Basketball is a tall man’s game. A glance around any NBA locker room lends overwhelming anecdotal evidence to support that conclusion.
Coming into to the 2012-13 season, the Bucks were poised to go against the trend and experts around the league touted the grand experiment that the Bucks were testing out. Could they succeed with the tiny backcourt of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis? Could they do it with two smallish guards taking a high volume of shots?
Pundits couldn’t quite quantify the duo’s potential for success with numbers (beyond the ever-so-tired points per game), so they resorted to calling them ‘dynamic’, which could mean a lot of things, but one interpretation is that Jennings and Ellis would 1) make a few highlight-worthy plays each game and 2) always be able to create a shot attempt when needed.
But one thing was never in question: the Bucks would have a puny backcourt this season.
Fast forward to March 2013. Jennings has had a reasonable season to date, with the exception of his annual All-Star month swoon. He has even emerged from the slump as something of a pass-first facilitator. Ellis has helped the Bucks in a number of ways, but he has also mercilessly assaulted the rim with a barrage of three-point attempts that go in, on average, fewer than one in four tries.
J.J. Redick arrived from Orlando at the trade deadline, and like Jennings and Ellis, he could potentially leave the Bucks at the end of the season. (Ellis has a player option, Jennings is a restricted free agent, and the Bucks hold the ‘Bird rights’ on Redick, who will be an unrestricted free agent.)
Keeping any of them, perhaps two, will be expensive. Keeping three would be prohibitively so. So who stays? Who goes?
Furthermore, does keeping J.J. Redick actually make the Bucks any bigger?
The following is an argument against one particular pairing.
Four weeks ago, Behind the Buck Pass noted that Jennings was converting 43.3% of his field goal attempts in the painted area (according to Vorped.com) and that Jennings’ percentage was the lowest in the NBA among starting point guards. While his percentage has dropped slightly to 42.8%, he also deserves credit for tweaking his game in March and simply taking fewer contested shots in the paint. He won’t fling up the blind, lurching five-footers the way he used to.
Swapping those shots for more passes and more three-point attempts can really boost Jennings’ efficiency. At the same time, he will never develop into an above average ‘drive-and-kick’ point guard, mostly because the ‘drive’ half poses such a negligible threat.
J.J. Redick shares a different version of the same problem. Brett Koremenos elaborated the issue quite well in an article for Grantland:
Redick finishes far better (72.1 percent), but ranks nearly dead last with just 2.3 attempts near the hoop. Redick and Jennings could likely prove a capable backcourt if Milwaukee had a frontcourt player capable of drawing attention through post-ups or a small forward capable of breaking down opposing defenses with the dribble, but a player like that doesn’t currently inhabit the team’s roster — at least at those positions.
What’s worse is that Redick can only really get those attempts at the rim through passes from his teammates. When he was in Orlando, 75% of his makes at the rim came via assist — a mark that ranked highest among all guards playing 30+ minutes per game. He is decidedly not doing it off the bounce.
Redick quietly obliterates a fair number of offensive possessions when he tries to drive through the paint using a dribble. While he occasionally gets up a high-accuracy floater, he also gets stuck quite often. The two plays below illustrate the typical troubles.
Sequences like these usually start with a defender overplaying Redick’s excellent outside shot, giving him instead a lane in which to start a dribble. He gets too far, recalibrates his decision and picks up his dribble. Then what? Mostly bad things, no? The problems include, but aren’t limited to: turnovers, lost time on the shot clock, wasted energy by his teammates to rescue back a far less desirable offensive possession.
These losses also don’t necessarily count against Redick in many advanced statistical categories. They’re shielded from his numbers in most cases.
The Bucks offense consists mostly of the high pick-and-roll and an overall movement scheme that sends shooters moving counterclockwise with screens set by big men moving clockwise. If the Milwaukee offense was the type of circular highway that surrounds most US cities, the shooters would have the outer loop while the screeners would round the inner one.
The Bucks aren’t totally dependent on the same drive-and-kick action that is used by teams like the Spurs and the Clippers. At the same time, though, the pick-and-roll may flop next season if the Bucks rely on the toothless interior attack of Jennings and Redick.
Of the guards on the roster, the one that they need back most next season is Monta Ellis. It’s easy to say that based on his post-All Star play success, as Ellis has plundered opponents with 23.8 points (on 49% shooting), 7.3 assists, and 2.5 steals per game. But even with his full season taken into consideration, Ellis has been a better player for the Bucks than Jennings.
Here are the numbers for the Bucks with and without Jennings on the floor this season:
And here are the comparable numbers for Ellis:
In essence, the Bucks are roughly two points per 100 possessions worse than their opponents when Jennings is on the court. With Ellis playing, the Bucks are essentially equal to their opponents.
What makes this comparison even more remarkable is that Jennings and Ellis play nearly 80% of their minutes together. But ‘Solo Ellis’ has outperformed ‘Solo Jennings’ by nearly 8 points per 100 possessions. It’s a small percentage of their overall joined minutes, but significant enough statistically (roughly 450 minutes each) to place Ellis ahead of Jennings.
And, finally, about the small thing: Do the Bucks lose because Ellis and Jennings are too small? Perhaps. But here’s the thing: swapping out Ellis for Redick doesn’t make the Bucks bigger in any significant way.
Ellis is listed at 6’3″. Redick’s stated height is 6’4″. According to their pre-draft measurements, Redick is actually 1.5 inches taller in shoes.
But but a different metric, they are the same size: Ellis’ standing reach is 8’2″. Redick’s is 8’1.5″. Essentially, Monta can touch higher on a wall from a standing position than Redick. The top of your head doesn’t account for much in a basketball game; how high a player can reach is a much better indicator of how “big” they will play (see, for example, the Bucks’ long-armed crew of interior players).
And by the metric of style of play, Monta stands tall. He can get up to finish at the rim. On the other end, his Synergy numbers aren’t terrible on defense (0.77 points allowed per possession), and they actually outpace Redick’s combined stats from Orlando and Milwaukee (0.89 in ORL, 0.83 in MIL).
If the Bucks decide to keep Jennings, it may work out. If they choose Redick, then it may also succeed. But if there’s one sequence of moves that Milwaukee could make this summer that won’t work, it’s picking both Redick and Jennings while sending Monta away.