The Inbounds: Ellis and Jennings and the cliff of compromise
Something’s gotta give in Milwaukee. (Check out our Bucks season preview here.)
The Bucks traded their often-injured-but-still-awesome-when-he-played center Andrew Bogut last season to Golden State and took on Monta Ellis. Ellis was a promising young star. Then he was the guy who got injured in the moped accident. Then he was a terrific player again. Then he was an inefficient, ball-dominant, high-usage player you couldn’t win with. So yeah, Monta’s been around. Thing is, there have been weeks, not months, certainly not years, but weeks, where the idea of Monta Ellis being an MVP candidate wasn’t completely insane over the past four years. It was kind of insane, but not really. And that’s a pretty good player.
But when the Bucks mixed Ellis with inefficient, ball-dominant, high-usage Brandon Jennings, the results were... not good. And usually you use that phrase to say things were bad. But they weren’t. They just weren’t good. The Bucks were 2.4 points worse than their opponent per 100 possessions with the two on the floor together. Overall, the Bucks were exactly even. The Bucks were exactly as good as their opponent last year, according to NBA.com. That in and of itself says something, but let’s get back to Jennings and Ellis.
The Bucks weren’t substantially worse with those two on the floor together, just a little bit. Maybe a more disturbing sign was that in their final 12 games of the season, they were significantly worse, over 6 points per 100 possessions worse than the opponent.
So what’s the answer? Is this something that can just work itself out with the team getting healthy and spending more time together? Will they improve with a deeper roster? Will this work itself out?
These things will help, but the Bucks also need to get one of them to make a compromise. Either Ellis is going to have to play off-ball, or Jennings is going to have to be more of a distributor and playmaker. The fact that neither seems likely or sustainable is a problem. Ellis feels more comfortable creating off the dribble, even if his numbers are better in the pick and roll and spot-up (he’s also a monster in the post, this has been the same over the last few years; Skiles needs to use him more there). And Jennings is much the same.
At some point, there has to be compromise by one of the players. We saw in Miami what happens when you try the “let’s take turns” offense. It results in a stagnant offense that always seems to be trying to figure it out every possession. There’s got to be an integration of both players. It’s not that a scoring point and a shooting guard can’t coexist, it just becomes difficult when they both feel they need the ball in their hands. This only gets trickier when you factor in, you know, the other three guys on the floor.
Ellis’ re-trade value may be the best thing the Bucks have going for them. A versatile scorer who can initiate the offense, he could be whipped at the trade deadline for a rebuilding package. But if they are in a position to need a replacement player to get them into the playoffs, are they going to be able to move for a better player than Bogut? That’s the trick.
So instead, the Bucks have to figure out how to negotiate the two. It’s not entirely different from what the Knicks have going on in New York with Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire. The two have been disastrous on the floor together, but they have too much invested in them to do anything about it. You have what you have, and they risk alienating one or both of the players by forcing adjustments they’re not comfortable with or that take away their numbers especially with Jennings in a contract year.
It’s not even so much that one player or the other refuses to make sacrifices. It’s that there’s no real clear answer as to how you would integrate these two. You can be successful with either player, but the combination of the two presents a conundrum that would really be best solved by the presence of a superior player down low. That would create a natural hierarchy. But without it, the two continue to be just kind of “there” with the talented and athletic frontcourt trying to pick up the slack.
This is where the Bucks’ season will be decided, and as a result, the future of the franchise.