How much is Brandon Jennings worth? It's a conversation that used to be easy to start and difficult to finish. What Jennings accomplished in the NBA prior to his 22nd birthday allowed us to dream beyond the normal limits of his physical template; to stretch and bend our expectations like the stylized tail of the cursive "P" headlining his Potential. Let's not forget that Jennings did enough to encourage Bucks fans desperate for a superstar savior to imagine a brighter future.
Things have changed quite a bit since BJ turned 23. Now it's difficult to start the conversation on his value, and easy to finish it. He's too small. He's too inefficient. He's too far away from being the perennial all-star player some had imagined he could become. His perceived upside is no longer floating in the open air, free to expand like the tail of the P in Potential. His future has become a prisoner to overblown expectations, trapped in the half-circle at the top of that lead letter. Whether you enjoy the imagery or not -- I think it's fitting that "P" is slightly above middle ground, alphabetically speaking -- the Brandon Jennings conversation is still, in a twisted and tortured way, all about Potential.
Most of the important parties have already weighed in on the topic. Brandon and his agent, Jeff Schwartz, reportedly provided the Bucks with salary demands for any long-term deal. The Bucks, in turn, spent their energy pursuing a four-year, $32 million offer sheet for rival restricted free agent point guard Jeff Teague. NBA executives throughout the league have certainly expressed something about Jennings by refusing to extend a competitive offer sheet, or an enticing sign-and-trade proposal. The Sport VU cameras installed at the BMO Harris Bradley Center and elsewhere around the NBA have dutifully recorded every conceivable detail of Brandon's game. Maybe the new analytics-minded executives are ready to make an example of Mr. Jennings in light of stricter salary cap rules. Ten years ago he'd have signed a new deal worth $10+ million annually by now, and both sides would have been ecstatic to do it. Maybe the new NBA market truly has spoken.
Or maybe we're forgetting that the world of restricted free agency works differently than the open market. Jennings and his agent have every right to ask for more than he's worth. The Bucks hold most of the cards with their RFA guard, so they have the leverage to offer less than BJ is worth, at least while they wait for an offer sheet from another team to push the price higher. Other teams have the incentive to avoid extending an offer sheet that comes in much too high or much too low -- to keep the Bucks from gaining surplus value on a matched offer, or to avoid losing surplus value on an overpriced bid. The $4.5 million qualifying offer that hangs over the entire process basically speaks for itself. Restricted free agency ain't free. Ask Jeff Teague. For players with a true value somewhere below the max dollar amount for an offer sheet, things often move slowly.
But look who's talking now, right? I've written... (one), (two), (three), (four), (five), (six), (seven), (eight)....at least nine feature stories in which I've picked apart problematic elements of Brandon's game. There are plenty of valid reasons to remain skeptical about the young guard. I don't consider myself a hater, however. I've only ever hated the idea of giving him an eight-figure annual salary based on his raw stats -- something the Bucks suddenly don't look motivated to do. With this new information in mind, it's time for me to re-frame the conversation.
I know Jennings has value. He may never be the ideal centerpiece scorer for a franchise, and he hasn't shown the ability to overcome the hard limits of his small stature, but Brandon is still a 23-year-old guard with 289 NBA starts under his belt. Kevin Pelton of ESPN is a brighter basketball mind than I will ever be, and he's a big-time believer in analytics, yet he listed Jennings second behind Chris Paul on his list of impact free agent PGs for the summer of 2013. The lack of big money offers could be the best thing that's ever happened to Brandon. He may finally realize he needs to change his approach to the game and apply his vast talent in different ways.
We all know there's still something there with BJ. If he were to leave Milwaukee, whether in a sign-and-trade deal or as a free agent next season, everyone would secretly worry that he'd reach his ceiling somewhere else. Getting Jennings back at the right price could be a solid move for the franchise. That's the simple truth at this point in the summer.
I understand why Bucks fans are completely uninterested in half-measures and partial solutions-- and that's what Jennings would be, even at the right price -- but weren't we all excited about the idea of adding Jeff Teague at $8 million per year? Fresh start rhetoric aside, that's a half-measure if I've ever heard one. It was probably the right price for Teague, but there's also a right price for Jennings that can't be far off that mark.
Here are my re-framed thoughts on the Jennings/Bucks situation:
(1) The Milwaukee Bucks should be focused on collecting young assets.
(2) Brandon Jennings is still a young asset with long-term value.
(3) He's worth more than the one-year, $4.5 million qualifying offer.
(4) He's worth less than the $12 million / year figure that he's reportedly seeking.
(5) He probably wants more than the $32 million over four years that Milwaukee offered to Jeff Teague.
(6) The Bucks probably aren't keen on exceeding the $9-10 million mark.
(7) Jennings is under more pressure to cave than the Bucks are, because he would need to assume the harsh risks of injury and/or loss of future value under the QO to reach unrestricted free agency.
(8) There's still plenty of time for the Bucks to maximize the value of BJ as an asset.
(9) There's still plenty of time for the two sides to reach an agreement on a long-term deal.
(10) I see no plausible scenario where the Bucks would drastically overpay Jennings at this point in the process, so we can safely focus on value he could provide. There's nothing left to fear.
(11) A reasonable contract for a player under the age of 25 isn't something Bucks fans should get worked up about.
(12) Brandon Jennings still has value, and the Bucks are closer to finding it than ever before. Somebody had to say it, and I'm glad it was me.