Essay: Why The Bucks Should Pass On Brandon Jennings
Talking competitive basketball teams for a second: unless your roster has LeBron James on it, chances are you either have, or are seeking, an elite point guard. In my opinion its always been basketball’s most important position, and at the NBA level there has never been a time better than the present to support the theory. While it isn’t the be all end all of successful roster construction, having a franchise point guard is excruciatingly important if you want to compete for a title.
It’s why even with Kevin Durant, the Thunder re-signed Russell Westbrook. It’s why the Bulls are nobodies without Derrick Rose. It’s why the only player Danny Ainge would swap Rajon Rondo for was Chris Paul. It’s why the Spurs have been so consistently machine-like over the past eight years. It’s why Mark Cuban and Mikhail Prokhorov don’t like each other all that much. It’s why the Lakers were willing to guarantee a creaky 38-year-old $9.7 million when he turns 42.
I don’t want to say these players grow on trees, because they don’t. Far from it. But look at the draft these past couple of years, and you’ll see how even the league’s non-contenders are scheming their way to the top. Washington has John Wall, Minnesota has Ricky Rubio, Detroit has Brandon Knight, Cleveland has Kyrie Irving, Denver has Ty Lawson, Philadelphia has Jrue Holiday, and Portland has Damian Lillard. The Houston Rockets gave a relatively long term big money contract to Jeremy Lin when Daryl Morey doesn’t give big money contracts out to pretty much anybody. Toronto gave up a future lottery pick for Kyle Lowry. The Grizzlies invested a major chunk of their future in Mike Conley. And the Pacers and Suns gave George Hill and Goran Dragic each over $40 million.
The list of teams that either don’t have a franchise point guard or someone on the roster who they think could eventually grow into the role is small, and the trickiest of all these situations is Milwaukee and Brandon Jennings, an average point guard who wants to be paid like he’s something more. Writing about where the Bucks are as a franchise is a story for another time, but let it be said that as far as NBA organizations go, if they re-sign Jennings either before Halloween or next July, they’ll have solidified themselves as having the worst self-awareness in all of basketball.
A few days ago, NBA.com’s David Aldridge reported that several teams were planning to decline the option of extending their 2009 first round draft picks before they absolutely had to. There’s some seriously notable names on this list, including Tyreke Evans, Stephen Curry, and James Harden, but Brandon Jennings might be the most polarizing (truly saying something when a competing name happens to be Tyreke Evans). Here’s what Aldridge wrote in regards to Jennings and the Bucks working out a deal before the league mandated Halloween deadline:
“Pretty quiet,” said a source involved in the discussions on Sunday. Don’t think anything will happen here, given the Bucks’ payout to Ersan Ilyasova over the summer and their recent deals with Drew Gooden and John Salmons. And in this case, Jennings may be more interested in seeing exactly how green other pastures are.
Just because there aren’t any talks to ink an extension before Halloween doesn’t rule out the possibility of both parties coming to an agreement at some point in the summer, but if it gets to that point there’s a possibility someone pushes a max offer sheet underneath Jennings’ nose. Matching that would be a cheaper option for Milwaukee than anything both sides would agree to right now, but my whole point here is that they should do neither.
As someone who can eventually develop into a team-leading stud, I don’t particularly like Jennings’ skill set. He’s a point guard who isn’t particularly adept at getting those around him involved or making them noticeably better in any significant way—which is to say, on this roster, he isn’t an above average point guard. Based on their personnel/draft moves over the last few years, I’m not sure the Bucks are interested all that much in winning basketball games and building a meaningful championship contender, and signing Jennings to a max deal would only fall in line with their persistence to be hit mediocrity.
Apart from not turning the ball over and producing a large amount of assists, generally speaking, the point guard in today’s NBA needs to do two things really well: get in the paint at will (perhaps the easiest way to create a wide open three-pointer or lay-up) and make the defense respect his ability to score once he gets there, and shoot outside shots at a reasonably high efficiency rate.
Let’s make a few contemporary comparisons. Last year Jennings averaged the exact same minutes and assists per game as Russell Westbrook (Jennings also had a significantly smaller turnover rate). This would be a hopeful sign if he could get to the rim and score 20 points seemingly at will, but unfortunately he can’t. This isn’t to say Jennings is awful at getting into the paint, because that wouldn’t be true. He averaged more attempts at the rim per game last season than Tony Parker and Ty Lawson. But the subsidiary difference between them was that Parker made 65.7% of his shots at the rim and Lawson made 62.8%. At just 57.7%, Jennings is considerably worse (although up from 51.4% in the previous year).
Jennings had a free-throw rate of 0.21 last year, sandwiching him between Luke Ridnour and Mario Chalmers among point guards who average at least 25 minutes a night. (For comparison’s sake Parker posted a free throw rate of 0.32 and Lawson was at 0.28.) Moving forward, the Bucks have three options: 1) Re-sign Jennings to a max deal, making him the highest paid player on the team and a long term pick and roll partner with Ersan Ilyasova (how exciting for nobody!), 2) Let Jennings walk, target stop gap guys like Jose Calderon, Darren Collison, or D.J. Augustin in the offseason, get in the lottery—as quickly as possible—and use the pick on a new point guard.
If the Bucks ever want to be viewed as a respectable basketball organization, they’d be best to bite the bullet and go with door number two. It would be a little shocking and second guessed by some, but if Milwaukee has ever found themselves doubting how far they can really go with Brandon Jennings as their point guard, the decision of whether or not they should let him go sort of answers itself.