ST. FRANCIS — There was a single, constant theme as the Milwaukee Bucks’ media relations staff paraded player after player to the dais Monday at the team’s annual media day event:
How will the Bucks move forward after losing shooting guard Khris Middleton to a torn left hamstring for the next six months?
And each time the question was asked, from ownership on down the line, the answer was simple: It’s “next man up for Milwaukee.”
It’s a good stock response, well-crafted by those who specialize in crisis communication but while nobody associated with the Bucks was ready to admit disaster, the team will certainly have some work to do when they open training camp today at the University of Wisconsin’s Nicholas-Johnson Pavilion without Middleton, who led the team in scoring (18.2 points per game) and minutes (36.1) last season.
“We can’t replace Khris,” said coach Jason Kidd, whose team practices in Madison through Friday and plays a preseason game against the Dallas Mavericks on Oct. 8 at the Kohl Center. “But we can play hard and get better every time we take the court. That’s going to be our approach.”
Milwaukee’s biggest weaknesses last season, when the Bucks regressed from a 41-41 playoff team to a lottery-bound 33-49 disappointment, were found on the perimeter where the team languished at the bottom of the league rankings in 3-point shooting and 3-point defense.
Middleton, just three years into his career and armed with a five-year, $77 million contract, was Milwaukee’s best option in both of those categories last season. He regularly was assigned to the opposing team’s best shooter. Those players connected at a 35.5 percent clip from beyond the arc and 48.8 percent inside against him.
If the Bucks hope to sniff the postseason, they’ll need to find a way to boost those numbers back to where they were a year before, when Milwaukee used its length to torment opponents and finished the year third in the league by allowing 97.4 points per game on 48.7 percent shooting.
Kidd took responsibility for the plummet.
“Our defense took a couple of steps backward,” Kidd said. “That’s what we hanged our hat on each night, playing defense and using our length. As a coach, I have to do a better job reminding the guys that we need to get deflections and steals.”
Middleton will undergo surgery Wednesday in New York. The early prognosis is that he will need around six months to recover, painting a picture of a return sometime in late March.
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“I don’t want to rush back,” Middleton said. “I’m going to listen my doctors.”
The Bucks think they addressed another glaring problem by adding veteran depth to a bench decimated by injuries and limited by inexperience last season.
Matthew Dellavedova, Jason Terry, Mirza Teletovic were brought in over the summer, while the Bucks re-upped veteran shooting guard Steve Novak.
“We’ve got some grown-ups now,” Kidd said.
Michael Beasley, acquired in a trade with Houston the day Middleton’s injury was announced last week, will also come off the bench.
“It was an opportunity to add a player to our team who has talent,” general manager John Hammond said. “His greatest talent is the ability to score the ball and you can never have too much of that.”
Kidd also mentioned Monday that center Greg Monroe, who has been the subject of trade speculation for much of the summer, and point guard Michael Carter-Williams would start training camp as anchors of the second unit while Miles Plumlee and second-year guard Rashad Vaughn will work primarily with the starting group.
Both Monroe and Carter-Williams were moved to bench roles last season.
Giannis to step up?
Armed with a $100 million contract extension, Giannis Antetokounmpo heads into camp as the team’s primary ball-handler, hoping to pick up where he left off down the stretch last season when he recorded five triple-doubles over the final 26 games.
“I put in a lot of work this summer,” Antetokounmpo said. “But my main focus, I’m not going to lie, wasn’t my jump shot; it was how to be more comfortable to run the team and be a point guard and put my teammates in the right spot and make plays.”