Giannis Antetokounmpo will be a team captain again, but the Milwaukee Bucks’ winning should be rewarded with additional All-Stars beyond the MVP.
Having just hit the halfway mark of their season, the Milwaukee Bucks have a record of 35-6, and are on pace to become just the third team in NBA history to win 70 games.
With Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks again have the MVP frontrunner, and almost certainly one of the All-Star Game’s two team captains, but with that showcase event just around the corner, the time has come to consider Milwaukee’s other All-Star candidates.
If you were to follow the example of the fan voting returns, that conversation would already be over as no Buck outside of Antetokounmpo features in the top-10 among either the backcourt or frontcourt.
Considering the most recent leaders of the Eastern Conference’s guard voting were Trae Young, one of the NBA’s worst defenders who also plays for the team with the league’s worst record, and Kyrie Irving, who has played just 11 games this season, it would be wise not to take the lead of the NBA’s most ridiculous popularity contest.
Antetokounmpo is the Bucks’ undoubted leader, but Milwaukee didn’t get to their current record by being a one-man team. In fact, based on their play to this point in the season, it would be very disappointing if Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe weren’t to be selected by the coaches to join Antetokounmpo at All-Star weekend.
The problem facing Bledsoe and Middleton’s All-Star cases is one that bears a resemblance to some of the arguments made against Antetokounmpo’s own MVP candidacy this year. Quite simply, the Bucks are so dominant that the duo aren’t playing the same volume of minutes as many of the players they’ll be pitted against, even though their production far surpasses many of the players generating more buzz at present.
With Khris Middleton averaging just 28.5 minutes per game, and Eric Bledsoe coming in at 26.3, to truly gauge the impact they’re having requires considering their numbers on a per 36 minute basis, similar to that which All-Stars on less talented teams generally end up averaging.
Middleton’s output is impressive in its own right, but only grows even more formidable when adjusted to per 36 minutes. Having made his All-Star debut last year, it would be tough to imagine Middleton not returning this year given his per 36 marks of 24.4 points (career-high), 7.3 rebounds (also a career-high), 4.8 assists, and 1.2 steals. With shooting splits of .485/.403/.893, Middleton’s efficiency is also through the roof as he’s just below 50-40-90 pace.
Turning attention over to Bledsoe, on top of putting together another All-Defense caliber campaign, the 30-year-old is averaging 21.3 points, 7.2 assists, 6.3 rebounds, and 1.3 steals per 36 minutes, with very respectable shooting marks of .486/.355/.832.
If there’s a knock against either player, it will be that they’ve both missed time already this season. With Middleton at 34 games played, and Bledsoe at just one fewer, those absences haven’t been extended and certainly shouldn’t be enough to take away from the quality and consistency of their production when they have been healthy.
That consistency is a key point in its own right, as building a record as good as the Bucks’ requires that level of reliability from game-to-game as a base line. Middleton and Bledsoe aren’t perfect in that regard, but they have both improved.
Both players also fare quite favorably when compared to players who seem likely to get consideration for those reserve spots too (all stats per 36 minutes):
Eric Bledsoe: 21.3 points, 7.2 assists, 6.3 rebounds, 1.3 steals, .486/.355/.832
Kemba Walker: 24.9 points, 5.8 assists, 4.4 rebounds, 1.0 steals, .436/.395/.871
Kyle Lowry: 19.5 points, 7.1 assists, 4.3 rebounds, 1.1 steals, .404/.353/.859
Zach LaVine: 25.8 points, 4.9 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.5 steals, .435/.393/.825
Ben Simmons: 15.2 points, 8.6 assists, 7.6 rebounds, 2.2 steals, .561/.400 (two makes!)/.585
Khris Middleton: 24.4 points, 7.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.2 steals, 485/.403/.893
Bradley Beal: 27.5 points, 6.5 assists, 4.7 rebounds, 1.1 steals, .435/.315/.831
Jimmy Butler: 21.1 points, 7.1 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 2.0 steals, .444/.264/.828
Jayson Tatum: 22.5 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.5 steals, .430/.364/.862
Jaylen Brown: 21.4 points, 7.4 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.2 steals, .491/.392/.768
In framing the All-Star debate around counting stats, I’ll admit this is very much a surface level case for Bledsoe and Middleton, but it is so intentionally. Rightly or wrongly, that’s what making the All-Star Game is all about.
The truth, though, is that with just the slightest effort to factor in why Middleton and Bledsoe are playing fewer minutes than so many others, and how that shouldn’t be a cause to punish them, their numbers hold up with those they’re competing with, before even considering defense, advanced metrics, team success, and something as simple as attitude.
Based on what coaches should value more than anything, the Bucks’ complementary stars should be in a strong position. If common sense prevails, the Bucks may well end up with three players making the short trip to Chicago for the big game next month.