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Thursday, August 1st, 2013 at 11:22 am  |  16 responses

Court Changes: Jennings Finally Finds a Home

Does Jennings make the Pistons a lock for the Playoffs?

This is another installment of Court Changes—a summer breakdown of trades and free-agency signings. The series will get into the motivations behind the moves and how these transactions will affect teams’ trajectories. All opinions are those of the writer.

by Jay Wallis / @JayWallis11

The Detroit Pistons have traded Brandon Knight, Khris Middleton and Slava Kravtsov to the Milwaukee Bucks for Brandon Jennings. The Bucks will give Jennings a three-year, $24 million contract.

The Pistons made this trade because: their front office is still just as impatient.

As discussed in a previous Court Changes, when the Pistons decided to give Josh Smith a hefty four-year, $56 million contract, they were doing so in order to take a step toward relevancy. With the insertion of Jennings, owner Tom Gores has a better chance of getting his wish to “find [their] way into the Playoffs,” and general manager Joe Dumars might be able to get another contract extension after this season. Furthermore, since the Bobcats will receive the Pistons’ 2014 first-round pick as long as it’s outside the top eight, this is a season to go for it.

Jennings has averaged 17.0 ppg, 5.7 apg and 34.6 mpg through four seasons in Milwaukee. He is a shoot-first and shoot-second gunner who has plenty of kinks and deficiencies to his game; however, he still has time to improve being only 23 since he decided to play overseas rather than at the collegiate level. Last season, he shot a career-best 37.5 percent from three-point range and averaged a career-best 6.5 apg.

After the East’s top five teams (Heat, Pacers, Bulls, Nets, Knicks), the last three Playoff spots are there for the taking. By bringing in Jennings, the Pistons appear to have put themselves in position to make the Playoffs for the first time since 2009 and to possibly grab the 6-seed.

The Bucks made this trade because: Milwaukee has a trigger-happy owner who has a constantly revolving door for his rosters.

As long as Herb Kohl remains the Bucks’ owner, it is unlikely to see Milwaukee at the very bottom of the East. The former US Senator purchased the team in 1985 and has shown an aversion for rebuilding. When any of his teams have a bad year, instead of tearing things down and starting over, Kohl has a tendency to make trades in order to stay near the playoff fringe. He rarely feels the need to keep a player long term and has mandated that the Bucks “stay relevant” every year.

In 2003, after Ray Allen was the face of the franchise for over six years, Milwaukee traded him for Gary Payton, who only lasted one season. The next year, Kohl brought in Keith Van Horn midway through the season and shipped him out midway through the next. After a couple promising years with the Bucks, in 2005, high-flying swingman Desmond Mason was traded to the Hornets for All-Star Jamaal Magloire, who in turn lasted one season with the Bucks. And Kohl’s most recent actions verify this approach. In 2010, he gave Drew Gooden what is now considered one of the worst contracts this decade—seven years, $32 million—hoping to build on their first round appearance the previous season. Just this past year, he traded away several promising players, including forward Tobias Harris, for JJ Redick—even though Redick’s contract expired that season. Redick turned out to be another traded player who lasted less than one season.

So, with Monta Ellis and Jennings lacking any sort of chemistry and being a horrible duo on the same team (again, this pairing happened in the first place because of Kohl’s need to endlessly bring in new players), this era could only last so long for either of them. Once they let Ellis go to the Mavs, the Bucks attempted to sign unrestricted free agent Jeff Teague before the Hawks decided to match their offer. This bid showed the Bucks’ disinterest in bringing back Jennings and desire to move in yet another different direction. This new direction will not include six of the team’s nine leading scorers from last season—just the way Kohl likes it.

This is good for the Pistons because: they might have their next Chauncey Billups.

When Billups came to the Pistons in 2002, there were a lot of cons to go along with his pros. Even though he had been serviceable during his time with the Celtics, Raptors, Nuggets and Wolves, there was a reason he had been with four teams in his first five years. Rather than being Big-Shot Billups, he was Bad-Shot Billups, shooting below 40 percent from the field during his first three seasons. Many around the NBA began to consider him a lottery-pick bust.

By the end of the ’01-02 season, however, he showed flashes of what was soon to come, breaking out for 22 ppg, 5.7 apg and 5.0 rpg during three playoff games. Dumars rolled the dice on this inefficient point guard, giving him a six-year, $35 million contract. The rest was history as Billups became a fan favorite and took the Pistons to two straight Finals appearances, including a Championship over the favored Lakers in 2004.

Jennings has the chance to turn his game around just as Billups did 11 years ago. Failing to shoot over 40 percent from the field in three of his first four seasons, he is nothing short of a shot-chunker and nothing close to a standard pass-first point guard. He loves to take questionable step-back, fadeaway jumpers that can only be considered as ill advised. (Unless you are Stephen Curry.) Last season, Jennings only took 18 percent of his shots from inside 17 feet, according to Synergy Stats. When you compare this to Chris Paul, for example, who took over 37 percent of his shots from this distance, it becomes clear that Jennings settles for jumpers far too often.

But Billups had the same bad habits and transformed his game, changing from a scorer to a facilitator. Jennings certainly has the potential to be a playmaker if he just sets his mind to it and approaches the game in a different way.

Last season, Jennings averaged 2.7 apg leading to field goals at the rim, according to Hoopdata. This matched Tony Parker’s mark and almost equaled LeBron James’. He even went though a four-game stretch in which he averaged 20 ppg, 14.5 apg and only 3 tpg in 43.5 minutes. He also shot 50 percent from the field and 57 percent from three-point range, showing his ability to take and make better shots. He obviously won’t put up these numbers on a regular basis, but this provides concrete evidence he has the capacity to be a playmaking point guard.

Luckily for Jennings, he now has an older Billups to take him under his wing and teach him how to improve his shot selection, defense and leadership. And therein lies the lingering question: Will Jennings take this change in scenery as a chance to also change his image? Can he become the point guard the Bucks envisioned as their future when they drafted him 10th in 2009? With Billups by his side, Jennings could allow the Palace to experience some déjà vu.

This is bad for the Pistons because: they might have their next Allen Iverson.

The Pistons eventually traded Billups to the Denver Nuggets for A.I. at the start of the ’08-09 season. This turned into, as Iverson put it, “the worst year of [his] career.” After shooting 41.6 percent from the field and 28.6 percent from three-point range, the League’s epitome of the shoot-first point guard was sent to the bench toward the end of the season. Iverson did not like this one bit, publicly claiming the Pistons lied to him about never benching him. Eventually, Iverson had “back problems” that kept him out of the Playoffs where his team was swept by the Cavaliers.

Iverson changed the game of basketball during his time with the 76ers and will be remembered for his dazzling handles, unmatched quickness and incredible 48-point outburst in their sole 2001 NBA Finals win. There can only be one A.I.

But he will also be remembered as a player who could only play one way and couldn’t or wouldn’t adjust to a team’s needs. There’s a reason he was only 34 when he played presumably his last NBA game. He’s healthy and can still play—but can only play his way.

Jennings, who has similar immaturity problems that Iverson had throughout his NBA career, might not care that Billups is on his team, ready and willing to mentor him. Jennings is a second-tier point guard who thinks he’s a top-five point guard. Even though confidence is important to any professional athlete, this inflated self-assessment has hindered his discipline and efficiency.

Since the notorious 55-point explosion in his seventh game as a rookie, Jennings has plateaued statistically and has been shooting like he is bound to have another one of these performances. He had the sixth most field-goal attempts among point guards last year but only converted 39.9 percent of these shots, which is second worst among 123 players to average 15 field-goal attempts per game. And just like Iverson, Jennings will keep shooting and shooting, no matter what his teammates have to offer or how open he is.

In addition to problems similar to A.I., Jennings has a few unique problems of his own. He is weakest when shooting near the basket. While most guards shoot around 55 percent or better at the rim, Jennings shot below 50 percent at the rim last season, according to Basketball Reference. He also shot a dreadful 28 percent from 3-to-10 feet away. Both of these low percentages are in large part because he can’t shoot with his right hand. If he finds himself driving on the right side of the floor, he will often awkwardly shoot with his left hand, exposing the ball to defenders. Additionally, Jennings seriously struggled in isolation last season, being in the 28th percentile in isolation play, according to Synergy Stats.

Jennings is the Walmart version of A.I. with just as much immaturity and irrational willingness to put up shot after shot. To add to the problem, the Pistons brought in Smith, another impulsive lefty shooter from Oak Hill Academy who will want to shoot the ball just as much as Jennings. And that right there could drive the entire Pistons coaching staff insane.

This is bad for Mo Cheeks because: he will be on a short leash with such a talent-heavy roster.

In addition to all the Xs and Os involved with being a head coach, the NBA more than any other professional sport demands that their coaching staffs harness their roster’s talent. Mark Jackson, during his two years in Golden State, has already shown the benefits of having a great motivator as head coach.

Fortunately for Detroit, Cheeks is known more as a cheerleader than a strategist. But Cheeks has the daunting task of trying to find a way to exploit specific aspects of both Jennings’ and Smith’s games when both of these players have consistently and stubbornly avoided playing to their strengths. Smith, Drummond and Greg Monroe give Jennings offensive options he never saw with the Bucks. If Cheeks can’t convince his point guard to pay attention to his frontline, this could be a very short tenure for him, especially with all of the individual talent on this roster heightening expectations. Plenty of veteran coaches—George Karl, for instance—are currently waiting for the right opportunity, so Cheeks better make the pieces fit very quickly.

This is confusing for the Bucks because: their new trio of guards has just as many concerns as before.

Going into the 2013 postseason, the Bucks showcased a backcourt consisting of Jennings, Ellis and Redick. And with Kohl leading the way, that trio has now changed to Brandon Knight, OJ Mayo and Gary Neal.

Instead of getting younger or improving their backcourt, the Bucks have simply traded three problematic players for three players with just as many questions and concerns. Knight is only 21 but has given little reason to think he can be a point guard long-term. He’s a shooting guard in a point guard’s body playing too much like a shooting guard. Mayo is one year older than Ellis and has never shown the ability to score at will like Ellis while sharing his defensive deficiencies. Neal had his career-defining moment in Game 3 of last year’s NBA Finals when he poured in 24 unexpected points. Besides that, he simply seems like a role player who might not be ready for the larger part the Bucks are expecting him to play. And what could be most problematic of all is that none of these players are particularly good or willing passers. The Bucks should be worried just as much as the Pistons in terms of who will be the main facilitator.

As mentioned before, the Bucks are very confusing in what they’re trying to accomplish next season and beyond. Other than their hope in Sanders and Henson continuing to develop, any sort of long-term plan is an enigma.

The Pistons won this trade because: no matter how much the Pistons improve, they now have a team worth investing in.

Let’s make one thing clear: This isn’t the 2009 offseason for the Pistons. Villanueva/Gordon might have been expected to play similar roles as Smith/Jennings will, but the major difference is the hype that goes along with the recent signings. The Pistons finally have a team worth going to the Palace to watch. No longer are they wading in mediocrity, thinking about the good ol’ days during the mid-to-late 2000s. That era started off in a comparable manner. The Pistons made similar drastic changes to three of their starting positions in 2002 when Billups, Richard Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince all joined the team.

With the signing of Jennings along with Smith, the Pistons have taken a step toward their winning ways from not too long ago. Even though these elite individual talents don’t seem as though they could fit together on the same team, Detroit has a legitimate chance to win now while leaving room to improve for the future. With Villanueva’s and Stuckey’s expiring contracts still available, the Pistons could easily make a mid-season trade consisting of these two for a strong wing player and/or deep threat. If they can’t find a trade suitor for these two, they will still have significant cap space during a highly anticipated summer of free agency.

Monroe, Drummond, Smith and Jennings are the faces of this franchise for the present and future. If they can find a way to fit together, understand their roles and rely on each other’s strengths, they will be a part of the elite East shortly. But that “if” may be much larger than we all think.

Previously:
Court Changes: The New Argentinian Sixth Man
Court Changes: Nate The Lil’ Nugget
Court Changes: Monta Ellis Picks Dallas
Court Changes: Iggy Joins the Dubs
Court Changes: Josh Smith Going To Motown

Court Changes: Superman to Houston
Court Changes: Clippers Get Two Sharpshooters
Court Changes: Knicks Acquire Andrea Bargnani

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  • BCoops

    This team is slowly turning into what a 9 year old kid would create on 2K for messing about with. Now all they need is to somehow aquire jamal crawford.

  • Peter Walsh

    Like the moves $ wise the Pistons made–got J.Smith for under the max and Jennings for half his asking price–but if you’ve been bad for a string of seasons, why would you try and be good this year of all years with a draft loaded class coming up?!

  • Jay Wallis

    Especially with the Heat/Pacers/Bulls/Nets (Knicks a tier below those four) all head and shoulders above the competition.

  • LB92

    Interesting concept – a Billups or an Iverson? It will be fun watching to see if Jennings can grow into a team player.

  • Ben

    I’d be really interested to see what sort of trades come about mid-season for the Pistons. If something positive comes, this could be the start of a really good team. BIG IF. Like you said. Great article none the less.

  • David E.

    Awesome post, Jay. I think you summed it up really well. I believe Milwaukee lost their playoff spot with the lost of BJ. Detroit definitely took a huge shot with getting him, and although they lost Brandon Knight, a young talented PG, they traded up. Plus, Detroit is a young squad that has plenty of talent. The big guys at PF and C will need to be the ones to hold the team together just like Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace did in 2004. I’m very excited to watch this team play. Brandon Jennings, Peyton Siva, Andre Drummond, Kyle Singler, Josh Smith, and Greg Monroe among others makes up for a young team and a solid playoff contender.

  • Grant Shaffer

    Great article. Great trade for the Pistons. Jennings is simply an upgraded version of Knight, and the loss of role players like Middleton and Kravtsov won’t affect them in the least. That being said, I am far from convinced it will translate to success due to the overall lack of a team play mentality coming from their most talented players. If Jennings learns to be a distributor, and Josh Smith doesn’t take a single 3 pointer all year, that could change. I personally don’t see that happening. At least not this year. The Pistons most success may come from going small with Billups running the point and Jennings playing the 2 offensively. All their talent will be wasted if the ball doesn’t get moved. In a couple of years this team could really develop into a strong squad. But for now, at the very least, they will be highly entertaining to watch.

  • Josh McSwain

    Cheeks is going to have a job ahead of him meshing all these players together. I think he can do it, but it won’t be easy. Smith certainly brings a diverse set of talent to the table, Jennings is scorer, and of course Monroe is pretty good. A playoff spot is within reach, but considering the division they play in (Indiana, Chicago, and an upward moving Cleveland team as well as the fringe team Milwaukee), it won’t be a cakewalk.

  • Trevor

    The Bucks will forever be stuck on the “mediocrity treadmill” with the way they reshape their roster, without ironically re shaping it. It’s like they just like to trade or bring in the same pieces they have had before. Add in the fact that its a small market so it’s tough for them to bring in a big FA, this team looks and will perform like all the Bucks teams have this past decade. Good enough to be in the 10-8 spots of the conference. Until they change owners or move to a new city, these bucks will only be be does at best.

    The Pistons obviously win this trade by a land slide in my opinion. Although they got Jennings and all of his selfish style of play that goes with him, they kept their front court in tact. When I first read reports about the trade, I heard it was Monroe that was headed to Milwuakee. Thankfully the Pistons organization realized how valuable big men are these days and instead decided to ship off Brandon Knight. Knight is as much of a question mark as Jennings is due to his lack of size, strength, and consistency that is needed to play the SG position. The “shooting guard inside a point guard body” comparison is spot on in regards to Knight. He was on my fantasy team this last year and although he did put up decent numbers he was always battling an ankle or nagging injury. At this point in his career he is not built enough to battle with other shooting guards which is sad because he really does have the ability to put up huge scoring numbers. He isn’t a pass first point guard either.

    Awesome article. You’ve really grown with your writing and it’s great to be a witness.

  • LakeShow

    Desmond Mason sighting!

  • NickTime

    Andre Drummond with all the offensive boards…

  • CryToMe456

    Agreed – that’s a big if…poor Mo Cheeks. He might retire once he’s done trying to fix Smith/BJenns…

  • GoofyGoober

    Point to add: This Pistons team has the potential to upset in the playoffs (most likely the Knicks or Nets) simply because they now match up well with those two teams. Now the likelihood of that happening are slim but there’s a glimpse hope for Detroit this yr to make it to the second round. Also when Jennings exposes the ball the defenders when he drives, he does that similar to James Harden to get the defenders to foul him which is why he gets to the line a decent amount. The Pistons will be entertaining to watch to say the least, the Bucks will be…..who knows an atomic bomb wating to go off if OJ and Neal start to play out of their minds (wishful thinking). Great stuff here though, good info and storyline.

  • snasty10

    I’m just glad the stones will have some excitement this year, especially after last season. Hopefully the pistons can mesh together and become one of the most athletic young teams in the league.

  • Ron668

    Those poor Milwakeeans have to put up with both Herb Kohl and Ryan Braun. Yikes.

  • Ugh

    Good article. Good insights. Thanks.

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