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NBA Trade Season: Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis and the win-now vs. win-later debate

With half of Milwaukee's roster hitting free agency next summer, it stands to reason that the Bucks could look very different a year from now. But with the Bucks in the thick of the Eastern playoff race, would they roll the dice on a deal involving Monta Ellis, Brandon Jennings or Ersan Ilyasova (among others)?

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The SB Nation hoops network has trade fever, and the only prescription is...writing 1,500 words about it. Here we go!

Is your team a buyer, seller or both (please explain)?

I'd have to say both. Or...neither?

It's no secret that the Bucks want to make it back to the playoffs, and they've started well enough that a deadline firesale seems unlikely, even with a roster loaded full of useful players on expiring deals. If and when the Bucks make a move, it's likely that they'll continue to delicately toe the line between winning now without mortgaging the future in the process. Of course you can debate whether that approach qualifies as small market prudence or the sort of indecisiveness that will doom them to 35-40 wins for the rest of eternity, but it is what it is. So the challenge for the Bucks is being realistic about the future without disrupting the good things they've been able to do so far.

For now, speculation has understandably focused on the Bucks' dynamically frustrating backcourt. Over the weekend, Marc Stein mentioned the possibility of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis being dealt by the deadline, though he includes an important caveat that might render the speculation moot to begin with:

Other names that dribbled out this week as likely candidates to be dealt this trade season include Milwaukee's expiring-contract backcourt duo of Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings, based on the premise that the Bucks, if they start drifting out of playoff contention, won't want to risk losing their smallish scorers for nothing in free agency.

Ric Bucher tweeted similar sentiments on Sunday, alluding vaguely to the notion of a Jennings trade without actually saying the Bucks are interested in that scenario:

Several teams are already quietly assessing him to decide what he should be worth to them and the Bucks are aware of that....

Now, I have no one from the Bucks saying that they're ready and willing to move Jennings, but a source indicated he's more inclined to make his way elsewhere than Evans is.

It seems unlikely that the Bucks will be out of playoff contention two months from now, so barring the wheels coming off does that mean Jennings and Ellis are safe? Well, let's start with the reality of what those two bring to the team. As unstoppable as he might be at times, Ellis most definitely should be available regardless of the Bucks' record. Though he certainly makes the Bucks a more entertaining team, Ellis is like an exotic sports car: expensive and fun, but not something you want to rely on day in and day out. You may recall Steve referring to Monta before the season specifically as a sports car you'd find on CraigsList (ouch), but note that we have yet to find evidence of John Hammond marketing him through that channel...yet.

Ellis can opt out of the $11 million he's owed in 13/14, which seems like a decent bet given a) he seems, ahem, open to playing elsewhere and b) he probably has one more big(ish) contract in him and may want to lock that up sooner rather than later. So for now you can probably just think of him as an expiring deal with all the usual questions that go with that status. How much does he help you right now? Some, but not as much as his paycheck or field goal attempts would suggest. What can you get for him in a trade? Probably not a ton, but plenty of teams would love an electric scorer even if just for half a season. Perhaps that fetches you a useful, younger rotation player and a marginal draft pick?

To be honest I'd be content with that haul, but I doubt the Bucks will be able to stomach that kind of move if the team is in the thick of the Eastern playoff pack two months from now. The casual fan would likely view any Ellis trade as capitulation, and if things go sideways it leaves the Bucks open to easy second-guessing. Why'd you trade away our leading scorer?!??! That's why the "Monta leaves for nothing next summer" scenario still seems the most likely, though the upside is that it would only add to the Bucks' projected cap space next July.

Dealing Jennings would necessarily send a very different message. Though he's comparable to Ellis in terms of productivity, Jennings is four years younger and will only be a restricted free agent next summer, meaning it's really up to the Bucks to decide if they want Jennings as part of their long-term future. So far Hammond has held firm that the Bucks have every intention of bringing Jennings back for the long haul next summer, but there's really no reason for the Bucks to suggest otherwise, either. For better or worse he's the face of the franchise, though the $40+ million extensions given to guys like Ty Lawson, Stephen Curry and Jrue Holiday this fall suggest that keeping him won't be cheap. He hasn't made enough progress this season for the Bucks to be excited about ponying up $12 million per season for his services next summer, but nothing would make Bucks fans happier than if his play on the court demanded it. For now we're still waiting on that.

If buyer, what are the needs?

As we've harped on since the preseason, the Bucks need shooters or otherwise high-efficiency scorers. Find me a lower-usage guard who can defend, knock down threes and score with above-average efficiency and I'd be a happy camper, highlight reels be damned.

Oh, and as we've discussed forever, the Bucks could still use an all-star caliber player at any position. That's why a gamble on Pau Gasol, however far-fetched, qualifies as intriguing regardless of the Bucks' depth up front. The 32-year-old Gasol may never be what he once was, but that still might be better than anyone the Bucks have right now.

If seller, what are the objectives in potential moves? What players are available?

Dealing one of their surplus big men for another shooter would make plenty of sense, especially given Doron Lamb's early struggles in Udrih's absence. And in general all those expiring deals mean the Bucks have to be realistic about whether it's worth hanging onto guys past the deadline who will likely be gone by mid-July. They won't want to downgrade if they're in the middle of a playoff race, but their frontcourt depth also means they could dump one or two bigs without hurting themselves tangibly up front.

Beyond the Bucks' aforementioned guards, Ersan Ilyasova may be the toughest guy to peg. His new contract (four years, $32 million guaranteed) would be perfectly tolerable if he ever recaptured the form that he flashed last season, but his November was a disaster and he's only shown his old form in fits and starts since. He becomes trade-eligible on January 15, and would be an intriguing option for any team taking an optimistic view of his future.

The Nets are the only team that's been specifically mentioned as a possible destination so far, but they're hardly ideal trade partners. Value-wise, Ersan's kind of a take-it-of-leave-it guy at this point: reasonable parties can disagree as to whether he's still an asset given his unique skillset, or just another guy whose production won't live up to his cap number. I have to assume the Bucks are taking the former view for now, but I would hope that they'd still jump at the chance to use him in a deal for a bigger talent (ie the Gasol ideas).

The other obvious trade bait comes in the form of out-of-favor big men: Sam Dalembert has been in and out of the lineup since showing up late for a game a few weeks back, while Drew Gooden has found his first sniff of minutes only in the past two weeks. It's a foregone conclusion that Milwaukee would jump at the chance to dump Gooden at this point, but his contract is too unattractive to move easily. With $20 million owed to him over the next three seasons (including this one), Gooden could certainly be an amnesty target next summer if the Bucks can't find anyone to take him off their hands. Thankfully, Dalembert's expiring $6.7 million is a different story.

Mike Dunleavy and Beno Udrih are much less likely to be dealt given their status as key cogs of the Bucks' rotation, but in a blow-up scenario they would certainly be on the table as well. Given their solid start that scenario seems unlikely, but stranger things have certainly happened. Afterall, this is Milwaukee.