Bucks Weathering Storm Till Middleton Returns
As is stands today, the Milwaukee Bucks are 21-26 and one spot out of the Eastern Conference playoffs behind the Charlotte Hornets. Giannis Antetokounmpo is an All-Star while Jabari Parker is also emerging alongside him as a rising star. Malcolm Brogdon is in the running for rookie of the year while Greg Monroe is playing well enough to arguably make a case for the sixth man of the year. That all being said, it seems Milwaukee is still missing a key piece that should help put them in a better position to contend for a playoff spot.
Enter Khris Middleton.
A week before the season even began, the Bucks suffered heartbreaking news that their sharpshooter and leading scorer from last season at 18.2 points per game would be sidelined for at least six months due to a torn hamstring.
"A hamstring is definitely nothing to play with," Middleton recently told reporters. "There are chronic hamstring injuries where guys think it is fine and they go out there and try to run and pull it again. That's something I definitely don't want to go through."
As crushing of a blow as it was to see Khris go down, it may have been a blessing in disguise that helped speed up the development of young studs Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker. Giannis is having quite the breakout year averaging career-highs in almost every statistical category, and the 21-year-old Jabari Parker is having a breakout year of his own.
While Giannis and Jabari continue to emerge as stars in this league, the Bucks are still struggling to close out games. That was the case in their recent 114-109 loss at home to the Philadelphia 76ers and again in their 112-108 overtime loss to the Boston Celtics at home on Saturday night. The Bucks are now 6-12 this season in games decided by six points or less. They’ve lost games where they struggle to find a closer down the stretch who can take over and hit big shots. I know what you’re thinking; it should be Giannis or Jabari. While Giannis did hit the game-winner in New York from earlier this month, Milwaukee desperately needs a third scoring threat to take the load off of their young but still developing stars. After Giannis and Jabari, the third leading scorer is Greg Monroe at 11.1 points per game. Moose is having a solid year, but he’s coming off the bench and playing just 21.5 minutes per game as opposed to 29.3 last season. He did have 28 points in Wednesday night’s loss but made a bonehead play and turned the ball over on a bad pass that ended up costing them the game in the final minute.
Middleton’s replacement at shooting guard, for the time being, has been Tony Snell, whom the Bucks acquired from the Bulls at the start of the season in exchange for Michael Carter-Williams. No disrespect to Snell, who has averaged 8.2 points per game, but he’s nowhere near the scoring threat Middleton would be if he were on the floor. Middleton is a career 40% three-point shooter; meanwhile, Snell is shooting 38% this season and just 35.6% for his career. Tony has been a respectable stopgap at shooting guard this season, but the hope is that he will be even better with the second unit when Middleton returns to the lineup.
According to ESPN’s Marc Stein and other league sources, Khris Middleton is set to return the floor in early to mid-February. He also “has a chance” to get back in the starting lineup during a three-game homestand next month before the All-Star break. That is encouraging news considering it would be much easier to add Middleton than have to look elsewhere via the trade market to add a piece for the playoff run. Even if and when Khris does in fact return, he would still be monitored very closely and put on a minutes restriction, sources have said. He has already started to participate in small parts of Bucks practices as of late on a very limited basis.
Before Giannis’ current breakout season, the 25-year-old Middleton was considered to Milwaukee’s best two-way player on the roster. His ability to play both ways as a prototypical “3 and D” player earned him a well-deserved 5-year, $70 million dollar contract before the start of the 2015-2016 season. While the Bucks try to stay afloat in the Eastern Conference playoff picture at the moment, Middleton reiterated that he’s going to take his time in getting back depending on how the team is playing.
While it may not make much of a difference for this season, getting Middleton back in the lineup will be a huge boost if they indeed make a playoff push. His presence alone should instantly help space the floor and open up a lot more room in the paint for Giannis and Jabari to work with. More importantly, his return this season will give the Bucks and their fans a preview as to what this team will look like with a true “big three”, which should, in turn, help them decide how to build around them moving forward. It’s easy to say he will come in and make a difference right away, but neither Middleton nor the Bucks need that kind of pressure. The hope, for now, is to just get him back and see how he fits in the current group while developing chemistry alongside Giannis and Jabari.
In the voice of former New York Jets linebacker Bart Scott, I think I speak for all parties involved when I say, “Can’t wait!”