Often times we like to split trades into "big names" and "throw-ins," perhaps influenced by the increasing CBA-literacy of the general NBA fanbase. Inevitably, those throw-ins have a couple of big games and we joke about how we got the categorization wrong. We did it with Shaun Livingston after the big three-team deal that brought Tobias Harris and Stephen Jackson. We did it to a lesser extent with Jeff Adrien, who came over from Charlotte next to Ramon Sessions. But what happens when an apparent throw-in develops into an excellent player in his own right? What happens when a team, seemingly left to choose between the throw-in and the big name that accompanied him, chooses the former? Khris Middleton is starting to answer those questions.
To be fair, it's way too simplistic to say the Bucks had to choose between Middleton and Brandon Knight, the centerpiece of the trade. But even before rumors of Knight's possible departure began popping up, Middleton was starting to play at a level well above general expectations. Knight's impressive scoring numbers weren't always enough to deflect worries about his long-term fit with the roster, while Middleton's skillset would be a welcome addition to any team.
I was thinking about that last point in the wake of Middleton's 30-point outburst against the Washington Wizards. Middleton has grown tremendously as a player this year under the coaching of Jason Kidd, to the point where he's now an indispensable part of Milwaukee's best lineups. Khris might not be the guy we think of when considering the future stars Milwaukee wants to build the team around, but he's making himself near impossible to overlook. And his development could prove vital to the Bucks' future success.
As much as the NBA has become a star-driven league, with titles swung by a few players on loaded teams, the need for complementary players who can fill their roles--and play above them when needed--is as strong as ever. After all, the Miami Heat have one fewer championship banner without Ray Allen's Shot.
It certainly looks like Middleton is going to be a fixture in Milwaukee for a few more seasons, and the hope is that he can be such a top-level "role player" for the Bucks while the rest of the team grows. Players like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker are justifiably seen as higher ceiling players, the type who carry the fortunes of the franchise on their backs, but the importance of finding guys like Middleton is difficult to overstate. While much of the marginal value that comes from his currently minuscule salary will disappear when he gets a new deal, he's also on a sharp upward trajectory as a player and only 23 years old himself.
Make no mistake, the Bucks need at least one, and probably both, of Giannis and Jabari to become true "elite" players if they hope to contend for an NBA championship in the near future. And the equation could change if Middleton gets a big new contract and then stagnates, trying up the Bucks cap in a player who was nice at $900k but a burden at ten times that cost. But if things continue as they have this season, Bucks fans will be counting their lucky stars that a player like Khris seemed to just appear from nothing.