Ball Don't Lie

Brandon Jennings’ quest to prove he and Monta Ellis can lead Bucks to playoffs has to start on D

Dan Devine
Ball Don't Lie

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After Monta Ellis lets Baron Davis drive past, Brandon Jennings fouls him. Teamwork! (AP)

This is a big year for Brandon Jennings, and the Milwaukee Bucks point guard knows it.

After making the playoffs (and a quick first-round exit — as reader Matt Wessel notes, the Atlanta Hawks beat the Bucks in seven) during his 2009-10 rookie season, Jennings' Bucks have turned in two straight sub-.500 campaigns, as the combination of injuries and lackluster offensive production have kept coach Scott Skiles' team on the outskirts of Eastern Conference postseason contention. With the Bucks in a late-season fight for a playoff berth last year, general manager John Hammond made a somewhat controversial move, shipping oft-injured franchise centerpiece Andrew Bogut and shot-happy swingman Stephen Jackson to the Golden State Warriors in exchange for scoring off-guard Monta Ellis, sophomore big man Ekpe Udoh and the immortal Kwame Brown.

The move was intended to give Skiles some added firepower as the Bucks looked to vault past the New York Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers into the seventh or eighth spot in the East, but while Milwaukee went 12-9 in 21 games after importing Ellis, the Bucks again found themselves on the outside looking in come playoff time. Now, less than two months before players report to training camp for the 2012-13 season, the Bucks find themselves again faced with the question raised by many at the time of the trade: Can Jennings and Ellis, two explosive but small guards who both need the ball to succeed, fit together well enough to push Milwaukee back into the postseason?

Jennings, for his part, seems eager to prove the doubters wrong. From Charles F. Gardner of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:

"I really want it to work just personally, because everybody is doubting it," Jennings said in an interview at his youth basketball camp at Homestead High School on Sunday.

"With everybody doubting it, I think it's important that me and him, we just work together to show everybody it can work.

"Everybody knows we both can score like crazy. But I think everybody thinks we can't win together. That's going to be one of our biggest challenges. I'm up for it and I know he is."

It's cool that Jennings and Ellis are up for a challenge, because a look at the statistical profile the two put together after Ellis came to Wisconsin suggest that it's definitely going to be one.

Not so much on the offensive end — as Jennings noted, the Bucks featured a more charged-up offensive unit during the 601 minutes that he and Ellis played together, scoring 106.2 points per 48 minutes of playing time compared with 98.9-per-48 on the season as a whole, according to NBA.com's statistical analysis tool.

Part of that's due to Milwaukee playing at a significantly faster pace with the Jennings-Ellis unit sharing the floor — when the duo played at the same time, the Bucks averaged 100.6 possessions per 48 minutes, more than four-per-48 faster than their season average — but they also scored more effectively in that uptempo game, doing much more damage on fast breaks and in the paint and producing an average of 105.3 points per 100 possessions. That's a big improvement over the Bucks' 102.4-per-100 season mark — over the course of a full season, it's the difference between having a top-five offense on par with the Chris Paul-led Los Angeles Clippers and having a middle-of-the-league group like the Orlando Magic or Atlanta Hawks.

The problem, of course, is that you also have to play defense in the NBA. Few people who've watched Jennings and Ellis over the course of their careers would mistake them for quality defenders at the guard spots — they're fast and active and they try hard, but they're not, strictly speaking, good at it. As a result, and as you might expect, the stats say that while the Bucks were running and gunning with that duo in the backcourt, Milwaukee's opponents saw a pretty big offensive uptick, too.

With Jennings and Ellis darting into passing lanes and breaking down opponents off the dribble, the Bucks scored 2.5 more fast-break points and 6.6 more points in the paint per 48 minutes with them on the floor together than on the season as a whole. But with the tandem turning the ball over and failing to provide much resistance on the perimeter, they gave up even more (2.7 more per-48 on the break, 7.9 more per-48 in the paint) to turn in net-negative stats in those categories over their 601 shared minutes. Opponents made more field goals per 48 minutes, posted a higher effective field-goal percentage, and grabbed a higher share of available offensive and defensive rebounds to key second-chance opportunities and transition offense.

In sum, teams playing the Bucks feasted when Jennings and Ellis shared the court, scoring an average of 107.7 points per 100 possessions of floor time, more than five points-per-100 below Milwaukee's season defensive mark, according to NBA.com's metrics. To put things in perspective, only one team put up defensive numbers that inept over the course of the full 2011-12 season — when Jennings and Ellis shared the backcourt, the Bucks ceased being a slightly-worse-than-average defensive team and became the Charlotte Bobcats (107.8-per-100 allowed). So you'd understand it if, when Jennings says he and Ellis are ready for the challenge, Bucks fans choose not to begin holding their breath just yet.

While a look at the lineup data from those 601 shared Jennings-Ellis minutes offers relatively little in terms of statistically tangible takeaways — only two five-man units featuring the duo played more than 50 minutes together — there is one potentially interesting note. According to NBA.com's stat tool, the most common Jennings-Ellis lineup paired them with the frontcourt trio of Drew Gooden, Ersan Ilyasova and Carlos Delfino; in keeping with the general tenor of what we've seen above, that five-man unit scored like crazy (107.9 points per 100 possessions) but also routinely got roasted, giving up 115.7-per-100 in 158 minutes spread over 11 games. The second-most frequently used Jennings-Ellis lineup, though, swapped out Delfino for defensive stalwart Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, and the results — albeit, again, in a very small 83-minute sample size — were sensational.

The Jennings-Ellis-Mbah a Moute-Ilyasova-Gooden lineup produced more effectively, scoring 112.7-per-100; defended much better, allowing just 96.8-per-100; did a stellar job on the offensive glass, snaring 36.5 percent of available misses; and posted better eFG and TS% than the Delfino group while still playing at a track-meet pace (99.7 possessions per 48 minutes). Another configuration that kept Jennings, Ellis, Ilyasova and Mbah a Moute together, but replaced Gooden with defensive-minded big man Udoh, likewise performed well, scoring an average of 120 points per 100 possessions while allowing 101.3-per-100 in 26 total minutes.

Again, caveats abound here — you can't accurately predict future performance based on such small sample sizes; the lion's share of the minutes played by the Jennings-Ellis-Mbah a Moute-Ilyasova-Gooden group came in late-season games against teams prominently featuring the likes of Jordan Williams, Sundiata Gaines, Jeremy Pargo and Anthony Parker (thanks, BasketballValue.com); and so on. But the statistical output does seem to have a basis in reason — replace a subpar defender in Delfino with a gifted player capable of checking multiple positions (and helping cover up teammates' defensive errors) in Mbah a Moute, and then add a rim protector/rebounder in Udoh in place of non-shot-blocker Gooden while allowing the offensive core of the guards and Ilyasova (who showed last year he can help spread the floor, hitting 49.2 percent of his field goals and 45.5 percent of his 3-point attempts) to continue to do their work, and all of a sudden you've got a much better balanced lineup on both ends of the court. The offseason acquisition of center Samuel Dalembert, long one of the NBA's stronger rebounders and shot-blockers, would also figure to help there; if recently signed backup Joel Przybilla can stay healthy for the first time in three years and rookie big John Henson can contribute early, they could, as well.

It might not be statistically significant, but especially with Delfino's move south to the Houston Rockets opening more minutes at the three and more opportunities to play the re-signed Ilyasova and Mbah a Moute together, it sure seems like that group and others like it might be worth a long look for Skiles. If nothing else, Jennings seemed to like it — in the four games when that unit saw most of its floor time (on March 30, 2012 against the Cleveland Cavaliers, March 31 against the Memphis Grizzlies, April 2 against the Washington Wizards and April 21 against the then-New Jersey Nets), Jennings averaged 25.3 points per game on 50.7/36.4/87.5 percent field-goal/3-point/free-throw shooting splits, grabbed 4.5 rebounds and 2.8 steals per contest and posted a nearly 2.5-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Then again, Ellis didn't see quite so much of the ball — he took just 53 field-goal attempts in those four games, compared to 71 for Jennings — and wasn't especially productive when he did, averaging just 12.5 points on 34 percent shooting and coughing it up 10 times against 19 assists. If Jennings is commanding the ball when the two play together and the lineups on the floor are performing well, finding out whether Monta will be satisfied with fewer touches and less productivity could become a whole new "challenge" for the duo to face.

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