It's never too early to start looking forward to free agency, and on that topic ESPN's Marc Stein dropped a rather interesting Bucks-related nugget late Tuesday night:
And a free-agent rumble: There's a rising belief in exec circles that Bucks prefer to re-sign Monta Ellis over Brandon Jennings this summer— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) May 29, 2013
Bucks still have coaching choice to make: Larry Drew or Kelvin Sampson. But in backcourt there is sense they prefer Monta/Redick next season— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) May 29, 2013
The optimist might conclude "Hey, they're finally willing to get rid of one of them!" The cynic might understandably conclude, "Wait, they still want Monta?"
If it's true, we should start by noting that the Bucks have fundamentally less control over Ellis than Jennings this summer. Ellis must decide by June 20th if he'll opt out of the $11 million final season of his contract, a decision that will go a long way to shaping what the Bucks can and can't do this summer cap-wise. If he does opt out, the Bucks could still re-sign him, but as an unrestricted free agent Ellis will have the final call. Meanwhile, Jennings will be a restricted free agent, giving the Bucks right of first refusal on any offer sheet he signs with another team. But Jennings could also put his mind to forcing an eventual exit, either by campaigning for his departure publicly (fun!) or by accepting a one-year qualifying offer and becoming an unrestricted free agent in 2014 (which would make next season rather awkward).
Jennings and Ellis share many of the same faults: bad shot selection that begets scoring inefficiency, a lack of size at their respective positions (if you consider Ellis a shooting guard), and a defensive mindset that might charitably range from gambling to utterly indifferent. And for that reason the first rule of the Bucks' summer should be that at least one of them has to go. The second rule: don't give either guy a new eight-figure annual salary. Neither is worth it, though the reality is that the Bucks will undoubtedly feel pressure to retain at least one of their "stars" heading into a critical phase of the franchise's existence.
Their ultimate compatibility has been a huge question since day one, but after a 100+ game sample size there should no longer be any doubt that the pairing simply doesn't work. Among the 43 guards who played 30+ mpg, Ellis ranked dead last in scoring efficiency (49.5% true shooting) and Jennings 38th (50.9%), which made the Bucks 22nd ranking offensively surprisingly good considering their two leading scorers were woefully ineffective in that department.
Of course, selecting one of the two won't put the Bucks on the fast-track to contention either, but at a minimum it would give the Bucks latitude to construct a more complementary backcourt pairing while saving them from the cap challenges that would come from sinking $20+ million annually into an ineffective backcourt. Whether Redick should be part of that is an entirely different question, but on paper at least it's easier to argue for an Ellis/Redick combination.
Up until the latter portion of this past season, Jennings' relative youth (23) always made him my preferred option between the two, but Jennings' ineffective, unsettled finish to the season and Ellis' flashes of quality at point guard put that in doubt. As flawed as he might be, Ellis was clearly the better player in the season's second half (20.6 ppg, 7.0 apg, .440/.351.734 shooting) in large part thanks to extended minutes at the point, where his size also isn't a defensive concern. While the Bucks were massively worse with Jennings on the court for a second straight season (-13.0 pts/100 possessions!), Ellis' on/off splits were positive and his best work came at the point (+8.8 PER differential vs. opponents). None of those numbers individually are enough to damn Jennings, but when they all go against him it serves as a rather frightening indictment against his ultimate effectiveness as a basketball player.
So is the 28-year-old Ellis the Bucks' long-term answer at point guard? No. And for that reason there would also be a big difference between Ellis simply playing out the final year of his contract (OK) and the Bucks awarding him a shiny new four year deal (Not OK). If Ellis is the guy for the short term, drafting a young point guard to back up (and at times play with) Ellis would make plenty of sense. And if the Bucks do bring back Jennings--hopefully not with Ellis--it will be a bet on his improvement on both ends, not merely a continuation of what we've seen the past two seasons. We know he's capable of playing well for 10-15 games at a time, but it's still a matter of effort and consistency on both ends before he can claim to be even a top ten-type point guard. Unfortunately last season he was nowhere close to the $10+ million player he thinks he is, which should make this summer an interesting one to say the least. Neither Jennings nor Ellis figure to have hoards of suitors, but as always it only takes one team to bid against themselves and blow the piggy bank wide open. I'll be hoping it's not the Bucks.