Two Man Game: Can Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis coexist?

Yahoo! Sports Staff
Roto Arcade

Each week, Justin Phan and Matt Buser will take a closer look at some rising and falling players as well as their own dissenting opinions to serve as a follow-up to Thursday's Big(ger) Board.

Buser says: Is that faith in a Stephen Curry return that I see? We obviously have nothing concrete when it comes to Operation Shutdown, but wouldn't allowing him to play again this season qualify as sheer lunacy? We won't see Andrew Bogut until next season and there is the potential to acquire more lottery ping pong ball combinations before the season ends, in addition to allowing Curry's foot/ankle to regain some of the lost structural integrity. And sticking with the Warriors, I also see something a lack of faith in production from Klay Thompson, who just made it on to the tail end of your bubble. His shooting percentage has been shaky as a starter but it's hard to complain about the threes, near-perfection from the foul line, and nearly two assists for every turnover. One thing he is not lacking is confidence, and that turnaround jumper he likes could turn into a pretty nice weapon. What have you seen so far that keeps him out of your top 100?

Mike Brown's insistence that Steve Blake is his starter has begrudgingly cooled me on Ramon Sessions a bit, but he's completely missing from your ranks. The major challenge for Sessions as a Laker will be spending a lot more time off the ball, playing alongside Kobe Bryant, but he clearly brings a dynamism on offense that they desperately need and is shooting over 40 percent from three on the season, albeit without a large volume. And even if Brown doesn't relent and continues to start Blake, the gap in production will ensure that Sessions will get his minutes, right? I see Sessions driving-and-dishing to Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol and can't figure out a good reason to limit the opportunities for him to do so. Once you account for Kobe's touches, of course. The Lakers are right around the league average in pace and offensive rating - can't Sessions help them improve on both of those numbers?

Phan says: Lunacy? The Warriors? It couldn't be! Slotting Curry at 65 shouldn't be construed as a vote of confidence. It's more a reflection of the general recklessness the team has exhibited with his ankle this season, repeatedly rushing him back onto the court against conventional wisdom. It's precisely how they've arrived at this point, where the chronic nature of Curry's injuries presents legitimate concern about his long-term viability. There were never any real stakes at risk to begin with -- the Warriors had their eyes set on a path toward continual mediocrity and an inevitable first-round playoff exit -- so I'm not really sold that they've ruled out a return based on their occupancy near the bottom of the Western Conference standings. If there's even a remote chance that Curry returns this season, which I believe there is, then he certainly warrants a spot on our Big Board (for now). This isn't Kevin Martin or Danilo Gallinari we're talking about here. Curry has consistently delivered first-round value dating back to his rookie season; he's the type of talent you build your team around. And until he's definitively ruled out for the rest of the year, he's worth keeping around.

My issue with Klay Thompson is rather simple. I just don't think he's very good. While owner Joe Lacob sees him as a big part of the W's long-term core, I have a hard time seeing why he should stick in the starting five beyond this season. You thought Monta Ellis was an inefficient scorer? Try 19 points on 17+ shots for size, which is what Thompson has averaged in his last seven starts. He's been deadly in spot-up situations, converting 46 percent of his looks for a 1.23 points-per-possession (PPP) mark per Synergy Sports -- good for 19th in the NBA -- but has been largely unimpressive otherwise. His athleticism limits what he's able to do in isolation (0.59 PPP) and transition (41% FG), and his intermediary game is completely lacking (30% from 3-15 feet in). What he does have going for him now is minutes (35.6 mpg) and volume (17.3 FGA), the only reasons why he's gained relevance. If coach Mark Jackson allows him to keep taking shots at a rate on par with Derrick Rose, Deron Williams, and Dwyane Wade then he'll break my bubble; otherwise I'll pass and wait for something to eventually give.

Getting Sessions was huge for the Lakers if only for the sizable upgrade he offers over Blake and Derek Fisher offensively. But the fit is a curious one, and one that makes me question how effectively he can function within that offense. Wednesday's performance (17 points, 9 assists, 5 rebounds) was a step in the right direction, but he's not going 7-for-8 from the field and 3-for-4 from distance often. Sessions is at his best with the ball in his hands off the pick-and-roll, where he's able to slash and create for others (as well as himself). That'll be difficult to do on a team that features Kobe and runs the pick-and-roll on just 11 percent of their possessions, per Synergy Sports. Whether Sessions will be on the fringes looking in or a viable option depends on two things: 1) Mike Brown's ability to transition away from the triangle offense and incorporate more traditional elements (pick-and-roll, post-ups), and 2) if his three-point shooting holds. Sessions knocked down just 13 threes in his first four seasons combined on 18 percent shooting; he's more than doubled that total this year, going 29-for-69 from three-point range (42 percent).

It's rare for us to differ so greatly on any one thing, and even more so to remain divided and not find some sort of middle ground. Brandon Jennings has been that divisive player who we seem to consistently disagree on this year -- you view him in a more optimistic light while I continue to err on the side of caution. Now I don't mean to bring him up again to simply rehash a previous discussion we had regarding his value. There's a good reason to revisit this with the Bucks'' big deadline acquisition of Monta Ellis. Milwaukee essentially swapped two players who weren't playing due to injury for one who ranks in the top-10 in usage rate. That's a move that's bound to have implications, especially when you consider that Shaun Livingston was getting a big chunk of the minutes at the off-guard spot. Jennings is first and foremost a scorer, and the addition of Ellis means less touches, shots, and usage. It's admittedly a small sample to work from, but in Ellis' three games as a Buck, Jennings has attempted 2.4 less shots a game. For a player whose value is largely predicated on scoring (threes included), this has to be concerning... is it not?

There are also a number of swingmen who went largely overlooked in your rankings, most notably Kawhi Leonard (unranked) and Dorell Wright (99). Leonard has posted top-15 value over the past month -- buoyed by those steals and plus-efficiency -- while Wright finds himself back inside the top-25 over the last two weeks with more minutes and increased opportunity. Where's the love for those guys? And what about others like Mike Dunleavy (27th over the past month) and James Johnson (62nd)?

Buser says: Perhaps Sessions' fantasy impact will be best-served off the bench, anyway. Brown can make sure that none of Blake's 15-ish minutes come while Kobe is off the court, putting the ball in Sessions' hands as much as possible any time Kobe does get a rest. The Lakers are desperate for production beyond their big three, and those pick-and-roll and slashing skills that you mentioned certainly can help bring out the best in players like Matt Barnes and... Troy Murphy? Sessions can only help these reserves so much. The lack of depth here is incredible.

The concern with Jennings for me centers squarely on his shooting percentage - his taking less shots isn't a bad thing in and of itself if there's more quality involved, or even if he simply avoids another extended shooting slump. Jennings is a streaky shooter, no doubt, but he's tended to follow up mid-season lulls with relatively strong finishes, and he's already showed signs of doing the same in 2011-12 - his percentages tanked in February (34% FG, 27% 3PT) but have since rebounded (44% FG, 40% 3PT in March). February also happened to be when an extended period of ineffectual play from Livingston necessitated his removal from the starting five, and we've seen the impacts of a number of Bucks spike since (Ersan Ilyasova, Drew Gooden, Mike Dunleavy). Now Monta has been added to this  suddenly dynamic offense, and his presence should lead to more transition opportunities and spot-up looks for all Bucks. Jennings' current season rank is 27th overall - my rank of 49th certainly leaves room for a downturn in usage with the assumption that his percentages won't tank once again.

I'll hit those swingmen you mentioned one at a time. Leonard made my bubble but needed more love, no doubt. I devoted some time to him in Thursday's Court Report, and certainly can see him holding down the starting small forward spot now that Richard Jefferson is out of the picture. Any hesitation was due to the number of wing options Gregg Popovich has at his disposal and his willingness to use them, but the per-minute production has not been lacking in Leonard's case. I just can't get on board with Dorell any more than barely in my top 100. It was great to see his recent streak of six-game streak with over 30 minutes, but that was snapped with 17 minutes against the Hornets on Wednesday. Ranking him where I've got him means I think he should stay on rosters in standard leagues, but that's the extent of it for me. I'm expecting volatility through the end of the season, with Klay Thompson playing a ton and Brandon Rush and Richard Jefferson waiting in the wings. Dunleavy has been scorching hot but I question how many minutes he'll see regularly now Ellis is on board. Carlos Delfino has been picking it up as well and is such a good complement to Jennings/Ellis that Skiles shouldn't find many reasons to sub him out. Dunleavy can still do some things with 25 minutes per game, but the 55/45/95 shooting will eventually end. We're not so far off on Johnson's rank, and the board was put together with his coming off a two-game stretch where he scored a total of eight points and a nine-game stretch where he averaged 24 minutes. Those steals and blocks are great, for sure, but Dwane Casey's rotation and the ups-and-downs have me concerned enough to keep him where he's at.

Kemba Walker dropped off the board this week with D.J. Augustin staying with the Bobcats through the trade deadline. It was not a secret that the Bobcats were willing to move DJA at the right price and, given that he's at the end of his rookie contract, he'll almost certainly be with another team next season. Kemba has been a per-minute stud and looks to have a promising career for fantasy purposes, even though he's shooting 37 percent on the season. The Bobcats won't have substantial cap room and their most notable off-season move will be a (the?) top pick in the draft. People tend to get carried away with the tweener label, but does it truly apply in Kemba's case? More specifically, does he have a future as the Bobcats' point guard?

Paul Millsap has been on a tear in March and made a big jump up to 11th overall this week. Millsap has been a favorite of the per-36 junkies since his rookie season and he's been stellar as a starter for the Jazz over the past two seasons, alongside fellow fantasy juggernaut Al Jefferson. What is notable is that Millsap and Jefferson are both headed into the final year of their contracts, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter are waiting in the wings, and the team has fairly extensive needs elsewhere. Which of Millsap and Jefferson would it make more sense for the Jazz to keep, and is Favors a sure bet to break out if he's a starter heading into the 2012-13 season?

Phan says: What I don't quite understand is the assumption that lower volume will automatically translate to better looks. Jennings isn't an inefficient scorer because he takes a lot of shots. He's an inefficient scorer because of his shot selection, form, and inability to finish consistently around the basket area. There's a difference, and that aspect of his game doesn't suddenly change with the arrival of Ellis. I can certainly see a modest bump in overall efficiency since he won't be forced to take as many late-clock jumpers out of necessity, but any improvement there will be negated at least twofold by a drop in scoring. I'll again exercise a bit of caution in pushing this too hard given the sample size, but Jennings' per-game rank over the past week since the Ellis acquisition: 127. A sign of things to come, I'm convinced.

We'll have to take a wait-and-see approach with Walker. Per-minute stud might be overselling it -- he's ranked just 146th in per-minute value among qualifiers -- but there's certainly considerable room for growth here. Positional archetypes only serve to limit, so I'll stay away from the tweener label, but he's clearly a shoot-first guard who looks to score before pass. That doesn't mean he isn't a capable and willing distributor though. Walker has been tasked with carrying a historically-deficient offense, and though he's struggled through bouts of inconsistency, has done an admirable job weathering the storm. The Bobcats could actually be looking at about $26 million in cap space assuming they use the amnesty provision on Corey Maggette and his $10.9 million salary, putting them in a position to add several key pieces that they desperately need. And no, Augustin is not expected to be one of them. The team is committed to Walker as their point guard long-term, and I fully trust in GM Rich Cho's ability to eye legitimate talent given his impeccable track record.

The Jazz were engaged in trade talks at the deadline involving Jefferson and Millsap, but offers reportedly lacked weight so they stood pat. And they had good reason to, given they're on track to return to the playoffs after a two-year hiatus. Expect talks to pick up again and gain steam during the off-season closer to the 2012 draft. It'd make sense for them to deal Millsap, considering Favors is far more equipped than Kanter to step into the starting lineup on a permanent basis. Jefferson, though undersized as a 5, becomes palatable there when paired alongside a strong defender like Favors.

There's plenty of reason to be optimistic about Favors' future: he's still just 20 years old, continues to rebound at a high rate, and managed to improve his player efficiency rating from 13.9 to 16.5 despite a big spike in usage. He has more potential than anyone on this roster. A sure bet to break out though? That might be a stretch. He'll need to improve in two areas first. Favors has managed to curb his foul rate this season, from an absurd 5.8 per 36 minutes to a passable 3.8 per 36, but his free-throw shooting remains problematic as does his turnover rate. Make up some ground there and I like his chances.

Follow Justin Phan on Twitter @jphanned | Follow Matt Buser on Twitter @busersports

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