Khris Middleton’s return is even more important than you think
Eugene Choursoutoglou uses historical precedent to show why Milwaukee needs Khris' offense to contend for a championship
Editor’s note: The following article was written by Eugene Choursoutoglou, Gyro Step assistant producer and frequent contributor to the GSPN Substack. Follow Eugene on Twitter for more Bucks coverage!
We are already past the midway point of the NBA season and it feels like the Milwaukee Bucks have never been fully healthy for more than a game. Probably because they haven’t been. Just when we thought Khris Middleton’s return was the only thing separating the Bucks from finally being complete, Bobby Portis sprained his knee on Monday against the Detroit Pistons. According to Adrian Wojnarowski, Portis suffered a MCL sprain in his right knee and he’s going to be reevaluated in two weeks.
The timing of Portis’ injury is also very unfortunate, considering the fact that he was really starting to find his rhythm from beyond the arc after a bad shooting start to the season. In his last 9 games Bobby was shooting 46.9% from 3. He was shooting 31.2% in 36 games before that.
In fact, the Bucks as a whole have been shooting great lately. In their last 11 games, they’ve drained almost 40% of their threes, making them the second-best shooting team in that time span, only behind the Kings.
That’s obviously a good sign as the Bucks have struggled with their offense all season long, mainly due to the fact that they constantly had to deal with a ton of injuries, making it almost impossible for them to build chemistry and find rhythm. In a total of 48 games for the team, Khris Middleton has missed 39 games; Joe Ingles has missed 33; Pat Connaughton 17; while Jrue Holiday and Giannis Antetokounmpo have missed 12 games each.
Despite the good shooting splits lately, Milwaukee’s offense is still far from perfect. The Bucks are scoring an average of 113.1 points per game, scoring the 18th most points in the NBA, while only holding the 25th offensive rating with (111.6). That’s twenty two positions lower than last season, when they had the third -best offensive rating and twenty from the 2020-21 season when they ranked fifth in that category.
Defense, on the other hand, has been much better than last season. The Milwaukee Bucks have the third-best defense in the NBA, with a defensive rating of 110.1. That’s obviously much better than last season, when they ranked 14th. Brook Lopez’s return has played an instrumental role in the resurgence of Milwaukee’s defense. The decision to guard opponent shooters more closely was also important, as the Bucks conceded the most opponent three-pointers per game last season (14.46 per game). This season, only seven teams concede less three-pointers than the Bucks! Why is it important though to see where the Bunks rank in offense and defense?
Some would argue that hyper analysis of stats is not always important as “stats don’t tell the whole story,” but in our case, stats show patterns and these are really important in sports. No stat is worthless if you know how to use it.
Historically, there’s a strong connection between NBA champions and them being top-10 in both offensive (ORTG) and defensive rating (DRTG). Between the last 23 NBA champions, 17 teams were in the top 10 of these categories. Three of the remaining six teams were in the top 11. The only three teams remaining are the 00-01 Lakers, the 03-04 Pistons and the 21-22 Warriors. The Lakers had one of the best duos in the history of the game in Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, while the Warriors and the Pistons had elite defenses.
Also, 20 out of the last 23 champions were top-5 in SRS (Simple Rating System), which is a rating that takes into account average point differential and strength of schedule.
If we take into account these three metrics (ORTG, DRTG and SRS), the teams that have the best chances of winning the championship this season are:
Boston Celtics (#3 ORTG, #4 DRTG & #1 SRS)
Memphis Grizzlies (#10 ORTG, #1 DRTG & #3 SRS)
Cleveland Cavaliers (#11 ORTG, #2 DRTG & #2 SRS)
Philadelphia 76ers (#5 ORTG, #7 DRTG & #5 SRS)
There are three teams following close by:
New Orleans Pelicans (#14 ORTG, #6 DRTG & #8 SRS)
Denver Nuggets (#2 ORTG, #14 DRTG & #4 SRS)
Brooklyn Nets (#8 ORTG, #8 DRTG & #6 SRS)
Where do the Bucks rank amongst this list? They are not far from the teams above but their offensive rating is really an issue. The Milwaukee Bucks currently rank 25th in ORTG, 3rd in DRTG and 11th in SRS.
For context, Milwaukee ranked 5th in ORTG, 9th in DRTG and 4th in SRS during their 20-21 championship season. But again, these are solely historic patterns. As we’ve seen in the past, even though most of the time teams have to be in the top spots of these statistical categories in order to become champions, there have been enough exceptions to the rule to make us optimistic. At the end of the day, numbers don’t take under consideration human factors such as injuries. But nevertheless, the Bucks have to improve their offensive numbers if they want to make their lives easier.
We already know that defense is the key in teams coached by Mike Budenholzer. Having a DPOY candidate in Brook Lopez, a former DPOY in Giannis Antetokounmpo, the best two-way guard in the league in Jrue Holiday and plenty of defensive minded players like Jevon Carter and Wesley Matthews, Milwaukee’s defense is going to be fine, even if Jon Horst doesn’t make a move by the trade deadline.
Offense, on the other hand, has to be in the center of attention once Khris comes back. The Bucks have proved that they can be offensively productive when their big three are healthy. They ranked 3rd last season in ORTG and 5th during their championship season. The big question is whether they have time to actually find rhythm and build some much needed chemistry before the playoffs, but Bobby Portis’ injury certainly doesn’t help.
This is exactly why Middleton’s comeback is absolutely crucial in Milwaukee’s effort to readapt and improve their offensive production. It might be a small sample size, but the Bucks have an offensive rating of 115.2 points in nine games with Middleton this season and an offensive rating of 112.9 in thirty nine games without him. An offensive rating of 115.2 points would currently see the Bucks in the top-8 in terms of ORTG. Again, the sample size is extremely small, but Khris Middleton’s offensive contribution is a given. It’ll be interesting to see how the 3-time All-Star looks after his lengthy absence.
As it stands right now, health is going to be the biggest threat to this team this season. If they manage to stay healthy, finding offensive rhythm is only going to be a matter of time. This team has faced adversity plenty of times, and every little bump on the road is certainly making them better.