MILWAUKEE — The Bucks’ season began in a small Spanish restaurant on Milwaukee’s south side, vacant but for a single table. It was there that Mike Budenholzer shared his vision, over breakfast, for what the team could be. His audience: Giannis Antetokounmpo, the franchise’s preeminent superstar, and Khris Middleton, his long-tenured counterpart. It was an introduction both of people and philosophy. Antetokounmpo and Middleton had their first substantive conversation with the man who, just a few hours after their meeting, would officially become their head coach. They spoke to the state of the team and how it could grow. They asked questions of Budenholzer to better understand him and where he comes from, both literally and strategically.
Then, when they had their fill, Budenholzer explained what he saw in the fully actualized Bucks. Balance. Spacing. Flexibility. Of course, the subtext to balance is sacrifice. The practical reality of spacing involves standing on the perimeter and waiting for the ball. The only way to be flexible is to move away from what’s comfortable. The concepts Budenholzer outlined would come at a cost, and it wasn’t about to be paid by the transcendent talent at the table. That morning, as the three sat under a chandelier made to resemble antlers intertwined, Budenholzer made his backdoor pitch to Middleton on the virtues of doing less.
The competitor in Middleton bristled.
“Me, for serious, I'm like: What the f—?” Middleton says, catching himself in the retelling. He censors the thought. “What the hell?” The timing seemed especially cruel. Middleton was a former second-round pick who had been traded after his first pro season. The NBA survival rate for players with that profile is close to zero. Middleton had defied those odds, and carved out a career for himself in Milwaukee. His performance last season was finally a brush with semi–stardom: 20.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 4.7 assists per game for one of the most promising teams in the East. There was something unavoidably fraught in asking Middleton, in the space between that career year and his upcoming contract year, to accept a lesser role.
“I just came off averaging whatever numbers,” Middleton says, recalling his reaction in the moment. “Led the team to the playoffs. We lost, but I proved I was one of the best players. So why are you telling me I need to do less ‘cause it's gonna do more for the team?” The answer to that question had more to do with the construction of the Bucks’ roster than with Middleton. Both player and coach agreed that Milwaukee’s roster was deeper than it had shown—untapped, in a sense. Budenholzer made the case for change through a sobering reflection. Antetokounmpo and Middleton, Budenholzer noted, had played together a certain way for five years, through three playoff appearances, and never made it out of the first round. “Once he said that,” Middleton says, “it clicked.”
Something would have to change. And the longer they talked, the more it became clear to Middleton that something would have to be him.
NBA players are incredible creatures of habit, their entire lives shaped by ritual and rhythm. Even the most minor change can prove disruptive. An odd turn of the schedule can shake a contending team out of sorts. Interrupting a player’s mid-day nap might leave them in a daze. Every superstition must be serviced and every warmup routine completed in perfect, uninterrupted sequence. No one in the NBA chews gum. They chew Juicy Fruit. Or Big Red. Or Dentyne Ice, spearmint only, without exception.
To make any tangible change on the court, then, runs against years—or even decades—of that level of established routine. “The hard part,” Middleton says, “is just forgetting your old ways.” So much of high-level basketball happens at an almost unconscious level; there are things that players keep top of mind, but the game is too fluid to let any idea stay there for long. Habit overwhelms. A player will naturally drift toward what they know, and what they know is what they’ve done. Middleton has made over 800 mid-range jumpers since he came into the league, giving him mastery of a shot that just isn’t a priority in Budenholzer’s system.
So the Bucks moved Middleton within the offense—not just in physical space, but across functions. Many of the actions he had used to generate scoring opportunities in previous seasons were scrapped. There was no longer room to set up shop in the post or survey options methodically. Middleton would play off screens, make his catch on the move, and create shots at an entirely different cadence. “It’s been harder for me to find a rhythm,” Middleton admits.
In early December came an omen. On a trip to play the lowly Knicks in Madison Square Garden, Middleton struggled and then settled, falling back on the cold comfort of contested pull-up jumpers. On film, a few of his shots read as a stifled player lashing out. Middleton lost focus, failed to make his reads, and loafed through defensive possessions. It was a performance deeply out of character—so much so that Budenholzer made a point to keep Middleton on the bench for the entirety of the fourth quarter and overtime. Milwaukee lost, 136-134.
“That was just a bad night for me,” Middleton says.
The following day, Middleton and Budenholzer met to find some resolution. “I was frustrated by a couple things, and we talked about that,” Middleton says. “He agreed with some of what I was saying, and I agreed with some of what he was saying.” There wasn’t any immediate closure for Middleton, though he saw the conversation as a clear positive. Communication can break down in the heat of a game. What matters is that those involved make an effort to repair it. “I totally understood why I was benched,” Middleton says. “I took complete responsibility for that.”
So often, an incident like this will be discussed as a clear inflection point, from which to craft a tidy narrative. The reality is always more complex. It would take Middleton weeks to climb out of his slump, and December would go down as one the worst shooting months (38.5% from the field, 29.9% from three) of his career. His game is still acclimating, even now. What happened in New York was merely a piece of an ongoing dialogue.
“Anytime somebody is not shooting it or playing at the level they expect of themselves, that they've set a standard, those are moments to coach, moments to encourage,” Budenholzer says. “Lots of times, and what I've done with Khris, [is ask]: Can we be more focused defensively? Can we make sure we're taking care of that end? Lots of times, you do that, all of a sudden you're thinking less about your offense, you're worried less about your offense and things all of a sudden start happening.”
No one with the Bucks wants to lose what Middleton does well. Budenholzer noted that he’s even tried to get him back into the post a bit more—an olive branch in a season of change. “He and I are still in this give and take,” Budenholzer says. “It's meeting each other halfway.” Middleton, in exploring Budenholzer’s offense, has found some traction through dribble hand-offs and quick pick-and-rolls. The Bucks want and need Middleton to be a playmaker. It’s all just a matter of flow.
Systematized basketball can be empowering for the way it calls on players to react in the moment, free of outright prescription. The value systems of an offense can tell you what shots are preferred and guiding principles can inform movement around the floor. Beyond that, players are largely left to problem solve within the bounds of the system. It is fickle by design.
“I knew [last season that] I could get three shots off the pick-and-roll, a couple off post-ups, one or two off catch-and-shoot,” Middleton says. “Now, it's more sporadic. You really don't know where it's coming from, which is great because the defense doesn’t know what's gonna come.” In this, Budenholzer sees the future. “I have visions of big shots at the end of games,” he says, “where he's driven against a mismatch and gotten to the basket and forced help and made the right read and hit someone for a wide open three.”
"Irony" isn’t quite the right word to describe the fact that Middleton was named an All-Star for the first time this year, when his otherwise grounded game was rocked off its axis. “It’s just been a different, weird season for me,” Middleton says. “But as long as we're winning, I'm not gonna complain about that.” This, in itself, articulates how Middleton won over the voters in the first place. To some extent, Middleton’s selection is a nod to the most winning team in basketball. The Bucks have beaten the Warriors in Oakland, the Raptors in Toronto, the Nuggets in Denver, the Celtics in Boston, and damn near every team in between. This is a powerhouse club with the league’s best record and a dominant point differential (+9.8). For contenders of that caliber, earning multiple All-Star berths is par for the course.
Milwaukee, however, is not built like a typical juggernaut. Antetokounmpo is an unimpeachable superstar. Middleton is the team’s second-best player and, by his own admission, doesn’t really view himself as a star at all. If he had, he might never have made the concessions Budenholzer asked of him in the first place. It’s Middleton’s acceptance of a different role and his willingness to play fewer minutes this season that have helped create opportunities for Eric Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon. While stars on superteams jockey for touches, Middleton ranks fourth among Bucks in time of possession, according to NBA.com. Living that way isn’t always easy, but Middleton has managed another quietly productive season (17.1 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 4.2 APG) while returning to form as a defender.
On the most reductive level, Milwaukee wins—and wins big—because of Giannis and a deep, well-balanced roster. “When one team tries to take away something,” Middleton says, “we always have B, C, or D, even E or F options coming off the bench and with our starters.” Middleton is both the best second option available and a facilitator for all that follow. His assists almost solely create three-pointers and shots at the rim, as has been the case for years. It’s Middleton’s range on defense that allows Milwaukee to toggle its lineups from night to night and switch its coverage on command, the combination of which keyed a Bucks win over the Pacers on Tuesday. When the playoffs come, Middleton will be the piece Milwaukee moves around the board to create angles and work mismatches.
Middleton’s best work has always been subtle, and understood best in totality. It’s not the one shot he hit but the variety of shots. It’s not the stop in crunch time, but the full night of smart, preemptive defense that kept a game from ever getting close. Middleton plays complete basketball with no frills whatsoever, a style that can be almost aggressively plain. In the Eastern Conference alone, 13 frontcourt players finished with more All-Star votes this year, including such luminaries as Andre Drummond and Serge Ibaka. “I have a more old-school game,” Middleton says. “So I understand that.”
Understatement is the story of Middleton’s basketball career. An assistant coach from Texas A&M first happened upon him by accident, when tagging along with a friend to watch one of Middleton’s AAU teammates. “A month later,” Middleton says, ”they offered me a scholarship.” It was on campus that the old school came to bear. “That's when I learned how to use my skill set,” he says. “Use what I had, and use it to my advantage. Learn how to do a floater. Learn how to do wrap-arounds, reverses, all that type of stuff. Just learning a complete skill set that doesn't really require that much athletic ability.” It was at 15 years old that Middleton first noticed the gap between himself and his bouncy, quick-twitch peers. That gap has only widened since.
“My mind wants me to think I'm, like, top dog, right up there with Giannis,” he says. “But my body tells me I'm probably average.”
Middleton still speaks, at times, like a player on the fringes of the league, in danger of falling out entirely. When he went through the pre-draft process in 2012, some teams believed Middleton—who had suffered a knee injury in his last college season—wouldn’t last three years in the NBA. He took every workout he could get in an attempt to prove otherwise, auditioning for over half the league’s teams. Twelve of them, Middleton remembers, did full rounds of strength tests and imaging to audit his knee for themselves. Detroit ended up selecting Middleton at No. 39, and included him in a trade a year later as salary filler. The Pistons were eager to trade Brandon Knight and Viacheslav Kravtsov for Brandon Jennings, but needed to export slightly more salary to make the transaction legal. Middleton had the smallest deal on the books.
“It's a business,” Middleton says. “But as a player, it sucks to know you were just thrown into a trade for it to work.” Middleton has described the aftermath of that deal as the darkest point of his career. But from it came a run of six years and counting with the Bucks, a rise through the ranks of the league, and a lasting relationship with Milwaukee itself. “It's been great, for one, to see the city grow,” he says. Middleton remembers the abandoned buildings, the old downtown, and the roads that, when you drove over them, would call out their need for repair. “I've just seen the city grow, seen the community grow,” Middleton says.
NBA life doesn’t easily lend itself to community, given that a player may be forced to move at virtually any moment. Six years in the same city, by league standards, is a lifetime. It’s given Middleton the rare chance to grow with a franchise and to invest in his adopted city where he could. Working with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Milwaukee, in particular, hit home for Middleton. It was a way to give back, but also to honor everything his own sister, Brittney, did (and does) for him. “She keeps me on time,” he says. “Keeps me running.”
This year’s All-Star Weekend in Charlotte is the closest the game will ever be to Charleston, SC, the town where Khris learned to play basketball and Brittney helped raise him. It’s but a few hundred miles from the high school courts where Middleton played one through five for Porter-Gaud, teasing out the versatility that would define his career. Drive west and you'll find the Atlanta gyms where Middleton, by chance, stole his way onto a major college's scouting radar over bigger-name prospects. Middleton found a way then as he does now. "I know if I win," Middleton says, "most things will take care of themselves."