It’s hard to imagine a playoff team less sexy than the Milwaukee Bucks. At 26-25 coming out of the All Star break, Milwaukee seems locked into the Eastern Conference’s No. 8 playoff seed — a borderline .500 team both at home, 14-12, and on the road, 12-13. They’re the only likely playoff team in the East that has a negative points differential, scoring a 13th-ranked 97.5 points per game, but surrendering a 17th-ranked 98.5 to opponents. Add in a coaching change — the Bucks and Scott Skiles ‘parted ways‘ in early January — and you’d be surprised this is a playoff team.
Milwaukee’s problems begin in their backcourt. On paper, Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis are the team’s two top scorers, at 18.5 and 18.4 points per game, respectively; the duo has started in all 51 of the team’s games, playing around 37 minutes each. Jennings, 6.1, and Ellis, 5.5, each average respectable assists, though their assist-to-turnover ratios (2.3 for Jennings, 1.8 for Ellis) are lower than backup 1-guard and NBA journeyman Beno Udrih. Jennings, to his credit, is averaging a career-high in assists, but also a career-high in turnovers.
Jennings, 39.5%, and Ellis, 40.1%, could be more aggressive players offensively, often settling for outside jumpers (hence the low field goal percentages) when they’re both capable slashers; Jennings is shooting the ball 16.8 times per game, Ellis 17.4. Ellis is frequently playing off the ball, so it’s not much of a surprise that his assist numbers are his lowest since the 2009-10 season, yet his FG percentage is also the lowest of his career. (In 2007-08, he shot 53.1% from the field.) Even worse, Jennings is a 36.4% shooter from distance, and Ellis 23.2%.
Ellis has an $11 million player option in 2013-14, and my best guess is he picks it up, knowing full well his services, and diminished numbers, will not fetch those kind of dollars. (Rumors, though, are swirling he very well could reject that option and enter free agency.) Jennings, on the other hand, is a restricted free agent, who’s apparently seeking a max contract. Jennings has made no bones about his desire to play in a bigger market for years now, and he’s even speculated that the fact he plays in Milwaukee is what cost him an All Star appearance. If point guards like Ty Lawson, Stephen Curry and All Star Jrue Holiday are fetching deals in the $11-12 million dollar range, all of whom are probably ahead of Jennings, Brandon’s probably not getting max dough.
Like Paul George and Danny Granger in Indiana, Jennings and Ellis, at least in my eyes, are too much of the same player (for different reasons). Both are streaky scorers capable of lighting you up for 35 one night and going 3-18 the next. Both are not true 1-guards in the sense they have limited distribution skills and see themselves, not their teammates, as the primary offensive option. Oh, and both are weak defensively.
On a positive note, Larry Sanders’ play has impressed me thus far this season, as he’s emerged as Milwaukee’s most impactful player. His 18.4 player-efficiency rating is the most of any Bucks’ player to appear in at least 45 games, and in only 25.4 minutes a night, he’s averaging 8.5 points and 8.5 rebounds. In only his 3rd year out of VCU, Sanders’ stats have more than doubled across the board over 2011-12, when he played only about 12 minutes a night. He’s now a blossoming presence around the rim on both ends — his 3.16 blocks per game lead the NBA — and with a deadly defensive duo of he and Samuel Dalembert, a 20.4 PER in 31 games, Milwaukee’s capable of making up for a lot of Jennings’ and Ellis’ apathy on the defensive end.
Offensively, Milwaukee sometimes has trouble finding help for Jennings and Ellis. Mike Dunleavy and Ersan Ilyasova each average 11.2 points per game and are Milwaukee’s only two consistent 3-point shooters. (The Bucks are tied for 20th in 3-point percentage and 26th in FG percentage.) Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, now in his 5th year out of UCLA, has yet to develop into the player everyone thought he might be — his 7.8 points per game is a career-high, but he’s averaging career lows in FG percentage, FT percentage, rebounds and blocks, and his 10.49 PER ranks 275th in the NBA, a spot behind Jamaal Tinsley. (Yeah, I didn’t know he still playing either.) Luckily for Mbah a Moute, Marquis Daniels, who’s started 17 games for the Bucks, has an even-lower 9.7 PER.
Interim coach Jim Boylan’s squad could have something in 22-year-old rookie John Henson, 5.9 points and 4.3 rebounds in 12.8 minutes, who’s shown flashes in limited time. Henson’s 16.93 PER is respectable, almost 2 points ahead of the 15.0 league average, and he’s shown flashes as a finisher around the rim at 6’11”. Tobias Harris, 20 and a second-year pro, is averaging 4.9 points in only 11.6 minutes and has shown flashes of scoring from the 3-spot.
4 games up on No. 9-seed Philadelphia, Milwaukee’s a good bet to earn a postseason berth, barring a major breakup, which, to be fair, is very well likely, with expiring contracts in Jennings (a restricted free agent with a $4.33 million qualifying offer), Dalembert ($6.7 million), Ellis ($11 million) and Udrih ($7.8 million) that could return a prized asset, or at least a few high draft picks. Jennings, Dalembert and Ellis are frequently mentioned names on the rumor mill, with Josh Smith’s expiring deal even circulated as a potential target.
Barring a minor miracle that prompts Jennings and the Bucks to mutually commit long term, Milwaukee needs to find a face to its franchise, either via free agency or a home-run in the draft. Once that piece, preferably a scoring 2-guard, is brought in, pieces like Sanders, Ilyasova and Henson can grow as a unit. If Ellis and Jennings do not return, Milwaukee will only have about $30 million on the books heading into next season, though that includes $6.7 million per to Drew Gooden, who’s played less than 120 minutes this season, through 2014-15.
Bottom line: there’s reason for optimism in Wisconsin, but probably after a long rebuild.
Follow me on Twitter @PatrickJDuprey.