Make or break: Khris Middleton tops list of NBA players whose early-season performance raises or lowers playoff expectations

It may be too early to make grand proclamations about some of the NBA's early surprises. The Minnesota Timberwolves seem like a legitimate threat in the Western Conference. The Indiana Pacers, Atlanta Hawks and Orlando Magic could all disrupt the Eastern Conference playoff field. Even the Houston Rockets have won four straight games convincingly. These works in progress need more than two weeks of evaluation.

There are some concerning developments regarding a number of individual players who can make or break the season for teams with considerable playoff aspirations, which we should already be raising as red flags.

We have touched on several, including the minutes tax on Los Angeles Lakers star Anthony Davis, whose hip spasm pressed pause on his season; the development of Philadelphia 76ers guard Tyrese Maxey, which has eased their transition from James Harden; and the season-ending surgery for Memphis Grizzlies center Steven Adams, whose loss may have been a bridge too far for a team experiencing all sorts of upheaval.

Here, I highlight a handful more make-or-break players whose early returns have raised or lowered playoff expectations for their teams. If you do not find your roster here, stay tuned, for we will soon highlight more.

Milwaukee Bucks: The mid in Khris Middleton

Khris Middleton has not been the same since starring alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo on the Milwaukee Bucks' 2021 NBA championship run. He hyperextended his left knee 21 games into their title defense, tore a tendon in his left wrist three months later and soon felt the brunt of both, suffering a season-ending MCL sprain in his left knee (two games into the 2022 playoffs) and undergoing offseason surgery on the left wrist.

Middleton's recovery spilled into last season, costing him the first 20 games. He felt soreness in his right knee seven games into his return, sat another six weeks and nursed the injury until the summer. Following the Miami Heat's first-round upset of Milwaukee, Middleton required a clean-up surgery on the right knee.

That rehab spilled into this season. He entered on a strict minutes restriction and did not appear in the closing lineup until this past weekend, when the Bucks took narrow wins from the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets. He is averaging 9.8 points and shooting 31.3% from 3-point range in 18.6 minutes per game, nowhere near the third star Milwaukee needs to complement Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard.

The history of the NBA is unkind to the trajectory of players who experience so steady a decline over three seasons, as their careers hit double digits in years served, especially those who have spent the past two summers rehabbing from surgeries. Middleton's production since that 2020-21 championship campaign:

  • 2020-21 (68 of 72 games): 20.4 PPG (48/41/90), 6.0 RPG, 5.4 APG (2.6 TO), 33.4 MPG

  • 2021-22 (66 of 82 games): 20.1 PPG (44/37/89), 5.4 RPG, 5.4 APG (2.9 TO), 32.4 MPG

  • 2022-23 (33 of 82 games): 15.1 PPG (44/32/90), 4.2 RPG, 4.9 APG (2.2 TO), 24.3 MPG

  • 2023-24 (5 of 7 games): 9.8 PPG (46/31/80), 4.0 RPG, 3.4 APG (1.4 TO), 18.6 MPG

The Bucks know full well they do not have the firepower to win another championship without Middleton impacting both ends of the floor, which is why they are doing everything in their power to ensure he is rehabilitated by the playoffs. We also have not seen that player since the 2021 NBA Finals. Finding his shot again is one thing; he may well rediscover the rhythm that made him a 38.8% career 3-point shooter. Playing the defense necessary on a team that starts Lillard and Malik Beasley in the backcourt is another.

Milwaukee boasted the NBA's best defense in Mike Budenholzer's first two seasons as head coach and owned a top-five outfit last season in his final year on the job. Through six games, they rank fifth from the bottom under first-year head coach Adrian Griffin, allowing an astounding 117.4 points per 100 meaningful possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass, and they are regularly getting roasted by guards and wings.

The Milwaukee Bucks' Khris Middleton (L), Damian Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo during a timeout in the fourth quarter against the New York Knicks at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee on Nov. 3, 2023. (Benny Sieu/USA TODAY Sports)
The Milwaukee Bucks' Khris Middleton (L), Damian Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo during a timeout in the fourth quarter against the New York Knicks at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee on Nov. 3, 2023. (Benny Sieu/USA TODAY Sports)

The Bucks' production in Middleton's minutes is encouraging. They are +22 in his 93 minutes and -38 in 243 minutes without him. If the numbers reflect how much better they are with a diminished Middleton, imagine their effectiveness with a healthier version. Of course, the reverse can be true, too, if Milwaukee needs more from Beasley, Jae Crowder, Pat Connaughton or MarJon Beauchamp in Middleton's absence.

The Bucks' trade for Lillard cost them Jrue Holiday, and there were already concerns about swapping the latter's defense for the former's offense, but what they gained in clutch scoring theoretically outweighed what they lost in the ability to get late-game stops. Not only could the difference between 2021 and 2024 Middleton offset those gains, it could tilt the Bucks downhill from their championship peak three years ago.

Cleveland Cavaliers: The plateau of Evan Mobley

Cleveland Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff was right to suggest, "If [Evan Mobley] has the ability to become an average to an above-average 3-point shooter, I think it changes the dynamic of the way people have to guard him, the matchups they can put on him and what it does for everybody else on the floor."

This is the final frontier for the Cavaliers. The 22-year-old Mobley's size and athleticism made him an instant defensive force, but his inability to space the floor makes building a championship-level offense around him more difficult. Mobley shot 23.2% on 1.3 attempts from 3-point range through his first two NBA seasons, and he has attempted five 3-pointers through their first eight games this season, making just one of them.

What's worse: Mobley is shooting 21.4% (9-of-42 FG) on all 2-pointers outside the restricted area. His free-throw percentage (70.4%) offers a modicum of optimism that he can improve as a shooter, though doing so in time to meaningfully raise Cleveland's profile as a serious contender is daunting. Teams will dare Mobley to beat them with anything but a layup, and that shrinks the floor for Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland.

Creating a functional playoff offense with Mobley and Jarrett Allen sharing the court is too fine a needle to thread. Allen is not even a threat to develop an outside shot, and it makes no sense to field two 7-footers who need not be guarded beyond a few feet from the basket. Mobley's inaccuracy as a shooter will rob the Cavaliers of playing the double-big lineups that make them an elite defense, and it all unravels from there.

Mobley still has two seasons left on his rookie contract, and Allen's $20 million annual salary only overlaps with Mobley's next deal for one season, so Cleveland still has time to figure out a center tandem financially. Functionally, though, the Cavs cannot wait for the pairing to find its ceiling. Mitchell is a serious threat to leave in 2025 free agency, and it would surprise nobody if Cleveland shops him before he gets the chance.

That means the time to maximize this roster is now. The Cavaliers' $40 million annual investment into wings Caris LeVert, Max Strus and Georges Niang over the summer reflected this sense of urgency. Except, none of it fits seamlessly without Mobley's shooting unlocking the best of both double-big and small-ball lineups.

Do not get me wrong: The Cavaliers should still be an excellent regular-season team, despite their 3-5 start (Garland and Allen have both missed time already), because they have too much talent, but when coaches lock into flaws over a seven-game series, this one still appears be fatal against the highest-level opponents.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Chet Holmgren's overshadowed arrival

If this were last season or Victor Wembanyama was not dominating the headlines, we might be talking more about what a revelation Chet Holmgren has been as a redshirt rookie on the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Holmgren missed the entirety of last season with a Lisfranc injury to his right foot. His participation in the Salt Lake City and Las Vegas Summer Leagues proved he had fully recovered from the surgery, and his performance through eight games is even more impressive. The slender 7-footer is averaging 16.8 points (on blistering 58/56/90 shooting splits), 7.9 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 2.5 blocks in 29 minutes a game.

The obligatory list of first-year players who have averaged 17 points, eight rebounds, two assists and two blocks: David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Chris Webber, Pau Gasol, Ralph Sampson and Patrick Ewing. That is it, and none of them did it with the kind of efficiency (71.9 true-shooting percentage) Holmgren is showing.

Defensively, nobody in the NBA is challenging more shots around the rim than Holmgren, and opponents are shooting 10.8% worse than their season averages on the 11.1 layup attempts he defends per game. That is a savings of 2.4 points per game — no small shakes and double Davis' statistical impact.

In reverse from Mobley's Cleveland situation, Holmgren's ability to protect the rim defensively and spread the court offensively should unlock a bevy of lineup combinations, only the Thunder have neither a second big to solidify a dominant defense nor the right floor-spacing wings to conduct an explosive spread offense. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Josh Giddey and Jalen Williams are too skilled to collectively shoot 30% on 3s.

The Thunder need better floor balance, and they have time to develop it with so many rookie contracts and Gilgeous-Alexander's steal of a max contract. Holmgren's immediate impact also means they can expedite that process, leveraging their extensive draft capital to pursue a second big and the shooting depth that will transform them into a 50-win contender. Holmgren has them pushing on that ceiling sooner than expected.

Miami Heat: Kyle Lowry's plummeting production

Kyle Lowry, the 37-year-old six-time All-Star, 2019 NBA champion and potential Hall of Famer, is averaging 5.8 shots a night, and 4.4 of them are 3-pointers. He has attempted three free throws in eight games. He is using 11% of the Miami Heat's possessions — by far the fewest of his career — in 30.8 minutes per game.

This is not the point guard they imagined when they handed him a three-year, $85 million contract in 2021, which is why the Heat spent the summer waiting on a Lillard deal that never materialized. Instead, Lowry is little more than an expiring $29.7 million salary, taking up space in an offense that has plenty more obstacles to overcome. Miami scored 112.3 points per 100 possessions last regular season, owners of the league's 25th-ranked offensive rating, and they are five points worse through eight games this season.

Tyler Herro's upward trajectory as an elite scorer — 22.9 points per game on 45/41/88 shooting splits — might make Miami recalibrate its thinking about how best to build its backcourt. Lowry was once one of the league's most underrated defenders, and while he still flips a few possessions on his veteran craftiness, he has a tough time keeping pace with Mike Conley, much less one of the NBA's many talented young guards.

You cannot have a guard playing so many minutes who neither boosts your offensive production nor limits your defensive liabilities. Holiday would have been a perfect complement to Herro, but he landed with the rival Boston Celtics, and we do not know the next guard who will spin through the trade carousel. Will the Cavs consider trading Mitchell this season? Might Marcus Smart grow weary of the Memphis Grizzlies?

If there were a logical move, the Heat would have made it by now. In the meantime, they will tread water, hoping Lowry draws enough charges to justify his nearly 31 minutes a night, until they can flip his expiring salary.

New York Knicks: The saga of Julius Randle's even seasons

Nobody loves seasons ending in odd numbers more than New York Knicks forward Julius Randle. In the 2020-21 and 2022-23 campaigns, he combined to average 24.7 points on 46/37/78 shooting splits, earning All-Star and All-NBA recognition in both seasons. The only other forwards who can lay claim to those same honors in at least two of the last three years: Antetokounmpo, Jayson Tatum and LeBron James.

Only, nobody believes Randle belongs anywhere near the same category as those players. (In fact, he was not listed in our Levels project, which sorted 39 of the most vital players to contending for a championship.)

His Knicks captured playoff berths in 2021 and 2023, making the team's first second-round appearance in a decade last season. This is the reason for optimism in New York, where Jalen Brunson has emerged as an All-Star-caliber point guard and R.J. Barrett continues his progression toward stardom at the age of 23.

Yet, in three even seasons on the Knicks, Randle is averaging 19.6 points on 43/29/74 splits, including a dreadful 31.6 field-goal percentage this season. His team missed the playoffs in 2020 and 2022, failing to make the play-in tournament both times. Randle has been the basketball bellwether in New York for half a decade, vacillating between dynamism and disappointment. On any given night, he can restore glory to Madison Square Garden or be the focus of its ire, and that unpredictability carries from year to year, too.

If either of Randle's two postseason appearances were as promising as his regular-season peaks, we might entertain him as the backbone of a contender. Instead, his playoff statistics — 17.1 points on 16.1 field-goal attempts per game (34.4 FG%, 28.3 3P%) and more turnovers than assists — suggest Randle's even years are closer to his standard, and the standout odd seasons are the deviation from his true basketball nature.

In theory, Randle's accolades make his contract, which owes him roughly 20% of the salary cap through the 2025-26 season, a bargain. In practice, his presence is weightier. He is one of 34 players who attempt 17 or more shots a game and the least efficient of them by a wide margin. There is nothing from his career to say he will cede his spot in New York's pecking order to anyone, which is why it is so hard to imagine Randle sliding into an effective complementary role if the Knicks were to acquire the bigger star they seek.

It is also difficult to conceive of a team that views Randle as its missing piece. This is New York's dilemma. Until further notice, the Knicks go as Randle goes, and that lands them somewhere south of seriousness.