If The Milwaukee Bucks Rebuild, They May Need To Start At Point Guard

What if I said "Dear reader, have a Brandon Jennings type of day." It could be interpreted 1000 different ways by 1000 different people. It has as much substance and depth as you want it to have. It might say more about the Bucks as an organization than it does about the player himself. It could mean something completely different from one day to the next, as the young point guard sorts through his peaks and valleys on the court. Who knows what it means. All I know is that I hope I'm not saying it five years from now.

I thought about calling this article "If The Bucks Rebuild," but I knew I wouldn't be fooling anyone. It just seems like it's going to happen. The core of Andrew Bogut and Brandon Jennings hasn't given any indication it can lead to meaningful contention. We have been willing to play along and hope for a back door into the playoffs these last few seasons as general manager John Hammond doubled down on the Bucks' surprising 46-win season and tried to make things work, but it simply hasn't. The injury excuse is just something under-performing teams use to mask their root problems, and at a bare minimum I hope I can one day say I support a franchise that manages to exceed expectations in the face of injuries rather than one that points to injuries as the reason for failure. That can't be too much to ask.

As yet another season spirals out of control, I have heard calls to trade Andrew Bogut, Ersan Ilyasova, Drew Gooden, Stephen Jackson, Carlos Delfino, future draft picks and anything else not tied down. Everything except Brandon Jennings, that is. Allow me to flip the trade talk on its head...

For some, Jennings is a shining beacon of hope and potential for a franchise that can't seem to break out of their cycle of crippling mediocrity. For others, Jennings is majority owner in the recent string of failure, where the the idea of sustained success is a pipe dream on the other side of yet another bumbled rebuilding process. With Andrew Bogut struggling to find a passable offensive game since his terrible fall nearly 22 months ago, there can be little argument that Brandon Jennings is the Bucks' most valuable player. Unless of course you believe 4-9 teams don't produce much value and don't have MVP awards. In that case he is part of the problem, rather than part of the eventual solution.

So much has happened with Brandon Jennings' game since the start of the 2011-12 season, and yet so much has stayed the same. The Bucks are still in a rut, he is still taking the majority of shots while squeezing out some points along the way, and the idea of double-digit assists only comes up when talking other players on the team. For a team saddled with big contracts and dead weight, why even talk about a kid on his rookie deal? Because the Bucks should be focused on the future. They need to know whether Jennings is part of the next "core" constructed to reach a level of meaningful competition in the NBA. He might be the only one still around the next time the franchise is nationally relevant. Soon enough he will be asking for a whole lot of money to stay in Milwaukee; I hope the Bucks respectfully decline.

I'm sure this premise will rub people the wrong way, but I too dreamed of great things for Brandon Jennings at one point in his career. I consider myself disillusioned by the weight of the evidence. You might consider me delusional. In any case, I intend to lay out my approach and thought process on how I got to where I am regarding the Bucks' point guard. Here it is:

Brandon Jennings has a terrific will to win, but he lacks self-awareness and ultimately undermines his ability to win. Brandon Jennings is a fierce competitor that brings attitude and edge to a Bucks team that is constantly playing the underdog role on the court and in the media. He is an affable young man and genuinely likable as a sports personality, but he just doesn't quite get it. By "it," I mean the fact that he is a terrible shooter. His points per game marks suggest he is a scoring talent, but his efficiency numbers hollow out the core of that assumption with harsh finality. He has actually improved his shooting significantly so far this season, settling in at the league average numbers at his position after spending two full seasons as one of the worst shooting PGs in the NBA, but has given it all back on defense. Again: his highest heights have hit the league average. Before I break down the defensive troubles, let me put his career shooting numbers (including 2011-12) into the proper context:

  • From the day Brandon Jennings entered the league in 09-10 to 1/19/2012, exactly 108 players have attempted 1500+ field goals (he ranks 26th with 2351 attempts). At 38.5 percent, Jennings has the worst field goal percentage of any of them, and it isn't even close. The only other player out of the entire group to even shoot below 40.0 percent is Trevor Ariza (39.7 percent on 1822 attempts). Shrinking the attempts threshold and moving down the list, the first player to match his ineptitude is 151st-ranked Rasual Butler (38.5 percent on only 1190 attempts).
  • In the available history of the Milwaukee Bucks franchise, meaning 1985-86 to 2011-12 on the Basketball-Reference database, he is the fourth-worst shooter during that period among players with 300+ field goal attempts in their Bucks career. Only Rafer Alston, Lindsey Hunter and Shawn Respert have amassed worse shooting numbers as a Buck than Jennings, but those players took nearly 1000 less attempts combined than Jennings has already launched during his two-plus years with the Bucks.

If you put Brandon Jennings on the court, he is going to shoot the ball far more than he will create for others and pass the ball. It's just a fact of life with Jennings. He once spoke about lofty assist goals and it sounded great, but he has still yet to average even 6 assists per game despite playing more minutes and games than nearly any other player on his teams. One line of argumentation forgives his failures by indicting his teammates, while it may contribute to the problem, it doesn't let Jennings off the hook for failing to create better opportunities and make his teammates better by getting them easy looks. Furthermore, the teammate bus toss argument misses the bigger point: Brandon Jennings doesn't want to pass, he wants to shoot. That's not to say he is selfish or doesn't want to win, just that he is tone deaf with regards to his deficiencies and reckless in his tendencies. There may exist some hypothetical world where his teammates would have missed more shots if Jennings had created chances for them, but the stone cold reality is that Jennings takes the majority of shots in the offense despite the shooting numbers posted in the previous section. Consider these additional nuggets:

  • In 09-10, every regular rotation player (500+ minutes) on the Bucks' roster had a higher true shooting percentage than Jennings, yet he took 300 more shots than the next closest player. If Jennings had created and passed to anyone else on the floor instead of taking his shot, the team would have had a better chance of scoring.
  • In 10-11, every regular rotation player (500+ minutes) on the Bucks' roster except Drew Gooden and Larry Sanders had a higher true shooting percentage than Jennings, but once again he took more shots than any other player on the roster. If Jennings had created and passed to anyone other than Drew Gooden or Larry Sanders instead of taking his shot, the team would have had a better chance of scoring.
  • In 11-12, Jennings has raised his TS% to slightly above the positional average, but Beno Udrih and Shaun Livingston are PGs on his own team that have still outperformed him in that department. Jon Leuer, Shaun Livingston, Beno Udrih and Tobias Harris all have higher true shooting percentages, yet Jennings has nearly taken more shots than all four players combined.
  • All the while, Jennings has only managed a career average of 5.3 assists per game. To get all Darren Rovell on you, he records one assists for every 6.31 minutes on the floor, but takes one shot every 2.26 minutes. Put another way, Jennings has a 2.79:1 shot attempts to assist ratio.

The organization deserves some grief for allowing him to play this brand of losing basketball so early in his career, but Jennings is ultimately responsible for his decisions on the court. Nobody is forcing him to shoot. Then again, apparently nobody is telling him that most of his teammates have been better shooters than him either. Why am I laying all of these failures at the doorstep of Brandon Jennings? Because he has been the player most responsible for the ineptitude of the offense during his career. Unfettered by a lack of opportunity or limited access to the ball, Jennings has chosen his own path and now has an enormous pattern of shoot-first conduct to show for it. If the Bucks make him a part of the future, he will continue to play as a combo guard and not as a point guard.

He is young and has recently shown some improvement, but his ceiling isn't high enough. Small point guards need to be good shooters, great distributors or both. They cannot be none of the above. I understand that Jennings is young, but all NBA players were young at one point. The youth argument doesn't hold weight for me when most young players turn out to be bad, and only a select few at each position rise to prominence in the NBA. Does every young player have a 55-point game on their resume? No. On the flip side, does every player have a 156-game resume that establishes them as most inaccurate volume shooter in the entire NBA? No. The dizzying heights he has reached in single games simply doesn't overcome the weight of his career profile for me anymore, and that includes his recent improvement.

Speaking of his improved play, I have dedicated myself to an honest look at what Jennings has managed to put together so far in 2011-12. Don't let the fact that I don't trust him as part of the core make you miss out on my analysis for this season, because it actually shows some surprising good trends for those who believe he has become a clutch closer in the 4th quarter.

Here is what I did:

  • I collected data on each game and broke down the performance of Jennings and his point guard counterpart for two segments of the game: Quarters 1-3 and the 4th Quarter. From there I looked at the shooting and distributing of each player and marked the winner in each category for each game, and then the overall advantage for the season-to-date. Green is the better performance, salmon is the inferior performance.

Here is what I found:

  • Either Brandon Jennings is a clutch closer, or he simply isn't good enough in the first three quarters against his counterparts. The fact that the opponent's point guards have shot better and scored more efficiently in the 39 quarters represented in the first segment doesn't come as much of a surprise, but two disturbing things do pop out for someone I used to consider an above-average defender at his position.
  • (1) Counterparts in the first three quarters of games have produced a 60.9 percent true shooting mark, which is an elite level. In 2010-11, the only PG in the entire NBA to finish the season with a TS% above 60.9 was Chauncey Billups. (2) Although the assist-to-turnover ratios are comparable, the opposing PGs have dished out 29 more assists than Jennings during that time period and taken the lead into the fourth quarter in 8 out of the 13 games.
  • Brandon Jennings has been remarkably good in the fourth quarter this season. He outperformed opposing point guards in every category over those 13 quarters of play, most notably by protecting the ball very well and scoring more points more efficiently than his counterpart. If this was the Brandon Jennings that showed up in every quarter, this entire article would never have been written. I would be wearing three Jennings jerseys stacked on top of each other while writing lengthy love letters about his game that could unchain the heart of even a beaten down analyst like my current self. Seriously good fourth quarter performances here, folks.
  • His fourth quarter performances haven't been good enough to overcome the inequities of the first three quarters on most nights. The Bucks have only taken leads into the fourth quarter in five games so far this season, but they have only won three of those games (home tilts against the T'Wolves, Wizards and Pistons). Meanwhile, Milwaukee has trailed entering the final period eight times and lost seven of them (with the win being a two-point deficit overcome to defeat the Spurs).
  • I like what Jennings has done in the fourth quarter, but I would trade it for a solid first three quarters every day of the week. I don't think the fourth quarter numbers are more indicative of his play this season than quarters 1-3 each night.

After having a light-hearted debate over the meaning of Jennings' fourth quarter against the Denver Nuggets -- where the Bucks entered the period trailing by 18-points and lost by 9 -- I stepped back to distill my thoughts about garbage time in the NBA. Here why I don't pay attention after the margin hits 18-points heading into the fourth quarter: I subscribe to the concept of win expectancy. I think we all do, to a certain extent, but for me it tells me when to stop the evaluation. No doubt Jennings flashed a competitive fire beyond the other players on the floor, but by that time it just couldn't change the outcome of the game.

To understand what I am saying, think of each game opening at 0-0 with both teams at roughly a 50-50 chance to win. With each event that occurs and each second that ticks off the clock, the calculus changes. When the Nuggets went up 63-44 at halftime, the Bucks' chances win had taken a huge hit due to the margin they had to make up and the time that had already ticked off the clock. From there recalculation would take into account the likelihood of a 20-point second-half comeback, which is certainly slim. I'd venture to say teams fail in that situation at least 90% of the time, which is why such a comeback would be a big story on the night if it happened. The same logic applies to the 18-point deficit in the fourth quarter, but the odds become even more slim because there is far less time on the clock to get the job done.

In other words, the Bucks had maybe a 1-2% chance to win the game. I'm glad Jennings pursued that chance with passion, but from the Nuggets perspective they cared more about the clock running out than the fact that they won by 9-points instead of 18-points. Defenses get more passive with big leads because the goal has already been accomplished. Teams seek to win games, not to win games by specific margins. That's why I don't care about garbage time. I care deeply about how the Bucks end up on the wrong side of garbage time far too often.

So here we are, 2600 words later but not far from where we started. Once again, the tantalizing results are contained in a small sample size, while the overwhelming weight of the evidence casts a dark and expansive shadow on Jennings as a player. It's almost odd that I timed this post for the best stretch of play Jennings has ever shown, but maybe he can't do what I think an offensive centerpiece or core player needs to be able to anyways. With Jennings it feels like death by a thousand cuts. Never anything major to signal crippling inefficiency or limits on his future development, but rather a creeping mediocrity that largely goes unnoticed amid a sea of other more expensive and eye-catching wreckage. Heck, maybe I'm looking in all the wrong places. In any case, I've made my mind up. When the Bucks finally begin rebuilding in earnest, I believe they are going to need a new point guard.

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