Pistons accept the challenge of Brandon Jennings, while Bucks elect to move on
Brandon Jennings’ ever-eventful, shot-chucking career in Milwaukee has come to an inauspicious close. According to multiple reports, a deal fell in place on Tuesday for the Bucks to send Jennings to the Pistons — on a new, three-year, $24 million contract — in exchange for Brandon Knight, Khris Middleton, and Slava Kravstov. That might not seem like much of a return for a 23-year-old gunner who puts up some solid raw numbers (17.0 points and 5.7 assists per game for his four-year career), but Jennings torpedoed his own market value with undiscerning shot selection and indifferent defense over his last two seasons in particular.
That said, the terms of Jennings’ new deal are far kinder to the Pistons than they otherwise could have been — likely in part due to Jennings and the Bucks’ mutual interest in ending their working relationship. It was time for both parties to move on, if not long past it. Jennings’ brash game had toppled from charming to unnerving over the course of his four seasons in Milwaukee, to the point that rumors of their split became routine. Both are well served by parting ways, but the Bucks’ leverage and shopping period were infringed by Jennings’ restricted free agent status. Had he not been dealt or extended, Jennings would likely have played out a fifth season for the Bucks on a qualifying offer — a flimsy, one-year arrangement that would position him for unrestricted free agency in 2014. In the meantime, Jennings would be empowered by the collective bargaining agreement with a right of refusal tantamount to a no-trade clause.
The prospect of finding a trade partner interested in Jennings (their ranks are dwindling), navigating his veto privileges, and getting a reasonable return would be an incredible challenge. So Milwaukee pulled the trigger on a deal that would bring back decent pieces in Knight and Middleton while it could, and shipped out its problem-child point guard to Detroit in the process.
The Pistons, for their part, now pick up the challenge of reining in Jennings’ unruly (and relatively static) game. He’s unquestionably more comfortable with the ball in his hands than his Detroit predecessor, but so comfortable that he tends to hoist up shots he shouldn’t. Jennings has little to no sense of delayed gratification; the first remotely open look is taken as an invitation to shoot on a far too frequent basis, leaving a Jennings-run offense to deal with a steady flow of long, two-point jumpers in spite of his quickness off the bounce and natural playmaking ability. He’s good enough to connect on tough, self-created shots, but too ignorant of his own shooting inefficiency to understand that making long twos at a 37-percent clip bears little value to an NBA offense. That tendency has persisted through his four NBA seasons, as has a troubling inability to convert his attempts around the basket on those rare occasions that he follows through on his drives.
If Jennings could ever mute the volume-shooting devil on his shoulder, he could be a pretty nice offensive player. He can read defenses pretty effectively from within a crowd, and did a fair job last season of setting up teammates both at the rim and beyond the three-point line when he felt so inclined*. But unburdening Jennings of his worst basketball instincts is far more than some minor project, and could be asking a bit much of a new head coach (Maurice Cheeks) already wrestling with an ultra-weird Pistons team fresh off a recent renovation. The newly-signed Josh Smith, for instance, creates a rather hilarious pairing with Jennings, in that Detroit now has two relatively high-usage players who so often need to be saved from themselves. Yet when the Pistons attempt to steer away from Smith on his wilder days, they’ll likely turn to the compulsive Jennings. And when Jennings’ shoot-first game gets to be a bit much, Detroit will probably turn to the reckless Smith. The potential for spiraling madness figures to make the Pistons one of most riveting teams to watch next season, albeit a squad distressing to coach by equal measure.
That’s true before we even begin to consider Jennings’ consistently horrid defense in recent seasons, or the way his matador coverage will crank up the pressure on Cheeks’ schemes, Smith, and Detroit’s young bigs. Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond just aren’t equipped to cover for all the drives that Jennings concedes — a task that often demanded Larry Sanders’ full rim-protecting talents in Milwaukee. Because of that, the Pistons could very easily pay a price on both ends of the floor if their newly acquired point guard isn’t a markedly better version of his basketball self. He’s shown he can be a sensible shot creator and a committed defender under certain circumstances, but whether Jennings will give a damn in Detroit remains to be seen.
Nevertheless, this is a play for a genuine talent on the Pistons’ part, in which they flipped an underwhelming prospect for a frankly superior player at a position of need. Jennings’ play warrants pessimism, but he’s still a decided upgrade made by a team angling for the postseason. In that regard, they’ve likely bettered their chances, and somewhat mitigated their risk by way of a reasonable deal. I’m just not optimistic that Jennings will ultimately pan out as a core piece for Detroit, even if a career correction isn’t necessarily beyond a once-spurned, spite-motivated player of his noticeable gifts.
*According to Hoopdata, Jennings’ 2.7 assists per game leading to field goals at the rim matched Tony Parker’s mark and and nearly matched that of LeBron James. His 1.5 assists per game leading to three-pointers nearly matched Russell Westbrook and Steve Nash.
Milwaukee, on the other hand, is finally free to move on from its disheartening ploys for 8th-seed contention. The three-guard core of Jennings, Monta Ellis, and J.J Redick has been swiftly disassembled, with the Bucks opting for a low payroll in lieu of those cap-filling deals. I find that to be wise, given the circumstances; while each of those three guards could be helpful in a particular role, none makes for a convenient fit with a Bucks team still early in the teambuilding process. There were no first-rate stars in that bunch, nor are there any in Milwaukee’s return package for Jennings. But in avoiding another sizable salary commitment over the next few seasons, the Bucks have tidied up their cap sheet while keeping plenty of rotation-level pieces to work with. Going into next summer, Milwaukee is set to have just $36 million on the books between Knight, Middleton, O.J. Mayo, Ersan Ilyasova, John Henson, Zaza Pachulia, Gary Neal, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Carlos Delfino, with room to account for a possible Larry Sanders extension and some other free agent addition. That’s a nice start toward the kind of asset-driven rebuild Milwaukee needs, all while retaining a decent enough core to save face and meet the franchise’s long-standing edict of vying for a postseason berth.
Knight is a part of all of the above, if in a very different way than Jennings would have been. It’s safe to say that he’ll be a bit less ball-dominant; Knight runs into trouble creating on his own at times, and generally looks to defer to others when in a jam. It’s for that reason that his shot attempts trend much more towards the paint and the three-point line. Knight is no model for shooting efficiency by any means, but tends to attack the basket selectively and play off the ball when he the opportunity isn’t there. That restraint makes him a bit too timid to run an offense on a full-time basis (NBA teams frankly need a dash of the audacity that Jennings has in spades), but also counterintuitively leads to him attempting 42.1 percent of his shots inside the paint relative to Jennings’ 36.8 percent. The thought to challenge the defense — and initiate the kind of possession that might end up in a forced pull-up jumper — just doesn’t occur as often to a player like Knight, for better or worse.
For that reason, we shouldn’t expect Knight to be a great immediate fit at point guard for the patchwork Bucks, though he has the tools as a shooter and defender to float between guard positions and ultimately comes at a bargain price. He’ll need help, though, in initiating even basic, pick-and-roll-style offense as he grows into his role, which Mayo and Neal will aim to provide with mixed results. Such is the way of the new-look Bucks — a team so strapped by obvious limitations, but largely spared from the frustrations of prior seasons. Ellis and Jennings are gone, and with them the guise that all is well with two brazen, incompatible guards pulling the offense in different directions. Those same departures leave Milwaukee light on shot creation and generalized talent, but better prepared all the same in working toward a more stable design.