Better Buy in NBA Free Agency: Draymond Green or Khris Middleton?

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterMarch 14, 2015

Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green (23) yells after scoring against the Los Angeles Clippers during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, March 8, 2015. The Warriors won 106-98. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

The 2014-15 NBA season may well go down as the Year of the Contract Year, as redundant as that sounds. 

Jimmy Butler bet on himself, reportedly declining a $40 million extension from the Chicago Bulls in the fall and turning himself into an All-Star who's likely to earn much more than that this summer. With the Los Angeles Clippers missing Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, an unrestricted free agent this summer, has risen to the occasion and vastly improved his payday prospects.

But you don't have to play in the All-Star Game (or come close to it) to be in line for the sort of sizeable raise that would've seemed ludicrous prior to the start of the current campaign. Just ask Draymond Green and Khris Middleton.

Both were second-round picks in the 2012 NBA draft. The Golden State Warriors grabbed Green, then the Big Ten Player of the Year out of Michigan State, with the 35th pick. Four spots later, the Detroit Pistons picked Middleton, a three-year letterman out of Texas A&M.

Both were largely afterthoughts through their first two pro seasons. Green started just one game as a rookie and 12 as a sophomore, and he might not have become Steve Kerr's choice to start at power forward if not for an early-season injury to David Lee. Middleton was practically an afterthought in the trade that brought Brandon Knight to Milwaukee.

Now, both are shining as role players on their respective squads—Green as a leader on the NBA's best team; Middleton as a catalyst behind the Bucks' stunning turnaround—enough so to garner consideration for Most Improved Player in the near term and massive new contracts in restricted free agency thereafter.

More than a few teams figure to be in the mix for these two this summer. The Pistons have already been tied to both in some capacity. After all, the Pistons play in Green's home state and once saw enough from Middleton to take a flier on him in the second round. Detroit could have enough cap space to sign both, but only if Greg Monroe takes his talents elsewhere.

Suppose, then, that you're the general manager of an unspecified squad and only have enough resources to sign one of these guys. Who would you choose?

Here's a primer to help you make up your mind.

The Case for Draymond Green

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Green's value is much easier to qualify than it is to quantify, though neither means of description is a piece of cake when it comes to this 25-year-old. He's averaging career-highs nearly across the board, but even those (11.6 points, 8.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.4 blocks in 32.2 minutes) aren't exactly eye-popping.

Certainly not enough to merit the $16.3 million per year for which ESPN's Amin Elhassan has him pegged this summer. But Elhassan's description of Green begins to get at what it is that may compel at least one club to offer him that much:

One of the most versatile defensive players in the game today, Green has elevated himself into more than just a glue guy; he's an excellent passer, a good rebounder, a developing 3-point threat and a fiery competitor. You can't build a team around him, but he makes a good team great with his versatility. 

In some cases, versatility is a euphemism for "tweener," the lethal label that's undercut many a career. In Green's, it speaks to his ability to transcend positional pigeonholing, to contribute to every facet of the game under the vague-but-appropriate blanket of "basketball player."

According to NBA.com, the Warriors have fielded nine different five-man lineups that have played at least 40 minutes together and outscored the opposition on a per-possession basis. Of those nine, seven have featured Green—one as a wing, six as the nominal power forward.

Per 82games.com, he's outperformed his foes at both spots, despite (supposedly) lacking the size (6'7", 230 pounds) to stop 4's and the foot speed to track 3's. 

And during a 102-93 win over the Milwaukee Bucks in early March, Green more than held his own at center.

"I think Draymond has a lot of Dennis Rodman in him," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after that game, per The San Jose Mercury News' Tim Kawakami. "He defies positions, he guards anybody, he's quick enough to stay in front of point guards; he's big and strong and tough at the rim and rebounds like crazy."

The numbers back up Kerr's assertions. Green's great in the post, holding his marks to 0.78 points per possession there, but has been even stingier defending pick-and-roll ball-handlers (0.65 points per possession) and isolation operators (0.59 points per possession), according to NBA.com.

Per Kerr, Golden State has given up an anemic 87.5 points per 100 possessions when Green has manned the middle. According to SportVU, Green has collected 64.9 percent of the rebounds within 3.5 feet of him this season—a top-20 mark among those who've averaged at least 10 chances over 30 games. Likewise, Green ranks in the top 20 in opponent field-goal percentage at the hoop (47.3 percent) among those who've faced at least five such shots per game.

All told, Green has adversely affected his foes' field-goal percentage from every area of the floor, per NBA.com:

Draymond Green's Opponent Field-Goal Percentages
RangeDFG%Difference From Season Avg
Less Than Six Feet52.2-6.3
Less Than 10 Feet45.8-8.3
Greater Than 15 Feet30.6-7.1
Two Pointers41.9-7
Three Pointers26.7-8.3

It should come as little surprise, then, that no player has had a bigger impact on Golden State's defensive performance than Green has. According to the league's stats, the Warriors allow 6.4 points per 100 possessions more when Green sits.

Believe it or not, Green's left an even greater imprint on the other end. The Warriors score 7.1 points less per 100 possessions when Green isn't around to grease the skids. In fact, Green's positive effect on Golden State's scoring is reflected across a slew of key indicators, from assist percentage and assist-to-turnover ratio to effective field-goal percentage and pace.

Draymond Green's Offensive Impact
Off EffAst%Ast/TOeFGPace
Green On111.465.81.9255.3101.58
Green Off104.363.71.6450.999.52

In other words, Green is to Golden State's entire operation as MiO is to water.

But Green's most important functions in any ecosystem (i.e., his leadership and toughness) defy statistical description. As ESPN's Ethan Sherwood Strauss noted back in January, "Kerr calls Green the team's heartbeat, its vocal leader and a bunch of other sportsy cliches that have the virtue of actually describing the role of Golden State's utility man."

Those qualities are at once difficult to price out and almost impossible to overvalue. Every team could use a glue guy—someone with both a binding personality and a willingness and ability to fill in gaps large and small—to realize its championship dreams, especially one who ranks 11th in the league in real plus-minus (plus-5.57) and sixth in the league in wins above replacement (10.32), per ESPN

To that end, Green just so happens to be the best in the business and, as such, will command major money for those amorphous services.

The Case for Khris Middleton

DENVER, CO - MARCH 03:  Khris Middleton #22 of the Milwaukee Bucks conrols the ball against Ty Lawson #3 of the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center on March 3, 2015 in Denver, Colorado. The Nuggets defeated the Bucks 106-95. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknow
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Middleton, on the other hand, fits much more snugly into a positional niche.

Or, at least, that's how he appears at first glance.

This season, Middleton has emerged as a potent 3-and-D wing. He's been the league's third-most accurate long-range threat, knocking down 44.2 percent of his three-point tries, including a sizzling 55.6 percent from the short corners.

Those percentages, while potentially career-redefining, aren't entirely out of step with his year-over-year improvement:

"[The shooting] is a combination," Middleton told ESPN's Bradford Doolittle. "Just being patient, not forcing anything and moving the ball. Just finding the best shot for the team."

Even those modest contributions have meant plenty to Milwaukee's underwhelming offense. According to NBA.com, the Bucks score a passable 102.9 points/100 when Middleton plays, as opposed to a putrid 97.7 points/100 when he's on the pine.

To be sure, there's much more to Middleton's offensive game than just spreading the floor with his shot. As Doolittle described it:

He moves well without the ball, and the Bucks run a lot of sets that try to pop him open off screens, and he's an adept cutter when teams overplay. He's also 6-foot-7 with a 6-10 wingspan and a quick release that helps him get off more shots than a shooting specialist, yet his accuracy has become consistent. Finally, Middleton has developed solid moves in the mid-post, and Milwaukee goes to him there if he's being checked by a smaller defender.

Middleton's complete arsenal has been on particularly brilliant display since the All-Star break. Over his last 12 games, Middleton has averaged 18.9 points, 5.2 rebounds and three assists while knocking down half of his four three-point attempts per night.

This uptick may be more than a mere anomaly, too. With Knight in Phoenix, Middleton has seen his role expand within head coach Jason Kidd's offense, and he has risen to the occasion accordingly.

Milwaukee's opponents have noticed, to say the least; they've started sending extra defenders his way, and Middleton has handled them with aplomb.

"One of the nice things I saw tonight was he was getting double-teamed coming off screens, when he didn't even have the ball," Kidd told ESPN after a recent win over the Orlando Magic. "You cause a problem when you have two guys on one. The numbers are in your favor."

That ability to command added defensive attention makes Middleton immensely valuable to any offense, especially one as limited as Milwaukee's. So, too, does his fearlessness in taking shots with the game on the line:

The growth of a player's game isn't always linear in the NBA, but the base from which Middleton is building his repertoire and the age at which he's doing it (23) both point to him being no worse than an effective offensive cog with solid upside wherever he winds up.

And that's to say nothing of Middleton's defensive prowess. His length, athleticism and on-court intelligence have helped him to become a menace within the Bucks' aggressive defensive scheme. He racks up as many steals per game (1.55) as does LeBron James, and ranks in the 80th percentile or better in defending some of the league's most potent perimeter play types:

Khris Middleton's Perimeter Defense, by Play Type
PNR Ball-Handler1250.6239.287.8

Middleton doesn't suppress his opponents' shooting percentages to quite the extent that Green does, but he does reduce their effectiveness from every spot nonetheless, per NBA.com.

And, like Green in Golden State, Middleton has become much more vocal in Milwaukee. "His communication is something that never shows up [in the box score]," Kidd added. "That's something the stats or analytics haven't figured out yet."

What they have figured out, though, is that Middleton will be worthy of a substantial investment when he hits the market in July.

The Verdict

Aaron Gash/Associated Press

Which brings us back to our original question: If you could only sign Green or Middleton, who should you choose?

A scout's assessment of Green's game (via Bleacher Report's Howard Beck) offers an important clue:

He's one of those guys who's a product of the system. I'd be very uncomfortable paying him zillions of dollars. He is situationally [valuable]. He's got two great point guards, he gets a lot of surplus stuff from them. He's a good rebounder. He's a complementary guy. But he's going to get paid like a second or third option, probably. I would be cautious, if I'm any team other than Golden State.

Indeed, Green is a quality contributor to nearly every aspect of the game, but in a vacuum, he grades out more like a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none.

This isn't a bad thing; on the contrary, Green's chameleonic toolkit should allow him to carve out a niche for himself wherever he winds up.

Still, as important as context is to evaluating the success or failure of any individual in the NBA, it's vitally so for Green. His skills fit so well into what Golden State does and needs from him, but what happens if/when he's asked to do more?

That makes signing him more of a crapshoot, which is problematic when he could be drawing more than $15 million on a yearly basis.

Middleton, meanwhile, represents a more predictable commodity: a long, athletic wing who can shoot and defend. If your team needs one of those guys, you probably wouldn't think twice about sending an offer sheet Middleton's way.

And if he can be pried away from Milwaukee for $10 million per year or less, even better.

Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.


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