Giannis Antetokounmpo signs a four-year, $100 million extension one moment, and the Milwaukee Bucks have the face of their future locked up at a good price.
The next moment, Khris Middleton suffers a torn hamstring and expects a six-month absence, and the Bucks’ immediate future is crushed.
To ask the question, “what does Middleton’s injury mean for the Bucks’ playoff hopes?” would imply that they actually have playoff hopes. As of this moment, a potential shot at the young core growing further together in a bid to return to the postseason looks like it’s been thrown out the window as fast as The Vertical’s Shams Charania could type the 137 characters it took to break the Middleton news.
As someone who isn’t remotely close to being a Bucks fan, it’s still such a shame to hear of Middleton’s injury. It means missing out on watching this young core attack the league in 2016-17, hopefully with better success, and see the most overlooked component, Middleton, be a part of it. A player who averaged 13.4 points and 2.3 assists per game in 2014-15 and shot up to 18.2 points and 4.2 assists last season, with apparently hardly anyone noticing.
Middleton led the Bucks in scoring and he’s their new leading three-point shooter (39.6 percent) after Jerryd Bayless left in free agency, an even more important asset to lose now.
New point guard Matthew Dellavedova may have shot 46.9 percent on catch-and-shoot threes last season, and that clearly helps the team as an off-ball threat. Mirza Teletovic is another good signing for the same reason. But a roster that so prominently features Michael Carter-Williams, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker, no Middleton and non-spacing bigs like Greg Monroe, John Henson or Miles Plumlee at center is going to run into difficulty.
Having three of four starters (Delly may start at point) who offer minimal or no threat from three is going to make it easier for defenses to prioritize their attention and clog the paint more often to cover the drives of Antetokounmpo and Parker.
Outside of that, it doesn’t take much to say why Middleton will be missed. That’s kind of implied as he’s their leading scorer. Not to mention an improved playmaker, serving as another option for the Bucks to operate through at times and diversify the attack.
The Bucks scored 8.4 more points per 100 possessions with Middleton on the floor last season, and they also benefited from his sound perimeter defense to hold opponents to 4.1 fewer points per 100 possessions with him in the game. Such vital offensive impact as a shooter, facilitator and creator (David Ramil recently wrote a great piece here at Today’s Fastbreak on how impressive Middleton’s turnaround jumper from the post is) and defense can’t be replaced.
Minutes from Delly and Teletovic to help spacing won’t cover everything, and there aren’t wings on the roster near Middleton’s standard to replace him. Rashad Vaughn and Jason Terry are both options to take on extra minutes, and rookie Malcolm Brogdon (23) has good college experience and promise to help.
As negative as it sounds, though, there isn’t anything to be done with the current team to effectively replace Middleton at both ends.
Which is why the Bucks are reportedly looking elsewhere:
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojVerticalNBA) September 21, 2016
The problem for the Bucks is that adding wing depth isn’t something they would have addressed this urgently if it wasn’t for Middleton’s injury. They aren’t necessarily sacrificing a great deal to bring in a player who will be a new vital part of their core for the long term. Which, seeing as they don’t have a ton of valuable, expendable pieces to trade, and they’ve been struggling for months to find interest in Greg Monroe, doesn’t make matters too easy.
Wing players are needed more than ever in the NBA. Ones that can shoot threes, pass effectively and defend, like Middleton, are even harder to come by. Let alone for a low price.
The Bucks will need to look for players who aren’t valued too highly by their current teams and capitalize with organizations willing to try something new. Players such as Ben McLemore, P.J. Tucker and Terrence Ross could be possibilities, at least to provide some spurts of shooting in the case of McLemore and Ross, and more defense from Tucker (although he’s currently injured as well). Again, there’s no knowing if their teams would have interest in what the Bucks look to offer.
Ideally, if the Bucks start another smaller guard (such as Delly) at the 2 or complete their trade for someone else, surrounding Point Giannis with shooters is the best bet. They can maintain strong penetration with Antetokounmpo and Parker, while maintaining whatever defense and three-point threats they can around them.
Of course, regardless of what happens, accepting a downgrade from Middleton is unavoidable.
Alternatively, the Bucks could just make things really wild and trade Greg Monroe for Rudy Gay, because the Kings definitely need some more depth at center (this may or may not be sarcastic — I’m sure you can tell which).
Then again, whomever the Bucks could send to Sacramento, Gay still isn’t a dream solution. Gay’s becoming decreasingly valuable in today’s NBA, and the Kings have been thinking about a trade for months. His discomfort is clear to say the least.
He may be reasonably effective from mid-range (47.1 percent from 10-15 feet and 41.6 percent from 16 feet out), and there’s no doubt he’s a talented player who could offer some more offensive firepower in Milwaukee. But he needs the ball in his hands to be most effective and can’t be the kind of catch-and-shoot threat from three, or even playmaker, that Middleton was. Playing off-ball to support Antetokounmpo isn’t Gay’s game, and he’s more of a combo forward now anyway.
In Gay’s defense, it can be said for any potential wing candidate that they can’t replace Middleton. No one the Bucks are going to trade for is going to replace him, and certainly no one on their roster at the moment is up for that challenge. That’s how devastating this loss is.
As the season approaches, we’ll just have to wait and see how the Bucks look to keep their perimeter play afloat and fill the various holes left by Middleton’s absence. At least Antetokounmpo and Parker have more time to develop while he’s out, postponing the slight comeback season many expected this year until 2017-18. That’s the light on the horizon.
Until then, the news of this surgery and the Bucks’ consequent struggles and roster changes may be a notification to all those who never realized how great Khris Middleton is.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference and NBA.com.