With the playoffs just one month away, no team is burdened by fewer questions than the Milwaukee Bucks. They already have 50 wins, an offense that hums behind the 3-point line, and the league’s tightest defense. Giannis Antetokounmpo is a hurricane moonlighting as an MVP candidate, Jrue Holiday is human stucco about to make his fifth All-Defensive team, and Brook Lopez leads the league in blocks while enjoying the highest 3-point percentage of his career.
But fewer questions doesn’t mean there aren’t any questions, which brings us to Khris Middleton, Milwaukee’s 6-foot-8 wing, whose physical condition—going back to last April’s sprained MCL and the offseason wrist surgery that sidelined him for all of October and November—should be considered one of this season’s most consequential variables. Much is riding on his ability to stay healthy and function at an All-Star level for the next three months. When Middleton is at or near 100 percent, the Bucks are a juggernaut who could easily strut to another parade (Thursday night’s loss to the Pacers notwithstanding). If he’s at anything less than that, though, they could be eliminated before the conference finals for the third time in four years.
In mid-December, Middleton hurt his knee and was once again placed on the shelf. He didn’t return until January 23. Since then, the Bucks have lost just three of their past 24 games. Before Middleton came back, they had the eighth-worst offense. Since he came back, they are seventh best, and only three teams are more efficient in the half court. Lineups that feature Antetokounmpo, Holiday, and Middleton this season boast a scorching 128.6 offensive rating.
Middleton came off the bench in 14 straight games before he returned to the starting lineup 10 days ago. His counting stats (points, rebounds, shots, free throws, assists, etc.) per 100 possessions are as good as they’ve ever been, but he’s still not playing in back-to-backs, and he continues to be hampered by a minutes restriction that reared its head at the end of Saturday night’s loss to the Warriors, when Middleton was benched at the start of overtime as Steph Curry morphed into Mount Saint Helens.
“We’re trying to be very diligent in how we bring back Khris and keep him healthy. He couldn’t play, he wasn’t going to play all five minutes of the overtime,” Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer said afterward. “Those hard decisions, they don’t always work, but I think overall his body’s in a good place. We’re trying to take the long road with him.”
As Milwaukee’s steadiest hand, Middleton inserts structure into a rotation that locks everything else into place. He’s a self-sufficient wing whose stoic demeanor and composed shotmaking are fulsome enough to drain chaos from moments that would otherwise be charged with too much of it. That influence is missed when he’s not around, most notably in last year’s conference semifinals against the switch-everything Celtics defense, which forced the exact type of one-on-one dilemmas Middleton is paid to solve.
In that series, the Bucks isolated a whopping 29.7 times per game—one of the highest marks in Second Spectrum’s database—and generated only 1.0 points per possession. Antetokounmpo struggled, isolating more than in any other series of his career, while Holiday was a mess, leaving Milwaukee to wonder what could’ve been had Middleton been around to stabilize the offense and beef up the other end.
(When Budenholzer chose to go small, deploy three-guard lineups, and prioritize space, he had to lean on a pupu platter of Grayson Allen, Pat Connaughton, George Hill, and Jevon Carter. The result was a feeding frenzy for Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum on the other end.)
This year, Middleton can single-handedly change the calculus. And with Jae Crowder and Joe Ingles now onboard, too, Milwaukee can surround Giannis at the 5 with size, shooting, and enough creators to fully diversify its game plan. They can also be massive with Bobby Portis, Brook Lopez, and Giannis on the floor at the same time.
Last week in Orlando, Middleton finished with 24 points (including 14 free throw attempts) and 11 assists. As a trustworthy offensive steward who can score in myriad ways and execute any and every pass that needs to be thrown, the three-time All-Star surgically rearranged the Magic by commandeering jumbo units that didn’t even include Antetokounmpo, who missed the game. “We just had no answer,” Cole Anthony said after the game. “We couldn’t stop them.”
At his peak, Middleton is constantly forcing defenses to make impossible decisions. His pick-and-roll playmaking can be diabolical for opponents who are forced to worry about his pull-up, Giannis or Lopez rumbling into the paint, and outside shooters dotting the 3-point line. The Bucks produce an impressive 1.16 points per direct play this season when Lopez sets a ball screen for Middleton. But so far, his partnership with Antetokounmpo on the same type of plays ranks 412th among 421 duos that have linked up at least 85 times.
Those two should be fine once that sample grows. It’s a partnership that’s become an essential part of Milwaukee’s offensive identity, a key way to mitigate some of the spacing issues Giannis creates when the ball isn’t in his hands by turning him into a lob threat.
It took some time for Middleton to find his legs and recapture the rhythm that makes his off-the-bounce jumper as smooth and convincing as it is pernicious. His true shooting percentage is the lowest it’s been in a few years but is trending in the right direction. Middleton is also increasingly comfortable sizing up switches, getting to his spot, and untethering a shot that’s reliable enough to be timed with a metronome:
Domantas Sabonis is not Bam Adebayo, but it’s still encouraging for Milwaukee to see Middleton toy with another NBA player like he did above. The shot was vintage Middleton. So are these plays: He’s never not looked like a man lounging in his own living room when backing someone down in the post.
Middleton’s shot might not be all the way back, but he’s posting the highest usage rate of his career. He’s also still an essential off-ball threat, so timely relocating, cutting, and coming off screens that either initiate or conclude one of Budenholzer’s sets. A little more of Middleton shuffling around when he doesn’t have the ball would benefit a half-court offense that has at times found itself in the mud even when its best players are on the court.
The question that comes from that ask, though, sits at the center of any doubt that still exists about this team. Through a lengthy playoff run, will the 31-year-old’s body still even be capable of relentless movement on the weak side while he’s assuming key defensive matchups, initiating more than 15 pick-and-rolls per game, and semi-frequently putting the offense on his back and bailing Milwaukee out?
Despite primarily doing damage from the perimeter, Middleton’s game is hardly all finesse. He’s a tough player who battles for position and imposes his size on mismatches with his back to the basket. There’s wear and tear on the 11th-year veteran, who’s absorbed and delivered more contact than you would think.
Middleton’s had a few excellent performances lately, but the Bucks have yet to see him conduct at his peak for any consistent stretch. If there’s any reason to doubt Milwaukee’s championship odds right now, it’s his durability. This also may be the exact reason an optimist is comfortable penciling them in for another ring ceremony—before last year’s playoffs, Middleton had been relatively durable for years.
But a multi-month grind in which he’s regularly pressed into 40 minutes of punishing activity feels miles from where Middleton currently is, as someone who’s appeared in only 25 games this season and hasn’t topped the 35-minute mark once.
A lot can change over the next few weeks, of course. The Bucks have 12 games and just over three weeks to ramp things up and prepare for what’s to come. Meanwhile, the Celtics have been inconsistent on both ends for several weeks, and Rob Williams III hasn’t played in six straight games all season. The Sixers have been playing great, but not great enough to extinguish all uncertainty about their core pieces, who haven’t played their best when it’s been needed. Every team in the Western Conference is flawed in one way or another.
This team is physical and versatile and was previously missing a critical splash of offensive handiwork without Middleton. But it has looked unbeatable with him. If he can stay on the floor, Milwaukee should have an answer to every question it gets asked.