They haven’t told you, but you’re not stupid. You are keeping the seat warm for somebody else. This isn’t to say you’re not good at what you do, or that you’re not well-liked, but you are some way short of the ideal. Irresolvably. You’re not going to become suddenly sublime like you’re not going to wake up one morning three inches taller. You are making it work with them, and they’re making it work with you, and nobody’s unhappy, not outwardly, not in a hostile or aggravated way. There is simply … an uneasiness, on either end of the relationship. They’re waiting for someone better — maybe not even actively searching, just keeping their eyes open — and you’re waiting to be let go, or shunted down in the order, for your station to align more cleanly with your ability. You know you’re slightly out of your depth. There’s a difference between knowing this and being okay it. You are a little bit insecure.
Or Khris Middleton thinks he’s a spindlier James Harden. Lots of exceptional athletes are delusional; it’s what makes them as successful as they are, if not quite as awesome as they believe themselves to be. There have never been clear plans to replace Middleton as Giannis’s sidekick — in large part because it’s tough, maybe impossible, to recruit All-NBA talent to Milwaukee — but it’s been clear for a while that the Bucks would, in all likelihood, have to upgrade the Middleton spot if they were seriously going to contend for a title. There’s nothing wrong with Middleton except his scale. He does everything you want a titch less effectively than you would love. A fine defender with good size, moves the ball alright, vacillates aggressively between 7-for-21 nights and looking like you couldn’t guard him with three bodies and a close-knit constellation of bear traps laid across the floor. Operating somewhere out at the edges of stardom.
What other people make of you is typically a product of their expectations. Unless you’re simply unstoppable. (And even then, it’s not like we’ve never heard LeBron or Durant catch hell.) Where have we set our expectations for Khris Middleton? Well, the Bucks didn’t get serious until 2018, when Mike Budenholzer took over for pseudonymous CIA asset Joe Prunty, and Milwaukee is a city of 600,000 in the upper Midwest, so Middleton effectively came into being around then, though he had become the Khris Middleton we’re familiar with by 2015: 20-ish points, four-ish assists, percentages that fluctuate a bit but usually shake out pretty efficiently. He has improved under Coach Bud — that outside shot used to be solid, now it’s downright dangerous — but there’s been no fundamental change in his game. When the Bucks crashed out of the playoffs in 2019 and 2020, Budenholzer and Giannis attracted most of the heat. It was perhaps an insult to Middleton that he didn’t receive heavier criticism. (Especially considering he was awful against the Raptors in the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals.) The message, underarticulated, was that he’s Khris Middleton, and he’s not going to carry you when you need it. That’s Giannis’s job.
And that’s why the Bucks traded for Jrue Holiday. The idea was that, with the Bucks lacking a second superstar, the combination of Jrue and Middleton would approximate one. It was a sound plan, but in practice, Jrue had a rough postseason: rugged defense, but also ugly shooting numbers and moments when all coordination and sense abandoned him. He contributed, there were a few moments when he came through with a string of inspired plays, but he didn’t give the Bucks precisely the value you see when you plug Jrue Holiday into the spreadsheet in your mind. This is of course is what makes sports good and terrible and interesting. Your impression of what a player can do and what he actually does on a given night doesn’t always align. Holiday, racking up 4-for-14s and 2-for-11s a troubling clip, likely failed to appreciate this.
Middleton was more like himself, which is to say all over the place. Pedestrian one night, incredible — crucially so — the next. A high-low point total of 40 and 11 in the Finals sums him up. You start worrying about him, and then he cans five tough jumpers in a row. You’d call him a surprising player, if his volatility wasn’t so well-established. Could you reasonably expect 40 points out of Khris Middleton in a big tilt? Yeah, you could. He’s that locked in, sometimes. (And hey, 29 points the following night isn’t beyond his reach either.) You’d be much more surprised if he went for 21 five games in a row. Which it’s worth pointing out: he didn’t, and didn’t need to.
There’s no use downplaying the element of luck. The best teams in each conference were banged up and the Bucks wended through the battered field. They were more good than great. (Though Giannis was definitely the latter, with a capital G.) Whatever. You wake up each day to find satisfaction. A $20 bill you find on the street still spends. You shouldn’t worry about whether you were enough, when history says that’s exactly what you were.
Khris Middleton’s a strange one, because hardly anyone wondered if he had the juice to be Giannis’s number two if and when the Bucks won it all, assuming he didn’t. And then he ascended the mountaintop alongside his Greek buddy anyway.
Giannis told us he felt that Middleton had it the whole time, after Game 6 of the Finals: “[Khris] doesn’t know how hard he pushed me. He pushed me every day to be great. I’m happy I can step on the floor with this guy, and play every single minute with this guy — and the rest of the guys — but Khris especially. We’ve been together for eight years, and I’m happy that I was able to [win a title] with him.”
Athletes — especially overjoyed ones, fresh off smooching a trophy — say those kinds of things about their teammates. But one of the perks of coming out a champ is that you are no longer in dialogue with any arguments against you, extant or nascent or merely hinted at. You’ve settled things completely. Whatever we’ve asked of Khris Middleton, whatever he’s asked of himself — a lot, a little, nothing at all — the answer is yes. You go down in the record books, and your name stays there on a permanent basis. You are finally irreplaceable.