The league has announced 2012 NBA All-Star Reserves for the Western and Eastern Conference, and Milwaukee Bucks point guard Brandon Jennings didn't quite make the cut. Instead, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson will represent the East as backup guards. Meh. An all-star berth would have been nice, but ultimately it doesn't define Jennings as a player. He's more than that label, just as Andrew Bogut is too. Milwaukee has been a hard place to gain national recognition, but Jennings has always embraced being the underdog. At least until Tuesday's game against the Phoenix Suns.
His emo sleepwalking routine in the last couple games certainly didn't do him any favors, but as a true sample size guy, I give more weight to the first 167 games of his career as a fiery competitor over his last two games as a disinterested bystander. Why he has completely eschewed his role as a playmaker -- which carries an obligation to create when not scoring -- just days before selections were announced invites too many depressing thoughts for Bucks fans to ponder.
Getting snubbed will always mean something different than playing like someone who deserves to be left off the roster. Whether he mentally blurred that distinction in a moment of weakness is beyond my pay grade, but his performance on the court has looked different recently. Hopefully this little blip ends up carrying even less meaning than the all-star label moving forward. After all, there is still much work to do. Let me explain.
Here is the full list for the 2012 All-Star Game Roster:
|East All-Stars||West All-Stars|
|Derrick Rose||Chris Paul|
|Dwyane Wade||Kobe Bryant|
|Carmelo Anthony||Kevin Durant|
|LeBron James||Blake Griffin|
|Dwight Howard||Andrew Bynum|
|Chris Bosh||LaMarcus Aldridge|
|Roy Hibbert||Russell Westbrook|
|Luol Deng||Kevin Love|
|Paul Pierce||Dirk Nowitzki|
|Deron Williams||Tony Parker|
|Andre Iguodala||Steve Nash|
|Joe Johnson||Marc Gasol|
First of all, Kyrie Irving was probably next in line for the honor as a point guard behind Deron Williams. There really isn't much of a reason to be upset. Let's just pretend D-Will can't go and Rajon Rondo is not considered: The Bucks are 11-14 and the Cavs are 10-14. Cleveland's roster is nothing to write home about, and their post-LeBron footprint in the national media didn't exactly give Irving an upper hand. Take a look at what might have been even if it came down to Jennings and Irving (ignoring Danny Granger, Rajon Rondo and the like):
Now the last 10 games (including both the heroics against the Heat and the recent emo-Jennings tank job):
My advice is to avoid the temptation to cry foul and simply congratulate those who earned their spots on the Eastern Conference All-Star roster. The Kyrie Irvings and Brandon Jenningses of the world will just have to wait. Now on to the important stuff.
Regardless of his All-Star status, the important thing for most Bucks fans is that the young centerpiece player has made material improvements to both his production and his efficiency so far in the 2011-12 NBA season. He's doing nearly everything better than he has ever done it before, and naturally, everyone has become more curious about the important "how" and "why" questions that underlie the improvement. The facile narrative espoused and repackaged in the national media is that Jennings is merely making a "natural" third-year improvement to his game that may or may not be swag-fueled. In other words, nobody seems to have any idea beyond the manifest destiny assumption that he was bound to get better eventually.
To me, that forced narrative is unsatisfying on many levels. While I believe that some players do make subtle improvements over time as they shift into different roles, develop different skills and fine-tune their decision-making on the court, there is still the harsh reality that many players do not. The vast wasteland of busted picks in nearly every NBA draft class is enough to prove there is no law of nature that says third-year point guards must make a serious improvement to their game. Along the same lines, there are plenty of examples that show some players just get it from day one. Look no further than guys like Kyrie Irving and Stephen Curry for confirmation.
Of course, Jennings is clearly not a bust, but his value is somewhat in flux at this point. His role has never really changed. He's either the low-grade volume scorer sent to banish the Bucks to mediocrity, or the explosive scorer to save them from it. Or maybe he's both and just oscillates between the two extremes unpredictably. After all, everything from his shot opportunities to his minutes have stayed almost exactly the same over the course of his entire career. Sure, he has eliminated that dreadful step back jumper from his repertoire, but his half-court execution has left plenty to be desired.
I've been over Brandon's struggles to become an efficient player in great detail before, but even this season has not softened me to the "if you bang your head against a brick wall long enough you will eventually break through" logic implied by the third-year leap narrative. That glossy explanation is effective only to the extent that it tugs on the deepest desires of every fan: they desperately want their team's young players to get better and emerge as stars. In reality, when you bang your head against a wall, no matter how eloquently you do so, the wall usually wins; most NBA players never come close to being stars.
There has to be a better answer, or at least a more evidence-based approach to explaining Jennings' improvement on offense. Putting my curiosity and frustration to good use, I looked more closely into Jennings' career and season splits. In watching Bucks games this season, it feels as if Jennings is more comfortable, productive, and efficient when operating in a wide-open and fast-paced offense of attack. I decided to see if there was any substance to back up what my scouting eye spotted.
In up-tempo games -- which I classify as any contest with a pace rating 96 or higher, typically the cutoff for the top-10 fastest attacks in the NBA per season -- the defense is less often prepared to close off lanes for penetration and routinely an extra set away from closeouts on three-point jumpshots. The hypothesis that Jennings can maximize the value of his skillset and minimize the impact of his deficiencies not only makes sense in theory, it connects with Young Buck's roots as a pro-am enthusiast/participant and all-out dead nuts scorer in flashy exhibitions. As Mitchell might say, he can more easily tap into his inner Allen Iverson.
Furthermore, Andrew Bogut's injury has allowed (forced?) the Bucks to refit their offense with Jennings as the true epicenter. The days of crying for post touches for Bogut are out the window, and there is nobody else worthy of filling that same role. Jennings has never been particularly good at running half-court offense -- the Bucks are dead last in the NBA in pick-and-roll offense -- but the saving grace of Bogut's ability to draw defenders and passing effectively out of the post are now gone. Slowing the game down to take advantage of a top-tier NBA defender is an option removed from the discussion for the first time in Jennings' career. If Scott Skiles ever wanted to experiment with running a high-paced attack and trying to outscore other teams, now is the time. God forbid, they might even entertain a few Bucks fans along the way.
But would it work? That's the question I set out to answer. After painstakingly collecting, calculating and analyzing his entire NBA career relative to game pace, I came away with what can only be described as a truly Brandon Jennings-esque result. The narrative only fits if you want to fit. The stats provide just enough to tell you exactly what you want to hear anyways. There are pockets of small samples that will make sugarplums dance in your head and larger swaths of data that only make you wish you were thinking about sugarplums. And perhaps most importantly, the findings are really damn interesting, just like the man himself.
Here's what I did: I looked at his entire NBA career -- organized by each individual season and analyzed on a per game basis -- and compared his performance in fast-paced games against the more plodding alternative. Unsurprisingly, the Bogut-led Bucks have tended to play games at a slower pace to take advantage of their defensive efficiency, but there have still been more than enough games to run the splits in each season. Here is what the splits revealed in each season of Jennings' career.
The Rookie Season
Ah yes, the year of the ill-fated stepback jumper. Big defensive plays by Bogut and truly efficient play from Luke Ridnour helped the Bucks really push the pace (especially for a defensive-minded team) in 30 of the 82 games, and Jennings responded to the increased tempo with better play. Although I analyzed the data for his entire career all at once, the presentation here helps to develop a narrative that I wished fit a bit better in year two. Jennings essentially did everything better when the Bucks played faster.
The struggles in half-court offense had a lot to do with misplaced in his hop-back jumper in pick-and-roll and a more pronounced reliance on long two-point attempts, but when he found the open court his shots found the bottom of the net more often. The splits still show rookie Jennings as a low-grade volume scorer on the year, but the best of his rookie season -- including the 55-point explosion against the Golden State Warriors -- occurred in fast-paced contests.
The Sophomore Season
This is the year that confuses me, as it completely cuts against the otherwise sound theory that fast basketball brings out the best in Young Buck. With only 12 qualifying games to go on in the dreadful 10-11 campaign, Skiles and the Bucks didn't give him a real chance to play his style anyways. The half-court execution still left much to be desired, but his efficiency actually improved overall. If his three-point shooting had stayed anywhere near the levels established in his rookie season, especially in fast-paced games, there would have been a lot more to be excited about . The numbers were still below positional averages across the board, but better execution in the half court got obscured by a complete collapse in shooting efficiency in transition. Maybe some of it can be explained by the broken foot.
The "Leap" Year
Terrible step-back jumper? Phased out. Up-tempo production? Really freaking good. Execution in the half court? Hey, two out of three 'aint bad. Essentially, 157 games are played at the same below-average level, but the most recent 11 up-tempo games flash something much, much better. If Jennings is reaching a comfort level in the open court and gets an opportunity to push the ball whenever he wants, we might just find out what the Bucks actually have at point guard. If he can produce anything like those 11 games on a more consistent basis, I will gladly eat my words. It's a level of production that would justify all the talk about his physical gifts and star potential.
A faster pace is not a panacea, as his career splits still leave him below-average in most categories -- but an incremental solution is likely staring the Bucks dead in the face. Run. Run like real expectations of winning are chasing you. Even the harshest realist (like me), who might say the 11-game surge this season is more a product of luck than any fundamental and material transformation in shot-making ability and is likely to regress to the less-pronounced splits -- which is eminently more reasonable than surmising he has suddenly developed above-average shooting skills that only manifest at a pace above 96 -- still believes running is the best thing the Bucks can do.
Aside from developing a more entertaining product to get butts into the seats, it is almost certainly a strategy that will once and for all reveal what the team has in Brandon Jennings. The right thing to do is find out what Jennings can do in his system, because below-average play isn't quite as charming or swagtastic when the rookie scale salary inflates to 10+ million per year in the next deal he signs. Maybe that's part of why he has been so passive since his big night against the Miami Heat. If the Bucks waste this opportunity and ignore these splits, we are all screwed, because nobody can save them from themselves.