July 12, 2022, 1:25 pm
As division rivals and first round foes in the 2022 NBA Playoffs, the Bucks and Bulls became very familiar with each other this season. The cities aren’t even 100 miles apart, leading to a natural rivalry dating back to the days of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. This latest edition of the rivalry stars headliners like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Zach LaVine as featured acts, but some of their supporting cast are almost as talented and crucial to the team’s success. Enter DeMar DeRozan and Khris Middleton: the metaphorical necks of the teams headed by Antetokounmpo and LaVine. Neither the Bucks nor the Bulls would have achieved the same level of success without their multi-time All-Star swingmen who, coincidentally, have had very similar draft positions and final ranks over the years. Both forwards are now on the wrong side of 30 and may be facing a decline sooner than later, but that’s no reason not to explore the great fantasy value they should be able to return in the meantime. Here’s a closer look at the past, present and future values of both men in this week’s matchup.
DeMar DeRozan v. Khris Middleton
PAST: Who was the better fantasy player?
21.6 PPG, 0.3 3PG, 4.2 RPG, 6.9 APG, 0.9 SPG, 0.2 BPG, 2.0 TOG, .495 FG%, .880 FT%
61 games, 1,316 points, 19 3-pointers, 259 rebounds, 422 assists, 56 steals, 15 blocks, 119 turnovers, 455-of-920 field goals, 387-of-440 free throws
20.4 PPG, 2.2 3PG, 6.0 RPG, 5.4 APG, 1.1 SPG, 0.1 BPG, 2.6 TOG, .476 FG%, .898 FT%
68 games, 1,385 points, 151 3-pointers, 406 rebounds, 370 assists, 74 steals, 9 blocks, 178 turnovers, 511-of-1,074 field goals, 212-of-236 free throws
DeRozan’s last season with the Spurs was relatively pedestrian by his own standards, as the Compton-born swingman saw his production in points, boards, steals and field goal percentage decrease from the previous year. However, considerable bumps in his assists and free throws carried DeRozan to another top-50 season. Not to be outdone, the ever-reliable Middleton almost matched DeRozan with a similar increase in assists over last year while continuing to provide solid but unspectacular across-the-board production. As it relates to their fantasy values, DeRozan scored clear victories in both assists and turnovers while outweighing Middleton’s also-considerable free throw value with sheer volume. Unsurprisingly, DeRozan lost treys to his opposite, while Middleton also outperformed him on the boards and with steals. Negligible contributions in blocks by both men were one of three categories that are probably best judged as ties, along with points and field goals. By totals, Middleton was the stronger contributor as a points and shooting percentage producer, whereas DeRozan had marginally more impressive averages. Managers reading this will know which was more useful in their respective leagues, but these categories were too close to call. Regardless, Middleton wins the judgment for this season as he was a solid contributor in a wider variety of categories that only truly hurt teams in two areas. In contrast to the Texas A&M alum, DeRozan was a non-factor in treys and blocks who outperformed his peer in turnovers, but still registered negative overall value in that department. Middleton won the NBA Championship and the head-to-head matchup in this season.
Verdict: Khris Middleton
PRESENT: Who is the better fantasy player?
27.9 PPG, 0.7 3PG, 5.2 RPG, 4.9 APG, 0.9 SPG, 0.3 BPG, 2.4 TOG, .504 FG%, .877 FT%
76 games, 2,118 points, 50 3-pointers, 392 rebounds, 374 assists, 68 steals, 24 blocks, 181 turnovers, 774-of-1535 field goals, 520-of-593 free throws
20.1 PPG, 2.5 3PG, 5.4 RPG, 5.4 APG, 1.2 SPG, 0.3 BPG, 2.9 TOG, .443 FG%, .890 FT%
66 games, 1,325 points, 162 3-pointers, 356 rebounds, 358 assists, 76 steals, 18 blocks, 190 turnovers, 452-of-1,021 field goals, 259-of-291 free throws
The Bucks may have had more team success in the 2021-2022 season, but there’s no debating who had a better year when it’s broken down in an individual matchup. DeRozan started out the year on a tear with his new team and the USC alum registered his third career All-NBA selection while continuing to grow his highlight reel. There’s nothing particularly wrong with Middleton’s season: he was relatively consistent once again with comparable production to the previous year. The Charleston product did backslide in several categories -rebounds, assists, turnovers and field goal percentage- but was still a generally solid producer in the same fields as last season. However, DeRozan’s major leaps in scoring, shot volume, shot accuracy and rebounds mitigated his two assist per-game reduction and carried him to a comfortable lead over Middleton. While the other raw stats favored the Bucks star, he was swept in all of the efficiency categories -both shooting percentages and turnovers- while registering nearly 800 less points, or somewhere between 30 and 40 points per fantasy week.
Verdict: DeMar DeRozan
FUTURE: Who will be the better fantasy player in 2022-23?
It’s easier to predict the futures of players who can expect a certain level of consistency from season-to-season. DeRozan and Middleton will not only be returning to relatively-unchanged teams, but have also played so many seasons that they should be able to comfortably get similar numbers for as long as their bodies allow. The Bucks will be out for revenge after relinquishing their place as kings of the league, while the Bulls will be out to prove that their early-season dominance can be replicated. Both teams are loaded with role players who are rostered -among other reasons- to accentuate the talents of focal points like Antetokounmpo, DeRozan, LaVine and Middleton. In other words: there’s a really solid floor of production no matter how you slice it.
One thing is for sure: DeRozan stays active in the offseason. From his early days with the Raptors, the high-flying swingman was known for staying in the gym and constantly working to improve his game. There’s no reason for him to stray from that model after all it has helped him to achieve, and we’re seeing at this year’s Drew League that DeRozan is as ready as ever to produce another elite season. The Compton product has clearly been focused on his playmaking ability after demonstrating solid ball-handling and passing in several appearances in the renowned annual Pro-Am contest. While there is justifiable skepticism that DeRozan will not have as many scoring opportunities with a full-strength LaVine, Lonzo Ball, and Nikola Vucevic next season, there is no reason to doubt that he won’t come into training camp in the same sort of shape that allowed him to get to that level in years past. The fact that he is focusing on creating from the perimeter inspires optimism that his potential scoring loss may be offset by a potential return of his Spurs-era assist totals. He’s no longer a shooting guard, so the more post-oriented version of DeRozan that we’ve seen with the Bulls and Spurs seems safe to return positive value on the boards, if not hovering around his career-high of around six a game. Don’t be fooled by his slight uptick in volume from range this season: DeRozan is keenly aware that his efficiency is tied to his status as a disruptor in the perimeter-focused NBA. It’s unlikely that DeRozan’s field goal percentage would remain as high with increased 3-point volume, while it would also be harder for him to generate his high-volume free throws, so it may even be preferable that he remains a non-asset in treys moving forward. Going from bad to okay in treys may not be worth an arguably greater potential loss in shooting percentages: categories which DeRozan’s high volume and accuracy can seriously impact. As DeRozan acclimates with his new teammates in what is likely to be a much healthier and complete season together, it seems likely that he will probably backslide a bit from his career-high scoring year. However, his work ethic and track record as a playmaker indicate that he can offset these losses with gains in a high-impact category like assists, meaning that DeRozan can maintain pace with good health. Health is the operative term with DeRozan, who -despite his meticulous workout regimen- is entering the twilight years of his career and carries greater risk of breaking down. Like other rim-attacking star guards in the late stages of their career, DeRozan will find it increasingly difficult to create value when he eventually loses a step on defenders.
Some fans may forget that Middleton hasn’t spent his entire career with the Bucks; he was traded by the Pistons after his rookie year. He’s already all over their career leaderboards, so Middleton is about as close to a known quantity as you can get in the often-unpredictable realm of fantasy basketball. Since 2015, managers have been able to rely on a steady dose of points, treys, rebounds, assists and steals with solid shooting. Over that time, there have been marginal jumps in each of these numbers, but there’s as much reason to believe these can decrease as increase with Middleton entering his 10th season. We should expect his stats to mostly hover until a developing storyline could alter his potential future. Nobody’s going to predict an injury, there’s no trade talk around the Bucks and a core filled with 30-plus veterans isn’t going to steal his thunder, so it should be more of the same from Middleton until proven otherwise. Risk-averse managers will surely have him circled on their watch lists when draft day approaches, but the reality is that anyone who gets Middleton -regardless of their statistical build- should have a strong all-around contributor next year. Similar to DeRozan, Middleton may benefit from working within the arc a little more often. Adding less than half a trey per-game to his averages in the past season caused Middleton’s field goal percentage to drop from average to negative impact while remaining a 3-point asset regardless. Whether it’s two or three treys each contest, Middleton can likely be locked in for another season of 20 points, five boards, five assists and a steal, but projecting even slight increases in any two of those categories seems bold: going slightly above any of those averages either exceeds or ties his career-highs. At his floor value, the Texas A&M product is one of the premier snipers in the league that can offer solid across-the-board production and efficiency. For his ceiling value, please re-read the last sentence.
While their defensive numbers are comparable, it’s likely that Middleton would be selected as the better of the two on the less-glamorous end of the floor. DeRozan has met Middleton’s recent averages more than once, but he’s losing the matchup on-court and in fantasy right now. If one is more likely to continue producing passable steals value in the future, then it’s probably Middleton. Admittedly, this is only a small element of what makes either man an asset in fantasy. What’s more interesting is the rebounds and assists battles, where it may appear closer than one might think. Middleton actually outperformed DeRozan as a playmaker on a per-100 possessions basis this year, but that stat tends to favor DeRozan historically. On the contrary, there is a clear advantage for Middleton as a rebounder no matter how you arrange the numbers.
If managers are torn between either DeRozan or Middleton on draft day, then they should feel comfortable with their position either way. It’s objectively true that one can outperform the other on raw numbers, but there’s a volatility with higher volume production that isn’t seen with consistent producers. More specifically: DeRozan’s inside-the-arc game is going to become increasingly reliant on his playmaking abilities as his physical advantages decline. Unlike Middleton, the USC alum cannot be an offensive threat by standing still in the corner; DeRozan needs to be active in a high-usage role in order to create for himself and others. It’s impossible to predict injuries and DeRozan is noted for his commitment to the gym, so that’s a decline that most will have to witness before they believe. However optimistic one may be about DeRozan’s sustainability, the fact remains that he is entering his 14th season with a role and usage level that can wear out all but the best and luckiest athletes. While the jury remains out on the potential of that event, managers can take solace in DeRozan’s advanced playmaking abilities.
While there was a clear delineation between their scoring averages last year after DeRozan’s somewhat-surprising Bulls debut, the truth is that Middleton may actually have an advantage as the Bulls star gets closer to the low-20s in scoring. Whether that happens seems to be a matter of age and role, as DeRozan is clearly trying to maximize his prime and is in a more secure position with the Bulls than his last few years in San Antonio. There is a clear advantage in the shooting department for DeRozan, as his volume and accuracy from the field and charity stripe outweigh the significant 3-point advantage of Middleton. Further, there’s no evidence that Middleton can ever make up ground here, as his shot accuracy in the past several seasons has varied with little effect on his 20 point per-game average, and he’s not about to start generating fouls at nearly the same rate as an elite slasher like DeRozan. While he wins his fair share of the head-to-head categories, the truth is that Middleton isn’t winning them by a mile like DeRozan has done with his best categories, with the exception of treys. Adding to that: if DeRozan’s shot volume from the field does decrease, that has corresponded with an increase in his assists in recent history. Even though this may sound like an indictment of him as a basketball player, DeRozan isn’t as great a defender, rebounder or shooter as Middleton. However, fantasy basketball doesn’t evaluate skill levels; only production. In that regard, the USC product is simply too good at what he does to be overlooked on draft day. It’s entirely possible that Middleton can outperform DeRozan next season, but it’s more likely to be due to a backslide on DeRozan’s part than any particular effort of Middleton, who seems to perpetually exist on the periphery of early round value. DeRozan isn’t always as great as he was last year, but we have more recent evidence that he can break through to the next level than we’re likely to get from Middleton.
Verdict: DeMar DeRozan