The Milwaukee Bucks took a gut punch when starting shooting guard Khris Middleton tore his hamstring, an injury that will keep him out for at least 6 months. Are the Bucks’ hopes for a playoff run still alive?
In 2014-15, Milwaukee was the darling in the East, the counterpart to New Orleans in the West. After each unexpectedly made the playoffs, a groundswell for another leap forward was predicted for each. The Bucks, in a weaker conference and with fringe All-Star Greg Monroe in the fold, had a shot at hosting a playoff series.
Instead regression and Milwaukee’s own poor decisions pulled them back down to earth, and after a sixth place finish the Bucks fell to 12th in the East. Monroe struggled to fit into a switch-heavy defense, and on offense was squeezed by the team’s lack of shooting.
The team received no help from guard Greivis Vasquez after paying a premium to bring him aboard, and they acutely missed the veteran presences of Zaza Pachulia and Jared Dudley, both offloaded to make room for Monroe. The bitter taste of disappointment hit the Bucks hard.
Even in a lost season, head coach Jason Kidd found things to build on. He moved Greg Monroe to the bench, where his defensive limitations weren’t as damaging and he could score more easily against worse competition. He famously moved wing Giannis Antetokounmpo to point guard, where the 6-11 diamond in the rough could use his length, speed, and playmaking abilities to their fullest potential.
This offseason Milwaukee attacked its biggest weaknesses, bringing on elite shooters in Matthew Dellavedova and Mirza Teletovic. In the draft they added a long-term project at center, Thon Maker, a swing at a franchise player at a position where they have amassed a collection of average pieces. Finally they added Malcolm Brogdon, a swingman out of Virginia with veteran leadership and gritty defense.
With Giannis and Jabari Parker a year older, a healthy rotation, and a better plan for deploying Monroe, the Bucks had every reason to expect a return to the playoffs. The author’s personal board had them back as the sixth seed, a position now vacated in the wake of recent events.
Giannis is this team’s superstar, and their ceiling rests on the shoulders of how much he can handle this season. Jabari Parker is the player with the highest pedigree, and whether he can make the step up is an X-Factor for the Bucks and their future. But Khris Middleton is the invaluable piece of this rotation. Surrounded by non-shooters, his ability to knock down shots unlocks the offense. On defense, his 6-8 length allowed the team to install a switch-heavy scheme.
ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus metric seeks to understand precisely what a player’s on-court impact is. During last season’s disappointing outing, the Bucks only had two players in the top-100 of RPM. Giannis Antetokounmpo, at 98 – and Khris Middleton at 20.
While RPM isn’t a perfect or all-encompassing measure of who the best players in the league are, it’s not a bad place to start, and it shows that Milwaukee cratered without Middleton on the court. That wasn’t just an outlier in a down year, either; Middleton ranked 10th in RPM during their 2015 run to the playoffs.
Middleton was the team’s only starter to hit more than 30 3-pointers last season (Giannis had 28), hitting 143 over the course of the season. At 39.6 percent shooting from distance, Middleton was not only hitting shots but doing so efficiently. No player still on the team shot better than 29 percent last season.
Milwaukee is better equipped to handle Middleton’s absence than last season, as they added three shooters this offseason. Dellavedova is an underrated sniper from beyond the arc, hitting 41 percent of his 3-pointers last season. As he proved over the last two seasons with LeBron, “Delly” is well-suited to spotting up off-the-ball, a role he can play alongside “Point Giannis” this year. He’s a perfect fit for what Milwaukee is trying to do and their best offseason move.
Mirza Teletovic doesn’t bring the defensive abilities to the table that Dellavedova does, but he is a knockdown shooter, a career 41 percent shooter who shot a whisker under 43 percent last season. He brought volume as well despite coming off the bench in Phoenix, finishing 14th in the league in total 3-pointers. Add in college shooter Malcolm Brogdon, and the Bucks have options to replace Middleton’s shooting.
The problem is that they don’t have a perfect fit to replace him in the rotation. His length and ability to guard 1-3 from the shooting guard position unlocked versatility for the Bucks that they will struggle to replicate. The best version of these Bucks had Delly guarding point guards, Middleton and Giannis guarding wings, and Parker and John Henson guarding bigs.
Now the Bucks have to decide who else to start. They have sophomore guard Rashad Vaughn, but he hasn’t shown enough for Milwaukee to have confidence in that move. Rookie Malcolm Brogdon or the struggling Michael Carter-Williams could start as well, but that wouldn’t solve any problems for Milwaukee.
The newly acquired Michael Beasley adds a body, but not in the right spot. At this point in his career he is best deployed as a stretch-4 who does little stretching, a high-scoring wing off the bench who does even less on defense. Starting him now only punctures a hole in the defense (or widens it given Parker’s own struggled on defense), but it pulls the ball out of the hands of Giannis where it belongs.
Someone needs to start, and Kidd’s selection will have ramifications for the entire roster. The Bucks still have depth and versatility, but their glue man is gone. All hope for ascension is not gone, but their ceiling is certainly capped and their floor is sinking ever-deeper. If Giannis and Parker both take a leap, Monroe settles into his role, and Beasley and Carter-Williams decide to quit basketball to tour the Alps, the Bucks have the makings of a good team.
There is precedent for a team losing a key component and rallying to achieve greater heights. Last season the Charlotte Hornets lost Michael Kidd-GIlchrist prior to the season, were written off by prognosticators, and proceeded to win 48 games before pushing the Miami Heat to the brink in the first round.
But to say there’s a chance does not mean it’s likely. The middle of the East is soft this year, and the Bucks can challenge for a playoff spot. But the loss of Middleton takes them from playoff contenders to playoff hopefuls. If Parker or Antetokounmpo miss significant time, the Bucks will have to settle for another lost season.