Despite coming off a disappointing 2015-16 campaign that included an eight-loss regression and a missed playoff appearance, the Milwaukee Bucks faced a bright future — both in the present and long-term — as they approached the upcoming season.
On Sept. 19, 21-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo sat in front of a swarm of reporters, flanked by head coach Jason Kidd and general manager John Hammond, to announce a $100 million contract extension that locked up the transcendental cornerstone through 2021.
Among those in attendance was teammate Khris Middleton, who just like Antetokounmpo, arrived in Milwaukee during the 2013 offseason as a little-known raw talent. A few years later, along with 2014 No. 2 overall draft pick Jabari Parker, this pair had emerged as leaders of arguably the NBA’s most intriguing young core.
Then, in heartbreaking fashion, this promising franchise hit a roadblock.
With optimism still lingering in the air from the press conference two days earlier, news broke that Middleton had suffered a significant injury. The verdict was a torn left hamstring that is expected to keep the team’s returning leading scorer and best perimeter defender out until after the All-Star break.
Middleton’s injury has cast an immediate shadow of doubt over the Bucks’ playoff chances, forcing the team to fill a monumental void with the start of the season only two weeks away.
There is not a concrete plan in place for how Milwaukee will deal with the loss of its starting shooting guard over the course of roughly the next five months. An instant reaction seems to have been to test the trading block, where rumors of an unsuccessful trade attempt for Sacramento Kings guard Ben McLemore have surfaced in the past week. Kidd has also noted that the team will likely be filling Middleton’s lineup slot by committee for the time being, and has hinted at increasing the workload planned for second-year wingman Rashad Vaughn and rookie Malcolm Brogdon.
It is quite possible that the Bucks have already found their solution. If so, it comes in the form of a diverse cast of newcomers that are poised to help the team combat this daunting setback.
Milwaukee’s free agency moves have flown under the radar nationally, bringing in Matthew Dellavedova, Mirza Teletovic and Jason Terry to compliment the arrival of Brogdon and fellow first-round pick Thon Maker. What these acquisitions lack in style, they make up for in substance — which is exactly what this team needs.
There were several culprits behind last year’s letdown, and inexperience was a primary one. Only two players over the age of 30 suited up for the Bucks during the 2015-16 season: Chris Copeland and Steve Novak. This duo ranked last and second-to-last on the team in minutes per game, respectively, and combined to appear in just 27 games. Present on this youth-driven roster was a blatant lack of winning experience, something that will be solved by the arrival of Dellavedova and Terry, both of whom have played key roles on championship teams.
Still, concern remains as to how Milwaukee will utilize these pieces to make up for the absence of Middleton’s 35-plus minutes per game of well-rounded production. The front office will continue to pursue trade options, but for the moment, an unorthodox approach may be the only option.
A prevailing theme of the Bucks’ preseason has been Kidd’s willingness to shake up the rotation with a variety of different lineups, something that plays to the strength of this group.
Given their current roster makeup, plugging a single individual into the lineup at Middleton’s minute-clip is not going to generate a winning recipe. Vaughn, Brogdon, Terry, Dellavedova and Michael Carter-Williams are all capable of logging quality minutes on the wing.
Shortcomings in each of their games, though, prevent them being reliable contributors in this role for upwards of 30 minutes a night.
This is where the underrated depth acquired this offseason comes into play.
Teletovic is slated to see a large share of his minutes in the frontcourt, but will also be one of the team’s leading long-range threats. This opens up the added dimension of a sharp-shooting forward that Milwaukee missed last season, while also allowing Kidd the luxury of plugging in a less-prolific shooter such as Carter-Williams that can be a defensive presence on the perimeter.
Terry has nearly two decades of NBA experience, and in addition to bringing his 37.9 percent career three-point shooting to the table, will help guide Brogdon and Vaughn through this early stage of their careers.
Dellavedova is also a dangerous long-range threat, can play both guard positions and has improved both his production and efficiency in each of his three years in the league.
Although it may not be conventional, the Bucks have the tools in place to survive Middleton’s absence.
Keeping the status quo will do nothing to quell the anxiety of playoff-hungry fans in Milwaukee, but it could be the best move for this team. It is certainly a far less risky proposition than forcing a trade to land a short-term replacement for the 25-year-old shooting guard of the future.