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NBA PM: Bucks Find Their Stride, Pelicans Haven’t

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Not Bucking Around

With the emergence of Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Milwaukee Bucks have solicited themselves as a “team to watch” in the NBA’s Eastern Conference, but Khris Middleton may be the straw the stirs the drink.

After Jason Kidd led his team of youngster to a 26-game turnaround in his first season as head coach, the masses immediately began trying to determine what the future would look like for Kidd and company. Today, it seems that the 15-67 campaign that led to the second overall pick that the franchise used to draft Jabari Parker was so long ago. In reality, it was just three years ago.

With the Bucks entering play on March 27 at 37-36, they are on pace for about 42 wins and would undoubtedly enter the playoffs as a team few would want to play, especially with Middleton having returned to the lineup.

For the less informed, in short, Middleton made quite a name for himself as a difference-maker on both ends of the floor. He quietly led the Bucks in scoring last season with 18.3 points per game and is a career 40 percent three-point shooter. In late September, however, Middleton ruptured his left hamstring. The result was him being sidelined for the first 50 games of the season. During that stretch, the Bucks, unsurprisingly, failed to find their consistency.

At 22-28, much was left to be desired.

Finally making his debut on February 8, Middleton played 15 minutes in a loss to the Miami HEAT, but it didn’t take him long to find his form. He turned in a 20-point effort in just his fourth game back, and since then has quickly shown signs of returning to being the player he was prior to the devastating injury.

Still searching for the consistency that made him one of the game’s more renowned young guards, in 21 contests this season, Middleton is averaging 14.9 points. More importantly for the Bucks, however, is the 44.3 percent he is shooting from beyond the three-point arc. That number would represent a career-high and would go a long way toward keeping the floor open and spaced for Antetokounmpo to operate and for Greg Monroe to have the low box for himself. As Monroe has been relegated to the bench, he and Middleton haven’t spent as much time on the floor together as one would have imagined, but as Middleton’s minutes climb back toward the 36 he averaged last season, the combination could be one that coach Kidd employs regularly during the playoffs.

Since his return to the lineup, the Bucks are 15-8, including an 11-4 record during the month of March.

Currently tied with the Atlanta Hawks for the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference, what makes the rise of the Bucks most impressive has been the fact that they’re been thriving without Parker. But based on what we’ve seen so far, they may be just fine without him.

Not Quite The Twin Towers Yet

DeMarus Cousins hadn’t even finished wiping the sweat off of his face before being informed that he was going to be suiting up for the New Orleans Pelicans back on All-Star Sunday. Most onlookers around the league immediately imagined a partnership with he and Anthony Davis that would bring opposing defenses to their knees, but the early returns haven’t yielded that.

Although it’s been just 13 games into his tenure as a Pelican, the team is just 5-8 in games that Cousins has played. He recently turned in a 41-point, 17-rebound effort against the Memphis Grizzlies (the Pelicans happened to win the March 21 contest, as well), but the hope for the franchise is that it won’t take those types of efforts for the club to consistently string together a few wins.

In the penultimate year of his current contract, Cousins is slated to earn $18 million next season. That would put him on the lower end of the spectrum as it relates to some of the salaries of his contemporaries, with the common consensus being that Cousins is a maximum-salary player.

Since qualifying for the playoffs back in 2015, the Pelicans have been a franchise struggling to find an identity and reestablish itself as one on the rise. With them entering play on March 27 trailing the Portland Trail Blazers by four games for the eighth seed in the Western Conference, the odds of them qualifying for the playoffs this season seem incredibly thin.

Even more interesting? Jrue Holiday hits the free agency market this summer and is likely to command a maximum salary. Can the club afford to pay Holiday this summer and Cousins next? That would have it spending about $80 million on just those three players come the 2018-19 season.

That’s a very long way away, sure, so best believe, the Pelicans are hoping that the first 13 games of Cousins’ career in New Orleans is an aberration, because 5-8 is certainly not what anyone was expecting when the union of Cousins and Davis became a reality.

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About Moke Hamilton

Moke Hamilton

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and international basketball.