Another Bucks comeback, another Bucks collapse, and another loss. All in a night's work for the current iteration of the Milwaukee Bucks, who lost their fourth straight in Philly on Wednesday night. But afterwards the primary talking points (predictably) had less to do with the Bucks' inability to score down the stretch and more to do with the absence of Brandon Jennings from the game's final 21 minutes.
Coach Jim Boylan sat Jennings less than three minutes into the third quarter after Jennings (who had been scoreless in 17 minutes) struggled to keep up with the Sixers' Jrue Holiday. The move worked initially, as Monta Ellis took over as point guard and helped the Bucks storm back from a 12-point deficit to lead by as many as seven early in the fourth. The tougher part for Jennings to swallow was that he never made it back in the game, even with Milwaukee struggling to score down the stretch and his replacement J.J. Redick similarly misfiring for much of the night. Charles Gardner reports:
"I just felt I needed to do something to try to energize our team," Boylan said. "We played with pretty good energy toward the end of the first half, and then we came out in the second half and we were right back to how we had started the game.
"When you play that position (point guard) there comes a lot of responsibility. The offense is initiated from that position. The talent at that position in this league is outstanding.
"So you have to bring it every single night, at both ends of the floor. If that's not happening, you need to do something. I just felt I needed to do something tonight, so that's what I did."
Jennings' was of course not satisfied with that rationale, which marked the third time in Boylan's tenure that he's opted to use Ellis and Redick down the stretch while Jennings watched.
"This is the third time I've been benched in the second half and it hasn't been under (former coach Scott) Skiles," Jennings said. "You always want to be out there to help your team.
"I don't see any all-stars in this locker room so I think everybody should be held accountable, like anybody else. There's no maxed-out (contract) players in this locker room; there's no all-stars. So don't try to put me on a pedestal and just give everybody else the freedom to do whatever they want."
Ignoring his wonky use of metaphor (isn't a pedestal a good thing?), Jennings isn't wrong to be frustrated, nor is he wrong to want accountability from everyone. He's a competitor, he's proud; you'd never expect him to be happy watching the closing minutes of a loss from the sideline. But his reference to Skiles' tenure is hardly an argument in favor of accountability, no matter how much we might romanticize Skiles' supposedly egalitarian approach to rotations. In fact it only draws attention to the double-standard that seemed to apply to Jennings under Skiles.
That's because anyone who has watched Jennings over the past few years can tell you that his defense has frequently been haphazard or even non-chalant, and yet it never seemed to impact his minutes under Skiles. Some of it is within reason: his lack of size necessarily makes it more difficult for him to fight through screens and body bigger point guards, while the heavy burden he has carried offensively will at times unsurprisingly result in, shall we say, strategic conservation of energy on the defensive end. Most of the same criticisms also apply to Monta Ellis, who has his own set of defensive shortcomings yet has still been tasked with guarding opposing point guards at times under Boylan--presumably to hide Jennings.
But while Skiles' ambivalence towards poor shot selection seemed to apply equally to everyone on the roster, his willful ignorance of Jennings' defensive shortcomings was far more puzzling and matched only by his willingness to stomach Drew Gooden as his starting center last spring. The data doesn't do Jennings any favors: the Bucks are a whopping 9.1 pts/100 possessions better defensively without him this year and similarly surrendered +10.8 pts/100 with him on the court last year. Those numbers are nothing short of hideous, particularly considering that the Bucks haven't had any good defenders at the point to make Jennings' numbers look bad in comparison. It's the flip side to Beno Udrih's sudden transformation into a +/- darling while he was in Milwaukee. And in case you're wondering, the Bucks are 3.3 pts/100 worse defensively with Ellis on the court, but he's more than made up for it offensively, where the Bucks are over 6 pts/100 better when Ellis is in. In contrast, the Bucks actually score slightly less when Jennings is in.
In fairness to Jennings, he has at times been a game-changer with his gambling style, racking up steals and vexing opposing guards with his occasional full-court pressure. He doesn't seem a hopeless case. The problem is that you never know when it will pay dividends. The only constant is that opposing guards seem to dart by Jennings far more regularly than he gets by them, a frustration I've felt dating back to his rookie year--when his defensive stats were actually pretty solid. For that reason there should be nothing out of the ordinary with Jennings being benched at times. He hasn't consistently brought it on the defensive end for some time, and when he's in one of his shooting slumps--and he's missed 28 of his last 33--it's difficult to argue Jennings is a positive force on the court. That's hardly a phrase you want to be uttering about a guy expected to haul in eight figures annually this summer, but that's a separate discussion which we can talk ourselves blue in the face over soon enough.
The double-edged sword of pseudo-stardom
All that said, in hindsight it would have seemed wise to get Jennings some minutes early in the fourth quarter in Philly. After all, Ellis and Redick appeared to tire as the game wore on, and keeping a player of Jennings' caliber engaged is paramount to getting the most of the Bucks' roster. Reinserting Jennings early in the fourth might not have turned the tide of the game, but Boylan didn't need to sit Jennings the entire second half to make a point. Pulling him early in the third sent a message; not putting him back in at all felt more like turning the knife. Boylan no doubt also didn't expect Philly to blitz the Bucks into oblivion the way they did in the fourth quarter, so riding the guys who had brought Milwaukee back is also defensible. We also don't know everything that goes on behind closed doors, so Boylan may have had other reasons for coming down hard on Jennings.
Either way, the Bucks' current situation underscores the challenging nature of NBA ego-politics, where psychology, money and locker room dynamics can collide in unpredictable fashion. That's especially true for players like Jennings and Ellis, whose defensive shortcomings and wayward shot selection make their contributions to the task of winning basketball games highly volatile. When they're on, they can be great. When they're not...well, it can get ugly.
And the truth is that if Jennings doesn't react kindly to being held "accountable," the Bucks' coaching staff and the organization as a whole can probably take a long look in the mirror, too. For all the spectacular moments he's delivered, Jennings has yet to play at the consistently high level befitting of an all-star or franchise cornerstone. But that hasn't stopped the Bucks from frequently propping Jennings up as a star, has it? Whether it's the freedom he's been afforded on the court by Skiles, the leading role he's played in Milwaukee's marketing efforts, or the Bucks' insistence that they'll retain him at any cost this summer, much responsibility has been placed on Jennings' shoulders since he arrived as a 19-year-old in 2009. Much of that is understandable given his charisma, flair and the lack of brighter stars on Milwaukee's roster. But considering how badly everyone wants Jennings to be a star, should we really be surprised when he starts to believe it himself?
To Jennings' credit, he didn't come away demanding favorable treatment last night, but his frustration was likely driven at least in part by the fact that he has been treated differently for much of his tenure in Milwaukee. That hasn't always been easy--or fair for that matter--but you also wonder if Jennings realizes that the star treatment he's received in Milwaukee is largely one of circumstance, with a fair bit of it having little to do with Jennings' actual performance. If he thinks every team with cap space will be lining up to pay him Ty Lawson or Stephen Curry money this summer, he may be in for an unpleasant surprise.
The obvious challenge for Boylan now is finding the balance between motivating and alienating his point guard. This is of course what coaches are paid to do, though it won't be any easier given how Jennings has been handled over the course of his first four seasons. And make no mistake: it will rely as much on Boylan's judgment as Jennings' willingness to step up, tune out the noise and play the way he's capable of playing. Both men's futures in Milwaukee likely depend on it.