February 8th was a turbulent rollercoaster of emotions for Milwaukee Bucks fans, a fitting microcosm of a wildly up-and-down season. What on the surface appeared to be a typical regular season game against the surging Miami Heat was actually the lowest point of Milwaukee’s season. The night began with excitement: Khris Middleton, Milwaukee’s best all-around player from the 2015-2016 season, was finally set to return from a gruesome offseason hamstring injury. He was even ahead of schedule! The buzz was palpable, and the timing couldn’t have been better; Milwaukee had just lost 10 of its last 12 games and desperately needed a jolt.

But then, as fate would have it, everything turned upside down. Jabari Parker, another third of Milwaukee’s bright young core, innocently drove left and absorbed a foul from Heat forward Luke Babbitt. He planted awkwardly on his left knee and immediately fell to the ground in pain as the life was instantly sucked out of the BMO Harris Bradley Center. The following day everyone’s worst fears came to fruition when the team announced the 22-year-old had torn his left ACL for the second time in three years. 

Middleton’s valiant return was overshadowed by Parker’s devastating injury, especially when considering the long-term complications of two ACL recoveries at such a young age. In his season debut, Khris was understandably rusty and looked a bit overwhelmed by the NBA’s rigorous pace. He played a forgettable 15 minutes, recording five points, two rebounds, two assists, one block and missing his lone three-point attempt. Middleton looked similarly out of gas in his 21 minutes played in the following game, a home loss the Bucks suffered to the lowly Los Angeles Lakers despite a career-high 41 points from Giannis. At this point, Milwaukee had lost 12 of its 14 previous games and sat eight games below .500 and out of the playoff standings in the Eastern Conference. With the team reeling from Jabari’s injury and Middleton looking far from being game-ready, the season had sunk to a new low. Talks of the Bucks tanking for a better draft pick surged throughout online forums like it so often has in recent years. “At least we still have the Packers, right?”

Fast forward six weeks and that low point feels like a distant memory, an archaic relic from a lost season. Since that Lakers loss, Milwaukee has a sterling 14-5 record and are winners of 12 of the last 14 games played as of this writing. All five losses came against projected playoff teams (Jazz, Cavaliers, Nuggets, Grizzlies, Warriors), with wins coming against the playoff-bound Pacers (twice), Clippers (twice) and Raptors as well as streaking teams like the Trailblazers and Timberwolves.  The Bucks currently sit sixth in the Eastern playoff standings (one game behind the fifth place Hawks, who come to Milwaukee tonight) and are showing no signs of slowing down. Most impressively, the team went 4-2 on its recent West Coast road trip that some thought would be a death knell for a young team that struggles on the road (16-19). At present, the great statistics website FiveThirtyEight gives the Bucks an 88% chance of making the playoffs. That number was 18% as recently as March 1st. But the Bucks keep on fighting and taking things one day at a time, and along with Giannis, Middleton is at the heart of it all.

Sometimes the best stats are the simplest: The Bucks are 11-2 in games Middleton has started this year, and 5-1 when he scores 20 or more points. Even as the best, most consistent two-way player the Bucks had last year, Middleton still flew under the radar as a rather anonymous almost-All-Star. Point Giannis and Jabari’s exciting return overshadowed a really solid all-around season for Middleton, who improved across the board statistically despite taking on a heavier scoring and defensive burden than in years past. Incredibly, despite tearing his hamstring off the bone in the offseason, Middleton is continuing his trend of year-over-year statistical improvement in the face of increased volume.

Middleton’s surface level numbers as a starter are pretty much the same as last year, despite averaging 4 fewer minutes per start: 18 points per game, 4 rebounds per game, 3.7 assists per game, 1.5 steals per game and a cool 87% from the free throw line. When you dig a little deeper, it helps to see all the little ways in which Middleton has a positive effect on each game. Although it’s a small sample size, his efficiency is considerably improved. He’s getting to the free throw line more, his assist percentage is up (defined as the percentage of teammate field goals a player assisted while on the floor) and his PER (Player Efficiency Rating) is at a career-high as well. He’s shooting a blistering 49% from three (Kyle Korver leads the league at 44.5%) and 52% from the floor, leading to an ultra-efficient 62 True Shooting%, which takes into account a shooter’s efficiency from all three areas of the floor (free throws, inside the arc and threes). Basically, he can score from anywhere on the court.

Sure, stats are nice, and they help paint the picture of a player’s effect on the floor, but Middleton’s effect goes deeper than that. More important than any statistics is the way Middleton takes plenty of burden off Giannis’ broad shoulders on both ends of the floor. In March, Giannis has been below his season averages in every major statistical category, as well as field goal percentage and free throw percentage. Granted, a down month for Giannis is still really freaking good NBA production, but it typically wouldn’t result in the Bucks going 10-3. Middleton’s shooting tilts the offense in ways that open up the floor for Giannis, and he’s becoming so aggressive at finding his spots that it allows Giannis some much-needed rest. His shot is so smooth and quick that he hardly needs any space to get it off, which makes him dangerous in the high post and coming around screens. Having the team’s best three point shooter taking the most threes is obviously a good thing, but it also unclogs the paint for Giannis and Monroe and opens driving lanes when Middleton gets defenders to bite on his fakes.

His offensive value can’t be overstated, but what’s so impressive about Middleton is the way he contributes defensively. Milwaukee doesn’t often like to put Giannis on the opponent’s best offensive wing because he’s an elite weak side defender who uses his length to disrupt shots and passing lanes. It’s why we saw Jabari Parker getting torched by the likes of Jimmy Butler, DeMar DeRozan and Carmelo Anthony this year. Not only does Middleton let Giannis roam weak side by guarding players of the same ilk (he recently held DeRozan and Melo well below their season averages), he has great hands and is always lurking around for steals. It’s no coincidence Milwaukee’s defense has tightened up with Middleton in the lineup, leading to more Bucks victories.

You don’t have to take my word for it, either. ESPN’s Zach Lowe, our Lord and Savior, published his “10 things I like and don’t like” column today, and wouldn’t you know it, the Bucks are first on his list. For the record, I started writing this yesterday so I like to think I beat the best basketball writer on the planet to this one so let’s just agree I did. One of 8000 reasons he’s the GOAT is because managed to take my 1200+ words on Middleton and summarize it in two paragraphs:

“Khris Middleton has been sensational since returning from a scary hamstring tear. He’s shooting 48 percent from deep, and he forms the connective tissue of Jason Kidd’s ultra-pressurized defense. He is a better two-way player than Jabari Parker; it is not surprising that effectively swapping Parker for Middleton has helped the Bucks. (They’d be best with both, especially in the long run.)

He runs a nice pick-and-roll, and he’s ruthless posting up switches on the left block. He might be Milwaukee’s most reliable crunch-time option. He helped them through a middling stretch from Giannis Antetokounmpo.”

All of the sudden, Milwaukee looks like a scary low-seeded team with the goods to give a team like the Celtics, Wizards or Raptors a run for its money. At 10-3, Milwaukee has the best record in the NBA in March and is picking up steam at the right time. With Kidd tightening up the rotation and Middleton still looking like the most underrated player in the NBA, this isn’t a team anyone is looking forward to in the first round. One might even say these teams should… fear the deer.