How Khris Middleton's Injury Affects the Milwaukee Bucks
A little over a week ago, Bucks forward Khris Middleton suffered a left thigh contusion in a game versus the Oklahoma City Thunder. While the injury didn’t look serious at the time, a few days later Middleton would be ruled out for 3-4 weeks, leaving the Bucks without one of their most important players for an extended period of time.
After a light week schedule wise, that saw the Bucks play just two games against division rivals Chicago and Indiana, the Bucks now face a busy part of their schedule as we head towards the end of November. For coach Mike Budenholzer and the rest of the team, the question now becomes what do the Bucks lose with Middleton out, and how do they replace him?
Other than an injury plagued 2016-17 season where Middleton tore his hamstring in training camp, Khash has been a very durable player in his career, playing in at least 77 games each year other than his rookie campaign. After a brilliant 2018-19 season where Middleton earned his first All-Star appearance, he had begun this season a bit inconsistent, but was still averaging 18.5 points per game to go along with six rebounds and three assists.
Anytime a team loses an All-Star player to injury it is going to have significant effects, and that is no different for the Bucks with Middleton. One issue with losing him is on the defensive end. Middleton isn’t an elite defender, but he is solid on that end and often guards the opponents best wing scorer. It’s an underrated job that he doesn’t get much credit for, and the Bucks are likely going to have to use a committee approach in replacing that aspect of the game.
As mentioned, Middleton’s offensive numbers were down a bit to start the year, but there is no doubt 22 can still fill it up when he is right. Middleton had four games in his first ten played where he scored 25 points or more, and his elite shooting is important in this offense. More importantly is his ability to create his own shot. After Giannis and maybe Eric Bledsoe, the Bucks lack guys who can make their own play.
Finally, Middleton brings veteran experience and a clutch gene to this squad. Now thankfully his injury isn’t too serious where he won’t be around the team for an extended period, but on the court the Bucks will miss his veteran presence and knowledge in the huddle. Middleton is also known for his clutch shooting at the end of games, something the Bucks may miss if they find themselves in some close contests over the next few weeks.
While the injury is a tough blow, the Bucks do have one of the deepest rosters in the league and should be able to mask the Middleton injury temporarily. It starts with Wes Matthews, who slides into Middleton’s small forward spot in the lineup. Matthews has not put up the scoring numbers in his age 33 campaign that he did in his prime, but he is slowly getting more comfortable in Coach Bud’s system and has seen his minutes jump back up in Middleton’s absence so far. It would be nice to see Matthews’s scoring numbers spike, but his role should be more focused on the defensive end as well as providing that veteran presence on the court the Bucks lose without Middleton.
So far, the biggest beneficiary of the injury has been Donte DiVincenzo, who has slotted into the shooting guard spot in the starting lineup for Coach Bud. The Big Ragu has played at least 24 minutes in each of the games since the Middleton injury after playing sparingly the beginning of the season, including three DNPs. DiVincenzo has responded with positive plus/minus numbers, highlighted by a 14-point game in Indiana, followed by a 15-point performance in Chicago.
Other Middleton replacements include Pat Connaughton, Kyle Korver, and Sterling Brown. The Bucks are very deep at the two spot, and while they may have to play slightly smaller, these guys are capable of forming a nice committee during the time Middleton is out.
It starts with Connaughton, who has cooled off after a solid start to the season. After a 17-point outing in the Bucks third game of the season against Cleveland, Connaughton has seen his minutes decrease and has even picked up two DNPs in the process. However, he jumped back up to 19 minutes in the first game sans Middleton, and he is a trusted player by Coach Bud. Although the Bucks depth has limited him, we know Connaughton has potential, and he will be relied on in times like these over the course of the season.
Everyone knows Korver’s game is about the three-point shot, and the Bucks need it more than ever with Middleton out. Korver earned a season-high 19 minutes last weekend in Indiana, and while that may be his minutes limit in his age 38 campaign, the Bucks need more production from him. Korver has made ‘just’ eighteen threes over his first ten games in Milwaukee, and it would be nice to get that average up to 2.5 makes per game over this stretch. Korver will also need to remain active on the defensive end, as we know that is priority number one to stay in Budenholzer’s rotation.
However, Sterling Brown may end up being the best one for one replacement for Middleton. Brown had just six minutes of total playing time through the first four games of the year, but his playing time has increased and now spiked to 20-25 minutes per game with Middleton out of the lineup. Brown is a solid scorer, but compared to a guy like Korver, he has a better all-around game, as evidenced by a 9-rebound game versus the Bulls, and a 10/6/4 game versus Indiana.
Although it feels like he has been around longer, this is still just Brown’s third year in the league, and a lot of untapped potential remains for number 23. If he can continue to play consistent on both ends, Brown will not only help mask the Middleton injury, but also could emerge from the pack of two guards as the first option off the bench for Coach Bud.
Overall, the Middleton injury is a tough loss for the Bucks. An All-Star player who was signed to a $178 million contract in the offseason, Middleton is often the engine that makes the Bucks go after Giannis, and it is fortunate his injury will not keep him shelved that long. While the Bucks have a packed schedule during his absence, it is fortunately not all that tough with two matchups against each of the Hawks, Cavs, and Pistons over the next several weeks. That combined with the depth the Bucks have on the roster should allow them to continue their successful start to the season while Middleton works his way back.
Statistics Courtesy of Basketball Reference