The Milwaukee Bucks are a young team that was on the brink of the playoffs last season before falling apart in the stretch run, losing seven of the Bucks’ last 10 games. This year, they’ve again started strong, opening the season at 6-2, before losing their last three. What is causing them to play so hot and cold? The inverse play of Brandon Jennings and Larry Sanders could be the explanation.
Part of the reason behind the topsy-turvy nature of their team is Jennings, their mercurial point guard, and the raw offensive game of their young big man, Sanders.
Sanders, if you’re not familiar, is Milwaukee’s 24-year-old forward in his third season out of Virginia Commonwealth with grimace-inducing offensive shortcomings. He is usually exposed if given the ball near the top of the key without a screen or a man to pass to immediately. He looks befuddled and panicky when this happens, and you want to scream at him to dribble to the bucket to initiate his man. With such a limited offensive game when Sanders is on the court, the Bucks score 12 points fewer than they do when he’s off (109.9 when off, and 97.6 when on, per 82games.com).
But, like Death as the mother of Beauty, Sanders is also a defensive stalwart averaging 2.3 blocks per game in just 22 minutes (that figure translates to 3.6 over 36 minutes). When Sanders is on the court, the Bucks hold their opponents to 12 fewer points than when he’s on the sidelines (97.7 when on, and 109.7 when off). While Sanders is patrolling the paint on defense and scaring opponents away from the bucket, the Bucks are also playing close to 4-on-5 on offense because of how raw and tentative he is with the ball in his hands.
Conversely, we have the Bucks’ fourth-year point guard, Jennings. Considered by many to be a top-10 point guard in the league, Jennings has never had a problem filling it up on the offensive end. He’s even improved his field-goal percentage a tad, and after failing to crack 40 percent shooting from the field in his first two years, he’s shot consistently more than 41 percent from the field dating back to the beginning of last season. The Bucks’ point guard can get in the lane and create scoring opportunities for teammates, and even though he’s struggled from long range to begin the year (29 percent through 11 games this season), opponents still must show a modicum of respect from 23 feet out â€” he shot over 33 percent there last year. When Jennings is on the court, the Bucks score almost 10 points more per 100 possessions (106.6 when on, and 96.7 when off, per 82games.com).
For all the advantages Jennings provides on the offensive end, he gives most of those advantages back on the other end with defense that’s more sieve than solid. With Jennings off the court, the Bucks give up only 97.0 points per 100 possessions, but when he’s on, that figure jumps to 106.3. That’s an atrocious plus/minus on the defensive end. So Sanders is the Yin (defense) to Jennings’ Yang (offense). What about when they’re playing together?
The starting center for the Bucks is Samuel Dalembert, but the second-most used lineup by head coach, Scott Skiles, and the most popular one featuring Sanders, doesn’t have Jennings involved; with this lineup, Monta Ellis plays the point while Jennings sits, and if there’s anyone worse at defense than Jennings, it’s Ellis. Per 82games.com, the Bucks give up 107.0 points per possession with Ellis on the court (good for 28th in the league), and 95.3 points per possession when he’s off (which would be the best defense in the league). But that lineup has still outscored their opponents on the year. As has one featuring Jennings instead of Ellis, and with the same supporting cast of Beno Udrih as the other guard, Dunleavy as the small forward, Sanders as the power forward, and Ekpe Udoh as the Center. In fact, the two most successful lineups this year are those involving those four and either Ellis or Jennings.
When Skiles uses both Jennings and Ellis in the backcourt, like the Bucks do to start the game (putting Dalembert, Tobias Harris, and Ersan Ilyasova in the front court), and like Skiles has done with their most used line-up, they’re not as successful. When your entire backcourt is just begging to be taken advantage of defensively, you have to keep either Jennings or Ellis off the court. When your best frontcourt defender is just as much of an offensive liability, you have to make sure you have scorers on the floor when he’s patrolling the paint. In a perfect world, Sanders and Jennings/Ellis would cancel each other out, and you’d have a perfectly aligned team where teammates cover up one another’s inefficiencies. If Skiles were smart, he’d make sure he only played lineups featuring either Ellis OR Jennings, and Sanders. But Sanders might not be ready to handle the workload â€” not to mention see the ball that often â€” and the egos of both Ellis and Jennings wouldn’t react well to coming off the bench and splitting 24 minutes a night.
And so we beat on, Bucks against the current (of data), borne back ceaselessly into the past. Except, the green light Gatsby saw flashing at the end of the dock is, for Jennings and Ellis, just another signal telling them to take another mid-range jumper.
Can Jennings and Sanders realistically fix their flaws this season?
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