Bucks face critical decision on Middleton


On the surface, it would appear to be a no-brainer.

No matter the circumstances, it would seem highly unlikely the Milwaukee Bucks would trade Khris Middleton — especially considering his value to a team that just two seasons ago won an NBA championship. He’s an untouchable, right?

Well, maybe not.

In fact, there are some NBA officials who believe there is a chance the Bucks may move Middleton before Thursday afternoon’s trading deadline.

“Yeah, I think it’s a possibility,’’ an Eastern Conference official said of Middleton being traded. “Look, he’s lost a step, he’s been injured the last couple of seasons and then there’s his age.

“But the Bucks could win a championship this season and trading him could jeopardize their chemistry. They would get somebody good back, for sure, but it would take some time for that player to get acclimated.

“So I don’t think they’d do that (trade him); it would have to make a lot of sense for them (the Bucks). But they are in a tough situation with him.’’

The Bucks sure are. And that’s because Middleton has a player option in his contract for next season. According to sources, Middleton has been “non-committal’’ about picking up that option, one that would pay him a lofty $40.39 million.

What’s more, sources said Middleton will want at least three additional guaranteed years as part of his agreement to remain with the Bucks. He would then be 33.

That has to make the Bucks pause, especially with Middleton’s troubling medical record. He played only 66 games last season before suffering a season-ending knee injury in the first round of the playoffs against the Chicago Bulls.

In July, Middleton underwent surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left wrist and then suffered another knee injury on Dec. 17. He has missed a whopping 39 of the Bucks’ 54 games this season.

Middleton’s extended absence hasn’t adversely affected the Bucks. They are 37-17, which is the second-best record in the Eastern Conference behind Boston’s 38-16 mark.

And here’s something else to consider regarding Middleton’s future with the Bucks: They are still in salary cap hell. The Bucks’ brass obviously doesn’t want it to get worse.

Two summers ago Marc Lasry, one of the Bucks majority owners, conceded luxury tax concerns were a factor in the team’s decision not to re-sign veteran P.J. Tucker, who played an instrumental role in the Bucks’ title run.

So, even if the Bucks don’t trade Middleton by Thursday, they’ll still be faced this summer with the dilemma of overpaying an aging player and going even deeper into the luxury tax … or losing him to another team with no compensation.

Teams to keep an eye on

There figures to be a slew of trades before the deadline, trades that could change the balance of power in both conferences.

Four teams — Toronto, Orlando, Charlotte and Utah – could be major players in the trade parade. Each of those teams has several veteran players who could pique the interest of title-minded teams.

Orlando – Terrence Ross, Gary Harris and Mo Bamba. (I think a great deal would be the Magic sending Harris back to Denver for Bones Hyland. The Nuggets would acquire a quality veteran player to bolster their quest to win a title, and Orlando would secure a young, talented backcourt player to complement their rich young frontcourt.)

Toronto – Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVliet, Gary Trent and O.G. Anunoby. “I think they’re willing to trade anyone on their roster,’’ a GM said. “They (the Raptors brass) know they can’t get it done with this group.’’

Charlotte – Terry Rozier, Mason Plumlee and Kelly Oubre Jr. The Hornets need to stay in tank mode with the hopes of landing 7-3 Victor Wembanyama of France, the greatest draft prospect since LeBron James.

Utah – Jordan Clarkson, Malik Beasley, Kelly Olynyk, Mike Conley, etc. “I’m hearing the only guys they won’t trade are (Lauri) Markkanen and (Walker) Kessler,’’ an NBA executive said.

“Beasley is the hot name right now,’’ an Eastern Conference official said. “There are a bunch of teams that want him. Olynyk would be a good get for the championship-type teams like Boston, and you know a lot of teams would gladly take Clarkson off their hands.’’