Friday, September 28, 2012

Will the Jennings and Ellis Backcourt Work? - Milwaukee Bucks Preview

Starting Five: PG Brandon Jennings, G Monta Ellis, SF Ersan Ilyasova, PF Drew Gooden, C Samuel Dalembert

Key Bench Players: G Beno Udrih, SF Mike Dunleavey, SF Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, PF/C Ekpe Udoh, F John Henson (14th overall pick)

Notable offseason additions: C Samuel Dalembert, PF John Henson

Offseason subtractions: F Jon Leuer, F John Brockman

In a lot of ways, the Milwaukee Bucks remind me of the New York Knicks. Both teams have so much talent and yet, I'm not sure if any of their pieces actually compliment each other.They're both squads with a bunch of athletic scorers and rebounders, but I don't know who's going to pass these guys the ball or if any of them know how to defend without fouling. The comparisons stop there though: the Knicks might be a bunch of brash assholes with the ugliest tattooed starting five in the game that even the Bucks can't compete with, but even their mismatched parts aren't enough to keep their explosive talent out of the playoffs. The Bucks don't have that luxury. And they're in Wisconsin in the dead of winter. Buzz's girlfriend, woof.

Ironically Milwaukee, pronounced Mily-walk-kay, is known in Algonquin as "The Good Land". However, this land has been anything but good to the Bucks. They've made the playoffs a scant four times in the past decade, winning only seven postseason games and zero series. These playoff berths have actually been deceiving in regards to how much success they've had, as the Bucks have only finished over .500 twice in this stretch. Even in losing, the Bucks can't do it right; they've only had a top 5 draft choice once, which they used on Andrew Bogut ahead of Chris Paul and Deron Williams. Milwaukee has been snake bitten in almost every regard, but mostly in that they've never been consistently bad enough to warrant wholesale changes or good enough to spend more money. They've just been fine.

Unfortunately for the Bucks, the 2012-2013 edition of their team isn't going to change those fortunes. As I mentioned, this Bucks squad is full of mismatched parts that don't necessarily complement each other. Starting with the most glaring potential problem is the backcourt tandem of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis. On paper and in the box score, they look like extremely similar players:

2011-2012 Season
Jennings: 6'1", 169 lbs, 20.4 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 6 apg, 3.1 turnovers pg, 19 FGA pg, 3.4 FTA pg,  43% shooting, 30% 3P, 81% FT

Ellis:  6'3", 175 lbs, 19.1 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 5.5 apg, 2.2 turnovers pg, 17 FGA pg, 4.7 FTA pg, 42% shooting, 33% 3P, 81% FT

Essentially, they're both low efficiency, high volume shooting, score-first point guards who even for their position are on the small side. There are a ton of criticisms attached to just one player like this, as Russ Westbrook can attest to, let alone two on the same team in the same starting backcourt. At first glance, there's just no way a team can succeed with two players so similarly built who seem to have the ball in their hands at all times. However, the silver lining here is that even though their numbers seem incredibly close, the two are actually different types of players. Ellis has shown in his time in GS that he's actually a threat to score in the paint - in fact, he might be the best paint scorer on the Bucks. As evidence by his 4.7 free throw attempts per game, Monta isn't afraid to attack the rim. On the flipside, Jennings is much more comfortable shooting from the outside, shown by his nearly six 3-point attempts per game. I feel like they'll actually compliment each other much more than anyone thinks. More importantly, despite both of their proclivities to put up the rock, Jennings and Ellis are able passers with a solid handle, especially the former.

The problem then is: who will they pass it to? The Bucks big man corps are completely willing defenders, though none are particularly savvy. Udoh and rookie Henson play with a ton of energy, but can't be counted on to do anything besides block a couple shots, rebound a little and eventually foul out of the game. Dalembert and Gooden are solid vets, but at this point in careers, probably not better than really excellent back-ups. Most importantly, none of these guys can do anything with the ball in the painted area or post. As I said earlier, Ellis is the team's best offensive option inside, and that's not necessarily the best model to win unless you replace the name "Ellis" with "James" or "Wade".

As far as the perimeter threats, Dunleavey and Ilyasova add two more streak shooters to the starting guards who excel at that facet of the game. Ersan is definitely the more reliable of the two, not just in his skill level but also his ability to merely stay on the court, but did he hit his ceiling with a fantastic 2012 season that garnered him a $40 million dollar deal?

The biggest problem here as that save for Dalembert, Gooden (when he's not hurt) and Mbah a Moute (who might not even be in the rotation), this isn't a team of good defenders like the intense manager Scott Skiles is used to. The coach's trademark of intensive, suffocating team defense might not be applicable here, as much as he might try. One of the primary reasons that this Bucks franchise has won anything the past few years is because of their ability to lock an opponent down, starting with their anchor Andrew Bogut. Now that he's gone, will they be able to ride their D to a playoff spot?

Don't get me wrong: this is going to be a solid Bucks team. Jennings and Ellis with mesh much better than anyone is willing to bet and they'll be the ones to carry this team to the neighborhood of contention. The problem is that the role players, while good in their own rights, don't really complement the two stars.

Best-case Scenario: Jennings and Ellis mesh together with a sweeter game than strip Candy Land. Henson and Udoh mature faster than anyone thinks defensively, and Dalembert and Gooden can convert enough easy looks on great passes from the backcourt. Dunleavey stays healthy enough to provide floor spacing and Ilyasova proves that last year wasn't a fluke. Coach Skiles gets a bunch of non-defenders to play excellent team defense, as the Bucks shock the world and finish with the number four seed. They get destroyed by the Heat in the second round, but win their first playoff series in over a decade. The future looks bright for The Good Land.

Absolute Apocalypse: Jennings and Ellis don't mesh together at all, with uglier game than geriatric strip Candy Land. The role players fit just as oddly together, with the big men not being able to stay on the court and the perimeter player not being able to hit shots. The team as a whole plays zero defense and Skiles gets fired in February. The team wins a few games just on the merit of a couple dozen 40 point outbursts from Jennings and Ellis combined, but only keeps their team outside of the top five draft choices once again.

Expected Finish: 3rd in the Central division, 9th in the Eastern Conference 


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