NBA

The Bucks Face New Challenges Without Khris Middleton

PHILADELPHIA, PA - OCTOBER 20: Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 and Khris Middleton #22 of the Milwaukee Bucks looks on during the game against the Philadelphia 76ers on October 20, 2022 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

The prolonged absence of Khris Middleton has placed more responsibility on Milwaukee’s stars, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday, to produce wins. At this point in time, the Bucks look fatigued. With little information on the nature of Khris Middleton’s knee injury, Milwaukee becomes a potential player on the trade market.

While the Bucks’ defense has remained near the league’s top, the team has struggled to limit turnovers, start games well, and hit three-pointers. The Bucks’ offense has looked stagnant since Khris Middleton’s exit, calling into question whether he can remedy such issues. While the Bucks’ recent blowout losses to the Nets, Celtics, and Hornets can be attributed to player fatigue, it could indicate a locker room issue.

A Novel Issue for the Bucks

The Bucks’ big three of Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton, and Giannis Antentokounmpo have fortunately avoided significant injuries in the regular season up until this point. The Bucks sit 3rd in the Eastern Conference with 26 wins and 14 losses. With some ugly losses in the new year, it seems that fatigue is starting to show in this team. While the Bucks have met expectations up until this point, many of the team’s wins have been hard-fought, close contests.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JANUARY 09: Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks looks on during the second half against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on January 09, 2023 in New York City. The Bucks won 111-107.
Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

While there is some benefit to competing in close contests, the Bucks rank 12th in Adjusted Margin of Victory (margin of victory adjusted to the opponent’s strength). In recent weeks the team’s net rating has dropped to 12th best in the league. To give perspective, the past four NBA Champions have been top five in average scoring margin and net rating. Last night, the Bucks’ gutty win against the Knicks exemplified much of their season up to this point: two and a half terrible quarters of bad basketball punctuated by greatness in the remainder of the game.

The Bucks have logically regressed in some areas without a part of their big three. While their third-ranked defense spells success for the team, this is contingent upon Khris Middleton improving their 23rd-ranked offensive rating.

Middleton’s Injury History

Of course, the untimely absence of Middleton in last year’s playoff series against the Celtics is still fresh in the minds of Bucks’ fans. Middleton initially suffered a wrist injury in Game 2 of the Bucks’ first-round series against the Bulls. The star was scheduled for reevaluation in one to two weeks. However, Middleton missed the rest of the playoffs as the Bucks fell to the Celtics in seven. He then received surgery in July to repair the torn ligament in his left wrist.

MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE - MARCH 26: Khris Middleton #22 of the Milwaukee Bucks reacts during the second half against the Memphis Grizzlies at FedExForum on March 26, 2022 in Memphis, Tennessee.
Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

Middleton’s Concerning Return and Prompt Sidelining

After missing the first 20 games of the season, Middleton made his not-so-triumphant return to the team. Coming back on a minutes restriction, Middleton played just 24 minutes a game putting up 11.1 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 2.6 assists. He would play only seven games, where he suffered a left ankle sprain against the Houston Rockets. In these games played, Middleton did not look healthy or anywhere near 100%. His eFG% plummeted to 39.6%, along with his 3FG% at 26.8%.

Middleton’s injury remains shrouded in mystery almost a month after being sidelined once again. He returned for two games after suffering the ankle sprain in Houston. Middleton showed improvement in the Bucks’ win over Golden State, where he scored 20 points in 29 minutes. In the next game, things took a turn for the worse. Middleton scored three points on 1 – 12 shooting in the game and has not appeared since due to right knee soreness. The Grizzlies’ 41-point victory is the largest allowed in Coach Budenholzer’s tenure.

He cited that in his return, he had been dealing with many minor injuries and an increased sensitivity that he hadn’t experienced until now. Middleton will be especially susceptible to minor injuries elsewhere in his body as he returns from the first significant injury of his career. It is a smart move by the Bucks’ to rest Middleton for as long as he requires, given how he played in this short stint. Middleton has expressed a positive sentiment as of late regarding his health, however.

“I would say way better than I was last week when I stopped playing … A lot of swelling in my knee went down. Just taking it day-by-day. Just trying to make sure the next time I go back out there I’ll be out there for the long run.”

Khris Middleton speaking to Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on December 24th regarding his injury status.

The State of the Bucks

The Bucks’ defense remains in the top five (#5) in defensive rating league-wide, but it has worsened somewhat since mid-November. The excellent play of Brook Lopez in anchoring the paint alongside the help defense of Giannis, and the perimeter pressure of Holiday, make the team a consistent defensive juggernaut. I believe in the Bucks’ defense and expect it to remain near the league’s top. Their offense has dipped to the seventh worst in the league without Middleton, which is cause for concern. Will the return of Khris Middleton be enough to counteract these offensive woes?

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - DECEMBER 19: Brook Lopez #11 of the Milwaukee Bucks blocks a shot from Zion Williamson #1 of the New Orleans Pelicans during the second half at the Smoothie King Center on December 19, 2022 in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

The Bucks bench ranks in the middle of the NBA (#15) in net rating (-0.4). This is surprisingly an improvement from past years. In their championship year, the team’s bench ranked 20th. The following year the team’s bench slipped to 28th in net rating. However, in these seasons, the Bucks’ starting unit was first and third, respectively, in defensive efficiency. Despite improvement from the bench unit this season, the team’s starting lineup has dipped to 12th in the NBA. Furthermore, the starting unit has descended to the 15th best in December and now the 26th best early in January. The Bucks still lack anyone shooting better than 40% from the three-point line: hindering the capabilities of Giannis and the team itself.

However, it is not all doom and gloom in Milwaukee, which should be clarified. The team currently ranks fourth against +.500 teams and sixth against the top eight in the Eastern Conference. The Bucks fluctuating net rating is hard to interpret. Only five of the last 20 NBA Champions have been outside third place in this metric, so the Bucks have some work to do.

What is going on with Budenholzer in the Bucks’ locker room?

The most obvious answer to why the Bucks have struggled recently lies in the loss of production incurred by Khris Middleton’s injury. While this is true, his absence has highlighted unseen issues. The loss of Darvin Ham has undoubtedly affected the locker room, and I think it safe to speculate Budenholzer’s voice is weakened without him. Four of the team’s last five losses have come by 20+ points. The team’s assist-to-turnover ratio remains at a lowly 25th best league-wide. In their previous ten games, the Bucks’ first-quarter efficiency has plummeted to 29th in the league. The team’s poor play was capitalized in a 21-point home loss to the tanking Charlotte Hornets, where Giannis played one of his worst games in years.

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - JANUARY 06: Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks is defended by Mark Williams #5 of the Charlotte Hornets during a game at Fiserv Forum on January 06, 2023 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The responsibility falls somewhere in the middle.

Budenholzer does not deserve to be in the hot seat, let alone fired. That is not to say he doesn’t need to do a better job disciplining the team and diversifying the offense. Turnovers, slow starts, and blowout losses are all problems indicative of poor coaching. However, I won’t pin this on him and the coaching staff. Budenholzer has made some intelligent decisions throughout the season. Prioritizing the minutes of Marjon Beauchamp over Wesley Matthew’s has proven valuable to Beauchamp and the team. However, Budenholzer has not addressed issues in the Bucks’ offense that existed before the championship run. The offense still appears stagnant and predictable at points down the stretch when three-pointers are not falling, and Giannis is confined to a half-court setting.

The Bucks’ season relies upon a healthy Khris Middleton: something that does not seem guaranteed this year. With role players forced to take on more significant roles, the Bucks have understandably faced adversity. But the Bucks’ play in the new year may indicate something deeper is going on in the locker room. It is unfair, however, for the Bucks organization to place primary blame on Budenholzer, considering they are missing their second option. If Middleton fails to return to his former self this season, there will most definitely be discussions surrounding his future with the Bucks.

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 9: Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks high fives Jrue Holiday #21 of the Milwaukee Bucks during the game against the New York Knicks on January 9, 2023 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York.
Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Conclusion

Middleton has a player option coming at the end of this season. If he returns and plays well, he will likely seek a new deal. However, if not, he has the insurance option of picking up the last year of his contract. With such little concrete news about the nature of Middleton’s knee injury, it is hard to say what will happen. The Bucks are in trade discussions with rumored interest for wings like Bojan Bogdanović and Cam Reddish.

This season is pivotal for the Bucks, as is any when you have a Giannis-caliber player. Despite offensive struggles and Khris Middelton’s questionable health, the Bucks are poised at a championship run if things shake out right. Their favorable net rating, bolstered by a strong defense, indicates the team is still of championship pedigree. Coach Budenholzer needs to reestablish control in the locker room and muster more energy from his guys. However, it will be challenging to contend if the team is without a healthy Middleton in the playoffs. If these negative trends persist in Milwaukee, GM John Horst will be forced to make a change via trade.

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