Why yes, Khris Middleton is in fact very good. He’s the Bucks’ second-leading scorer and rebounder, and one of their top three playmakers. Middleton is also Milwaukee’s best volume shooter from long-range, and his positional versatility is an underrated component of the Bucks’ top-ranked defense.
A longtime cult favorite of the basketball cognoscenti, Middleton became an All-Star this season for the first time in his eight-year career. The designation officially elevated him from the ranks of perpetually underrated to just exactly properly regarded. After running through a list of all his positive traits, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer offered the perfect Middleton summation: “He’s just a really good basketball player.”
Given the myriad ways he contributes, and the low-key efficient way he conducts his business, Middleton might even be the perfect complementary player for a Bucks’ team built around the transcendent talents of Giannis Antetokounmpo. Picture this team with another ball-dominant scorer and what do you see? While it’s an interesting hypothetical, you certainly wouldn’t see the Bucks who have thrived in Budenholzer’s motion offense.
Middleton’s game is not nearly as awe-inspiring as Antetokounmpo, of course. The subtle nuances of his skillset stand in striking contrast to Giannis’ rim-tearing destruction. That’s what makes them fit so well. Middleton can handle the ball in the pick-and-roll, knock down jump shots, and post-up with his lanky 6-8 frame. Most importantly, there’s so little skill overlap that they don’t get in each other’s way.
As Milwaukee assistant Darvin Ham put it, “If Giannis is the espresso, Khris is the cream, smoothing it all out.”
This combination epitomizes Milwaukee’s team concept. There is no my turn, your turn component to the Bucks’ offense. While not exactly egalitarian, there is a well established hierarchy with Giannis as the focal point leaving room for Middleton and point guard Eric Bledsoe to create shots within the offensive flow.
“I was used to playing a lot of pick and rolls, post-ups, isolations,” Middleton said. “We switched to a more free motion type of basketball, which has been a lot easier. It’s a lot freer. A lot of motion without the ball where I’m able to play without it and find open spaces and let the offense come to me instead of forcing it so much.”
Around them are a collection of shooters ranging from combo guard Malcolm Brogdon to 7-footer Brook Lopez. Everyone has a part to play, and through the first two rounds of the playoffs the Bucks have looked like the most cohesive team of the remaining contenders. Rather than fall apart whenever Antetokounmpo takes a rest, for example, the Bucks have thrived regardless of who’s on the court. It’s a wonderfully symbiotic arrangement.
“He makes life a ton easier,” Middleton said. “I try to make it easier on him too by knocking down shots. He creates so much attention with or without the ball that it allows us to play a lot more freely.”
That’s the essence of a successful team: Have good players who help each other succeed; not too many. In the zero-sum race for talent acquisition that’s defined this NBA era, the Bucks have succeeded with players who simply fit well together. It’s almost a radical notion in its simplicity.
Tucked away in a gym backing up to the Charles River on the sprawling campus of Boston University, the Bucks were going through their paces prior to Game 3 of their second-round playoff series with the Celtics. Middleton was a popular interview request that day, given how he nearly buried the C’s last season with an opening round performance that captured everyone’s attention.
With the Celtics focusing their defensive attention on Antetokounmpo, Middleton averaged 24.7 points on an absurd .719 True Shooting Percentage. Middleton flashed that scoring ability again in Game 2 of this year’s series, going off for 27 points as the Bucks evened the series at a game apiece.
“Do you ever miss?” someone asked him.
“Tons of them,” Middleton answered, a bit chagrined. “I just lost a shooting competition.”
Pressed to provide a rationale for why he has so much success against Boston, Middleton sighed. “They’re just going down,” he said. “They’re the same shots I’ve been getting for the most part all season long.”
There is no real mystery to Middleton, or his game. Nothing mystical, deep or unnecessarily complex. His genius lies in making simple basketball plays, or maybe they only look simple in his capable hands.
“Just a basketball player,” he shrugged when asked to define his game. “I try to do a little bit of everything. I’ve worked on my game to the point where anything they’ve asked of me I try to come through and do it for them. Whether that’s defending, making plays, being a decoy or knocking down shots and being a scorer. That’s what I’ve worked on, to be that type of player.”
In many ways Middleton holds the key to the Bucks’ long-term trajectory. A free agent at the end of the season, he’s going to be paid a lot of money this summer. A max deal for a player with his service time starts around $32 million per season and continues heading north from there.
Middleton is the kind of versatile player who can fit in anywhere, and he’ll have his share of suitors. Whatever he gets in free agency will be a significant raise for a self-made former second-round pick. In a summer stocked with big fish free agents and teams with cap space to burn, his timing couldn’t be better. Or worse, depending on how you look at it.
With a number of key players heading to free agency this summer, that puts the Bucks in a bit of a quandry. It’s a lot of money for any player, let alone a one-time All-Star who ranks a tick or two below elite status. General manager Jon Horst already signed Bledsoe to an extension that provides a degree of flexibility, but there is no obvious way to replace Middleton if he signs somewhere else.
Add a looming supermax extension waiting for Antetokounmpo in a few years and keeping this team together will get expensive quickly. All those factors make this a critical summer for Horst to continue building the kind of team with staying power to maximize Antetokounmpo’s prime.
“I really haven’t paid any thought to it,” Middleton said. “I won’t until the season is over. Just want to focus on basketball right now and focus on the summer in the summer.”
Told that was a very political answer, Middleton laughed. It also might be the truth. The Bucks are having too much fun right now to worry about the future. As we chatted off to the side of the court while Middleton was icing his knees, Bledsoe came over to playfully disrupt our conversation.
“Bled, stop touching me, man,” Middleton said. “I didn’t mess with your interview.”
Their’s was an easy banter befitting a team that has its on-court chemistry neatly aligned with its off-court relationships. Later than night, Middleton broke free for 15 of his 20 points as the Bucks reclaimed control of the series. Bledsoe struggled, however, and it was Middleton who urged him to remain aggressive. The point guard rallied in Game 4 and after waxing the C’s twice in Boston, the Bucks were asked what they thought of the Celtics’ struggles.
“It’s not about them,” Middleton answered. “It’s about us.”
The Bucks then took care of business at home and have rested easy while the rest of the playoff field battles through wearying 7-game epics. They have proven that their 60-win regular season was no fluke, and Middleton has shown once again that he is a very good player indeed.
By the Numbers
The NBA Draft Lottery will be held on Tuesday. Here are some digits you need to know.
The NBA evened out the draft lottery odds with the three worst teams each afforded a 14 percent chance of landing the Number One overall pick. Congrats to New York, Cleveland, and Phoenix on your horrible seasons. The prize in this year’s draft is Duke’s Zion Williamson, who is one of the most unique prospects to come along in years. He’d look great wherever he goes, but it sure would be something to see him land in Atlanta with all the other young talent the Hawks have accumulated. (Atlanta has a 1-in-10 shot at winning the lottery on Tuesday.)
This is the most intriguing spot in the draft because whoever gets the second pick will have to decide between Murray State Point guard Ja Morant and the rest of the field. Phoenix would presumably be more than happy to add Morant to their young squad that’s in desperate need of a point guard. Cleveland, on the other hand, just drafted Collin Sexton in the first round last year. Drafting for need this high is often dubious, but taking Duke’s R.J. Barrett would be an interesting gamble for the Cavs.
Speaking of the Hawks, the number to watch for them is five. If the Mavericks pick falls past five it goes to Atlanta, thanks to a draft-day swap that allowed Dallas to move up and take Luka Doncic, while the Hawks took Trae Young. A friendly reminder not to judge a trade until all its conditions have been met. This draft isn’t deep in top-tier talent but it does have an abundance of wing players who would fit very nicely with what general manager Travis Schlenk is building.
Besides the top pick, this might be the most important piece of the lottery puzzle. The Grizzlies keep their pick if it stays within the top eight, otherwise it conveys to the Celtics. (Shoutout to Jeff Green.) The C’s would very much like Memphis to keep the pick because it becomes top-6 protected next season and unprotected the year after. The Grizzlies would like to convey it now for the same reasons. The Celtics need all the trade value they can muster to swing a deal for Anthony Davis and a draft pick in the wild is worth more than a mid-lottery choice.
Of all the things that happened this season, few were more important than the Sacramento Kings becoming competitive. By barely missing out on the playoffs, the Kings hold the 14th and final spot in the lottery. That pick goes to Boston, unless it somehow lands at Number One in which case it goes to Philly. The trade lineage is perfection. In one of his finest acts, former Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie secured the rights to this pick by taking on a Kings salary dump that included former lottery pick Nik Stauskus. Those rights were later traded to Boston by Hinkie’s successor, Bryan Colangelo, so the Sixers could move up and take Markelle Fultz. Pour one out for the Sauce Castillo Swap, one of the most dubious deals in NBA history.
Consumable NBA Thoughts
I can’t let this Celtics season go without a few more thoughts on what was the most dispiriting team I’ve ever covered.
Let’s start there because there really was a weird vibe around that team. The locker room was hardly a place of joviality, at least in the rare glimpses we’re afforded, but it wasn’t exactly toxic either. This wasn’t a case of bad dudes poisoning the well, the mood was just … off. Locker room psychoanalysis is an iffy gambit best left to those around the team every single day, but it was clearly obvious to anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of pro basketball that there was very little on-court chemistry.
Kyrie and Brad
When Kyrie Irving arrived from Cleveland he was enthused about working with Brad Stevens. Something went amiss. There were a handful of in-game blowups with Irving openly questioning strategy decisions and showing his displeasure. Stevens keeps his opinions close to the vest, but by and large he afforded Kyrie the freedom to be Kyrie. Maybe to his detriment. Somewhere in there trust and accountability broke down, and it filtered down to the rest of the team. That doesn’t mean the relationship can’t be salvaged, but if they are continue together there must be a meeting of the basketball minds.
The Anthony Davis gambit
It’s been an open secret for several years that Danny Ainge and the Celtics front office have their sights set on trading for AD. All that careful planning and asset-gathering was dealt a blow due to a quirk in the collective bargaining agreement that prohibited them from trading for two players signed under Rose Rule provisions. The other player, of course, is Kyrie. What Ainge would like to do is have a deal in place by draft night, which would then be a powerful inducement for Irving to opt out of his deal and sign an extension. That’s the plan, even if the cart is way ahead of the horse.
Jaylen or Jayson?
If there is an AD trade, then either Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown would have to be a part of it. Given the in-season devaluation of their draft pick stash, it may even require both of them. Tatum is 18 months younger and has another year left on his rookie deal before he’s eligible for a contract extension. As players, Tatum is the surer bet. Even with his second-year struggles he has all the tools to be a 20-point scorer for a decade. Brown is more of an interesting case. His trajectory has long been a source of discussion, but the comparison that gets made most frequently is Andre Iguodala. Given what a team with Kyrie and AD might look like, there’s a case to be made that Brown is a better long-term fit in Boston.
Plan B may not be so bad
Let’s say Kyrie bounces and the Celtics get cold feet on Davis: What then? The obvious play would be to double down on a future built around Jaylen and Jayson. They would try to work out a reasonable extension for Al Horford and hope Gordon Hayward can recover his game. They would still need to find a lead guard and it’s not at all clear they view Terry Rozier in that light. Is that a championship core? Maybe not, but it’s a competitive foundation, and with the way the league changes every few years it would put them in position to continue building with an eye on the future. Honestly, there are worse outcomes.