Good news has been tough to come by for the Milwaukee Bucks of late. After Friday night’s defeat at the hands of the Denver Nuggets and eventual-nude-hugger Nikola Jokic, Jason Kidd’s club has lost 10 of 11 games to fall to 21-28. The Bucks now sit in 11th place in the East; they’re just 1 1/2 games out of the conference’s final playoff spot, but they’re also just three games up on the second-worst record in the conference.
In the midst of these dark times, though, a sliver of light: Khris Middleton, the Bucks’ leading scorer last season, who has missed all of this campaign recovering from a torn left hamstring, has been medically cleared to make his 2016-17 debut.
The 6-foot-8 shooting guard announced on Fox Sports Wisconsin’s broadcast of Friday’s game that he’s been cleared to come back Wednesday night, against the surging Miami Heat:
— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) February 4, 2017
“If everything goes right these next couple of days, I’ll be uniform at home,” he told play-by-play announcer Jim Paschke and color commentator Marques Johnson.
When Middleton tore his hamstring — off the freaking bone — the Bucks initially expected him to miss about six months. Instead, his return to the court will come just over four months after the injury, with the Bucks hoping he can provide the jolt they’ll need over the final 30-plus games of the regular season if they hope to return to the playoffs. From Charles F. Gardner of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
Milwaukee will have five games remaining before the break when Middleton returns, including three home games.
Bucks teammate Matthew Dellavedova said it will be a boost to have Middleton in the lineup.
“We’re really looking forward to having him back,” Dellavedova said. “We’ve been practicing with him and it’s really been fun playing with him already.
“It’s going to take some time for him to get back into a rhythm. It’s always different. He’s not going to fix the issues that we have, but it’s definitely going to help.”
A 2012 second-round pick out of Texas A&M, Middleton came to Milwaukee before the 2013-14 season with Brandon Knight in the deal that sent Brandon Jennings to the Detroit Pistons. While the two former first-round point guards were the headliners in that swap, Middleton soon proved to be the Bucks’ big score, sliding into the starting lineup and averaging 12.1 points per game while shooting 41.4 percent from 3-point range.
During his first two years in Wisconsin, Middleton profiled as a growing “3-and-D” wing player, capable of handling multiple perimeter defensive assignments with his length and quickness while acting as a floor-spacing shooter and supplementary scoring option. That alone was enough to get the Bucks to commit to a five-year, $70 million contract when he hit restricted free agency in the summer of 2015, but Middleton came back in the first year of his new deal with designs on taking the next step toward stardom.
Middleton averaged a career-best and team-high 18.2 points per game to go with 4.2 assists, 3.8 rebounds and 1.7 steals in 36.1 minutes per game. He graded out as a top-20 player in the league last season by ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus metric, and was one of just 11 players to average at least 18-4-3-1.5 last year, according to Basketball-Reference.com — eight were All-Stars (Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Chris Paul, Kyle Lowry, Paul George, Jimmy Butler and John Wall), one would become one this season (Kemba Walker) and the other now ranks among the most productive individual players in the game (Eric Bledsoe).
The Bucks got outscored by 29 points in 2,852 minutes with Middleton on the floor last season, and by 314 in the 1,114 minutes he was off it. Their offense absolutely cratered when he sat, plummeting from just outside a top-10 rate of offensive efficiency to a mark that would’ve finished dead last, behind even the no-Embiid-yet Philadelphia 76ers. The defensive drop-off wasn’t quite as stark, but it was still enough to knock the Bucks from just south of middle-of-the-pack to what would’ve been the third-worst defense in the league. (On that side of the ball, Middleton’s return could be huge for a defense that has allowed gobs and gobs of layup, dunk and corner 3-point attempts in recent weeks, and ranks 21st among 30 NBA teams in points allowed per possession.)
Plus-minus stats like these can be a noisy and imperfect, but in a large enough sample, they can tell you something. In this case, they tell you that Middleton, a guy few outside the greater Milwaukee area could likely pick out of a lineup, was the team’s best and most productive player last season.
That, obviously, has changed in his absence, with Giannis Antetokounmpo emerging as arguably the second-best player in the Eastern Conference and a no-doubt-about-it All-Star starter. The ascent of Giannis as a primary playmaker and scoring threat, and the development of Jabari Parker into his second banana, could restrict how much room (and how many shots) Middleton gets as he looks to get re-acclimated in Milwaukee’s offense. For his part, though, the 25-year-old swingman seems content to make room for the young Bucks, both literally and figuratively.
“I feel like I can fit in with any team I play with,” Middleton told Paschke and Johnson. “The way I can play on the ball, off the ball, as a spot-up shooter, as a scorer — I think it’s going to be a smooth transition, as far as me coming back and fitting in with the guys.”
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