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With NBA free agency nearing its end, Milwaukee Bucks restricted free agent point guard Brandon Jennings stood out as one of the biggest names not yet committed to a team for the 2013-14 season. As basketball stars and fans alike waited for a resolution, the questions regarding his employer and future were clear. Would Jennings stay with the Bucks because of a lack of options, locked into a situation without clear paths to improvement? Would he accept his qualifying offer and cast his lot with unrestricted free agency next summer? Or would he find another team, accepting a new start below his preferred salary?
We now appear to have a resolution that could work for all parties. As reported by Y!'s own Adrian Wojnarowski, Jennings has agreed to a contract with the Detroit Pistons for $24 million over three years and engineered a sign-and-trade deal that will send guard Brandon Knight, forward Khris Middleton, and center Slava Krastov to the Bucks. Jennings's new deal is significantly less lucrative than the four-year, $40-million extension offer he turned down prior to the 2012-13 season, although it will allow him to become a free agent in three years, when he will be just 26 years old.
The problems with Jennings's game are well known — he struggles to finish at the rim, selects bad shots, and hasn't improved much statistically since his impressive rookie season in 2009-10. While averages of 17.5 ppg and 6.5 apg look solid at first glance, Jennings has shot below 40 percent from the field in three of his four seasons, hasn't added a great deal of strength, and tends to gamble defensively (likely to compensate for his build) in a way that causes him to be out of position with regularity. For that matter, Jennings has developed a reputation as someone who believes himself to be better than he is, creating the impression that he doesn't understand his ideal role on a quality team. He's a quick, talented player who has never learned to rein in his volatility.
On the other hand, Jennings has not always been put in the best situation as a member of the Bucks. When they acquired Monta Ellis before the 2012 trade deadline, they added another ball-dominating, small-ish guard with skills and deficiencies similar to those of Jennings. The partnership exacerbated many of his flaws, ensuring that the Bucks couldn't hide Jennings on defense or surround him with players inclined to take full advantage of his creativity. That trade highlighted the ways in which the Bucks have lacked direction for several seasons, which could have harmed Jennings's development and willingness to adjust his game to the needs of the team. The Bucks earned the East's final playoff spot in 2013, but it's hard to remember a postseason participant with less of a sense of their own future.
The Pistons, after their own period of listless irrelevance, appear to be reaching for something more, even if it's not exactly clear what that might be. Coming on the heels of their acquisition of athletic forward Josh Smith, Jennings represents Detroit's second major free-agent deal of the summer. With Knight heading to Milwaukee, the Pistons have effectively committed to Jennings as their backcourt leader of the future, a young point guard who can team with lottery pick Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to form a long-term combo on the perimeter. Despite his faults, Jennings is much better suited to this role than the one he held during his murky partnership with Ellis in Milwaukee. His skills require him to handle the ball, and it helps that the Pistons have surrounded him with capable finishers. Smith, athletic man-child Andre Drummond, and skilled big man Greg Monroe present Jennings with more offensive options than he ever had with the Bucks (they may even cover for some of his bad shots with offensive rebounds). For a player that thrives on confidence, this kind of organizational support could make a big difference.
It's not clear that all the Pistons' pieces fit. Jennings still needs to prove that he can be a willing distributor, and any team that adds him and Smith in the same summer has to expect many more poorly considered shots in its future. Yet, for the first time in many years, the Pistons appear to be adding very talented players with high ceilings. They overpaid for Smith at $56 million over four years, but the Jennings deal gives them three years to see if a 23-year-old grows into a more dependable point guard. These are the risks that perennial lottery teams have to take if they wish to become relevant again.
The Bucks, meanwhile, are courting the sort of all-encompassing irrelevance that the Pistons are looking to escape. Knight is a decent option in the backcourt, but he also struggles with his shooting (shooting 40.7 percent from the field last season) and is best known for getting embarrassed on other players' highlights. After losing Jennings, Ellis, and J.J. Redick this summer, the Bucks are likely to enter next season with Knight, Luke Ridnour, O.J. Mayo, and the recently signed Gary Neal as their guards, with each player being best fit for a bench role. The youthful frontcourt of Larry Sanders, Ersan Ilyasova, and John Henson shows promise, but they do not constitute the core of a solid or even rapidly improving team. It's not clear what the Bucks want to be or how they plan to do it. They are likely to be very bad, yet it doesn't seem like the result of a rebuilding plan so much as an unfortunate byproduct of their own uncertainty.
These two teams are heading in different directions, neither of which may lead to much success. The Pistons have traded in their perpetual chase for the eighth-overall draft pick — just bad enough to have no hopes of the playoffs, just good enough to lose out on the best rookies — in the hopes of reestablishing themselves as a relevant NBA franchise. It's unclear how good they'll be, but they'll be watchable. The Bucks, in contrast, are falling out of the league's middle class towards a situation reminiscent of what the Pistons are trying to escape. Neither option is ideal — nevertheless, it's obvious which team's fans will enter the 2013-14 season with a modicum of hope.
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