The Milwaukee Bucks‘ Game 7 loss on May 15 in Boston ended the Bucks’ season, but Wesley Matthews has likely not stopped thinking about how things could have been different. Last Monday, Matthews admitted his brain had been lingering on what could have been if three-time All-Star Khris Middleton would not have gotten injured in Game 2 of the Bucks’ first-round series against the Chicago Bulls†
“You can’t because then you’re just going to go crazy, you know,” Matthews said of playing the “What If…?” game with Middleton’s injury. “But I will. I’m sure everybody will.”
After spending the 2020-21 season with the Los Angeles Lakers, Matthews re-joined the Bucks, his hometown team and the team he played for two seasons before joining the Lakers. Unsigned at the start of the season, Matthews signed with the Bucks in December in hopes of helping Milwaukee successfully defend its NBA title and also picking up his first NBA championship ring, but that didn’t happen.
“It’s unfortunate. Injuries are a part of sport. Injuries are a part of life,” Matthews said. “You just pray that the timing isn’t when it happened. I know it was killing Khris to not be able to be out there and fight with us. But he was still a leader. He was still a voice in huddles. He was still a voice in timeouts. He was still a voice in the locker room, a voice on the plane. His presence was still there, it was felt. We just missed his ability on the court. So, you try not to play the ‘What If…?’ game, but anybody that says they don’t play the ‘What If…?’ game, they’re liars.”
While the Bucks refused to talk about it during the series and analysts (and fans alike) quickly moved to breaking down all of the things the Bucks could have done better to beat the Boston Celtics, Middleton did not play a second in the series. Each game still needed to be analyzed and the series’ trends needed to be considered, but it is tough to find a problem the Bucks faced in the series that would not have been at least partially mitigated by Middleton being in the lineup.
“Look, Khris is an All-Star, right? Khris helped us win a championship last year. Khris means as much to this organization as anybody,” Pat Connaughton told reporters on Monday. “So, for him to not be around, it makes everything more difficult. It makes the ball movement more difficult. We miss his ability to make tough shots. He’s a great defender. He does everything out there.
“So, to not have him is tough, but that’s what sports are, right? It’s the imperfect world we live in where injuries are part of the game, unfortunately. We wanted to try to put ourselves in a position to win, so we could get him back in the next rounds, but we weren’t able to come through on it.”
While it is impossible to deny the impact of Middleton’s absence on the series, the Bucks still need to figure out the best path forward and that leads to a full spectrum of opinions. And Middleton’s absence makes the truth all that more difficult to find.
On one end of the spectrum, there are arguments centered around how the league has passed by the Bucks, such as the one The Athletic‘s John Hollinger presented on Monday. In his story about the league’s newest trend — “space ball” — Hollinger wrote that while the Bucks won a championship just one season ago, “it seems they’re at a tactical disadvantage in future postseasons without some changes.”
On the other end of the spectrum, there are arguments centered around the Bucks taking the Celtics to seven games without Middleton and how the team served as the betting favorite in Las Vegas before the playoffs got underway.
As is often the case, the truth likely lies somewhere in the middle.
From Hollinger: “Milwaukee’s best way of dealing with that is to play Giannis at five and leave both Bobby Portis and (Brook) Lopez on the pine, but the Bucks didn’t have enough quality perimeter talent to trust such lineups for long. (Having Khris Middleton would have helped, obviously.)”
First, the Bucks only surrendered 108.8 points per 100 possessions for the series and lost the series because they couldn’t score enough. And the discussion around the 3-point disparity has been a bit overwrought as it rarely, if ever, centers around Milwaukee’s total inability to create viable looks from behind the 3-point line, which was an even larger reason for the disparity than the Celtics creating match-up problems for the Bucks.
Second, while just a parenthetical in Hollinger’s story, Middleton is massively important to any small-ball unit the Bucks might try to put on the floor. The whole idea behind the Bucks’ championship roster was building (and paying) a versatile big three of Antetokounmpo, Holiday and Middleton and then using the rest of the roster spots to create a malleable team that can play multiple ways against different teams in the postseason . On their way to the 2021 NBA championship, the Bucks dominated teams with their size but also flexed on teams with small-ball lineups featuring Antetokounmpo at center.
Last postseason, per Cleaning the Glass, the Bucks’ most used small-ball lineup of Holiday, Middleton, Pat Connaughton, PJ Tucker and Antetokounmpo outscored teams by 16 points per 100 possessions in 199 possessions. They scored 124.1 points per 100 possessions while limiting teams to 108.1 points per 100 possessions. Matthews is not seen as the same caliber of player as Tucker, but could he have replaced him in that small-ball configuration and had similar results this postseason?
It’s impossible to know because Middleton didn’t play in the series against the Celtics† The Bucks’ ability to go small is based entirely on the availability of their insanely strong point guard that can guard multiple positions, their freakish two-time MVP, and their 6-foot-7 wing that has the size to guard multiple positions and get buckets offensively. Without one of those three players, any judgment about the team’s ability to play different styles should be scrutinized.
Questions about the malleability of their role players, however, were completely justified this season:
from the moment the Bucks decided to allow Tucker to move to Miami, there have been questions about how the Bucks would replace his size on the wing and defensive acumen. Matthews (6-foot-4) performed admirably in his role as a defense-first wing, but if there were any doubts, the Middleton injury made it clear: the Bucks needed another big wing this season and they never found that player.
Middleton’s absence should also make the Bucks spend a little bit more time considering what exactly they need from their role players. Milwaukee needs to be able to put together more versatile defensive lineups, which was something the Bucks tried to find from the moment they let Tucker walk, but they also might need to consider if they can find more playmaking and shot creation from the players that fill out the roster spots outside of the big three.
Title-contending rosters are going to be top-heavy; that’s how things work in a league where you need stars to win a championship. But the Bucks have leaned into the offensive skill of their big three and asked the rest of their roster to work off of the big three on offense. Is there an opportunity to give their role players more playmaking opportunities? Do you need the right role player to be able to do that? And will that offensively skilled role player be able to compete defensively in the postseason?
Those questions are all difficult to answer because there is no way to know exactly what your team needs at what time in a postseason run. If the Bucks’ second-round opponent was the Miami Heat or the Philadelphia 76ers, could they have survived playing bigger lineups and not needed a viable small-ball lineup as much? It’s certainly possible, but every postseason run is unique, and they may need different things next postseason, so being as versatile as possible is the only solution.
The Bucks don’t need to overhaul their roster this offseason because of an injury to one of their three best players during the postseason. They don’t need to jettison Lopez for a wing to match up better with the Celtics going forward. They need to keep Lopez or another viable big man to make sure they can match up against teams that rely on size in the postseason. And they also need to find players that can also compete better in small-ball lineups. They need to form as complete and versatile of a roster as possible because teams need to be able to win in different ways during the postseason.
It will not be an easy task, but the base of Antetokounmpo, Holiday and Middleton make team-building much simpler; that is, of course, as long as they are on the floor in the postseason.
(Photo of Khris Middleton: Jeff Hanisch / USA Today)