter-Williams and the Bucks ultimately fall to Chicago in Game 2 of their first-round series last night, Philly Fast Break’s own @DanUrda texted me: ‘Hinkie is going after Khris Middleton, isn’t he?’ That message got me re-thinking about the idea. The rumor mill has been churning seemingly forever about Sam Hinkie and the Sixers going hard after one of the young restricted free agents soon to be on the market. While it’s fun to imagine Kawhi Leonard or Jimmy Butler in a Sixers uniform, it’s nearly impossible to imagine those contenders would take a significant step back by letting those guys leave. But could another team steal Middleton away from the Bucks?
First, let’s examine what Middleton would bring to the table for the Sixers. Selected in the second round of the 2012 NBA draft by the Pistons, Middleton turned out to be arguably the best player in the Brandon Jennings-Brandon Knight swap. Everything about him would seem to be a perfect fit for Philadelphia. The 6’7″ wing is still just 23 years old, right in the range of the young core the Sixers are trying to build. Middleton also shot the ball well in all facets of the game this past season (46.7 FG%, 40.7 3PT%, 85.9 FT%), while also playing solid defense. He would instantly become the best two-way player among guys who took the court for the Sixers this past season.
While Middleton has never been a big volume scorer, the advanced statistics love him. He was 8th in the NBA (!) in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, which attempts to measure a player’s estimate on-court impact. Slotting him between Russell Westbrook and DeMarcus Cousins has served to not only give ammo to the anti-analytics crowd (that stat is garbage if it says Middleton is a top-10 player!), but simultaneously served to bump up his value this coming offseason.
So what would it take to sign Middleton?
The prevailing consensus in the league is that he’s going to get a max deal. For a player with his years of experience, a max deal means 25% of the salary cap with 5% yearly increases. The cap estimate is $67.1M for next season, meaning his deal would start in the $16-17M range. While that may seem like a lot for a guy who averaged less than 14 ppg, keep in mind the salary cap is set to explode up to $89M in 2016-17. If Middleton was heading free agency under similar circumstances with that cap, he could command a deal starting at around $22M a year contract. Suddenly $17M seems like a steal.
The Sixers obviously have the cap space to sign Middleton to such a deal. Heck, the pending cap holds for Jason Richardson and Luc Mbah a Moute equal that amount almost exactly. The question is whether the team would be comfortable tying up that much long-term money to a player who is very good, but likely not a superstar. It would certainly limit their ability to go after true-superstar types should the opportunity present itself down the road. Given the rising cap however, that might not be as much of a problem. Signing Middleton would also be accelerating the rebuild just a bit, at a time when Hinkie might want one more high lottery pick before Dario Saric comes over and the team is essentially all in.
The Sixers would likely hope to go after Middleton, but he’s a restricted free agent. Is Milwaukee just going to retain him?
Probably. Many people think the acquisition of Michael Carter-Williams was partially due to their desire to re-sign Khris Middleton. The Bucks cleared a lot of future cap space by getting rid of Brandon Knight (who was due a big raise as a pending free agent himself) and getting back Michael Carter-Williams and two others who are all on rookie contracts. Now, the Bucks will not only have the cap space to match anything other teams can offer Middleton, but he could even get a bigger contract by re-signing with them because they retain his Bird rights (meaning he could get 7.5% yearly increases with them as opposed to the 5% raises other teams can offer).
Ultimately, all this thinking may come to nothing and Middleton will just be a Bucks uniform for many years to come. Still, when watching a guy who has been arguably the Bucks’ best player in their opening two playoff losses (averaging 20 ppg, 4 rpg, and 2.5 spg), it’s fun to imagine him in the Philadelphia red, white, and blue next season. Just another fun subplot in what’s already been a very entertaining first week of playoff action.