by Abe Schwadron | @abe_squad
The story of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis is a difficult one to scribble. Not for its main characters, nor for its setting or lack of plot lines. But for its proper tense.
Are we to talk about these Milwaukee Bucks in the past, present or future? Have we just witnessed a short-term experiment or a new, viable basketball blueprint? Is this the beginning or the end? And while we’re at it, how did they earn the nickname the Swag Twins?
With such deep philosophical questions afoot, it’s fitting that they be met with another, albeit less metaphysical query—and more nicknames.
“You talking about the two rabbits?”
With that, and a laugh, Milwaukee center Samuel Dalembert considers the first—and, potentially only—full season together for the Bucks’ speedy, smallish starting backcourt, after Ellis came over from Golden State at the 2012 trade deadline.
“I think they’ve managed to accommodate each other,” says Dalembert, who from ’01 to ’06 played in Philadelphia alongside Allen Iverson, the best undersized scoring guard in League history.
That Jennings and Ellis have “accommodated” one another doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in a backcourt combo that managed to lead Milwaukee to the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference and the team’s first Playoff bid since 2010. But it happens to be a fair assessment, since both Jennings and Ellis are high-volume shooters who have a hard time figuring out what to do when not handling the rock.
In the regular season, the pocket-sized pair put up nearly identical numbers while playing far more minutes than anyone else on the roster. Monta gave the Bucks 19.2 ppg on 41 percent shooting, plus 6.1 assists, 3.9 boards and 2 steals per game; Brandon averaged 17.6 points on 40 percent shooting, to go along with 6.6 apg, 3.1 rpg and 1.6 spg.
Only three shooting guards in the game put up more points per game than Ellis in ’12-13: Kobe Bryant, James Harden and Dwyane Wade. Jennings, meanwhile, was Top 10 in scoring among point guards. Veteran big man Drew Gooden, who has seen his fair share of top-notch backcourt blends over a decade-plus career with nine teams, says he ranks these Young Bucks right up there with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili or Jason Kidd and Jason Terry. And yet, Milwaukee’s team field goal percentage was fourth-worst in the NBA, and that short-lived trip to a post-season spot was achieved with a sub-.500 record in the inferior East.
Still, the fact remains that sputtering teams around the League would kill to land an explosive player like Jennings or Ellis. Each has carved out not only a niche as a favorite among fans, but as one of the top scoring options at his position. They’re also extremely likeable, leading the NBA to produce Brandon & Monta, a retro-style TV ad made to mimic the iconic 1970s sitcom Laverne & Shirley—the “original Milwaukee duo”—set to Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox’s “Making Our Dreams Come True.” The irony, of course, is that a commercial created to highlight the chemistry between the two had to be held until after the trade deadline, since Ellis’ name in particular was abuzz in the rumor mill.
A year from now, that 30-second jingle could be irrelevant save for the butt of a joke on a blog, or it could still be running as Milwaukee approaches another Playoff season. Because while together they make for one of pro ball’s most unique and exciting guard tandems, with either ripe to go off for 40 points or an ankle-breaking highlight at a moment’s notice, Ellis and Jennings appear to have, on the whole, co-existed more than meshed. Does having them play together make sense? Does essentially taking turns running the show really count as chemistry?
“We make fun sometimes,” says Dalembert, “Like, OK, the third quarter is Brandon’s quarter, he’ll start hitting some threes. And then after that, the fourth quarter, that’s Monta’s quarter.”
It’s at this point that proponents of the dynamic, diminutive duo nod in agreement, while critics cue the nervous laughter. Dalembert continues: “If both have rough nights, as you can see throughout the year, we’re in deep sh—we’re in deep trouble. But that doesn’t happen often, so for the most part, if you got one off and the other one kicking in, we’re still in the game.”
On this night, an early April road contest in New York, it’s Brandon’s turn. Jennings, always up for games at the Garden, is firing on all cylinders. By the eight-minute mark of the third quarter, he’s racked up 23 points, including four treys. Monta, meanwhile, is ice cold. He sits for nearly the entire second quarter, checks in with a minute to go before halftime, commits a foul and heads back to the bench 10 seconds later. Ellis finishes the night—a 101-83 loss—shooting 4-13 from the field and 1-7 from three-point range.
The result isn’t itself a surprise, but it serves to once again expose that for as far as the Bucks have come, they still have a long way to go to reach even the East’s second tier.
And now, having been swept in the first round, Brandon, Monta and the Bucks have major off-season decisions to make in regards to their collective futures. Jennings, 23, is a restricted free agent this summer. Ellis, 27, has an $11 million player-option for next season.
Is Milwaukee ready to commit long-term with “the rabbits” as franchise cornerstones? Ready to, as a Western Conference scout told Sports Illustrated in December, “live and die by Jennings and Ellis?”
As one bold YouTube commenter noted on the aforementioned commercial a week before the Playoffs began, “‘We’re gonna make our dreams come true’? If your dream is to get eliminated in 4 games by Miami, then yes your dreams will come true!” Indeed, conventional wisdom says you can’t play Championship-level basketball with two guards shorter than 6-3 as your top options (even if the League has become more and more guard-driven over the past decade) and Milwaukee has sacrificed any semblance of post scoring for premier perimeter play.
Advanced stats can be manipulated to support either side of the argument. The Bucks’ top five most efficient offensive lineups from the ’12-13 season, for instance, featured both Ellis and Jennings, and in terms of net production by position, Milwaukee gets far and away its best numbers from the two guard slots. Then again, the Bucks struggled mightily on D with them on the floor—all eight of Milwaukee’s worst defensive lineups included both guys.
“Sometimes we’re a little small in the backcourt, but Monta really battles bigger, more physical players,” admitted now-former Bucks head coach Jim Boylan, who took over the helm after Scott Skiles parted ways with the team just 32 games in.
Boylan himself struggled to find the right way to pair Jennings and Ellis, chafing Young Money with a surprise benching in late March and continuing to tinker with both players’ minutes—an exercise complicated by the late-season addition of JJ Redick via trade. While still the coach, Boyland called it a “work in progress,” but still insisted that in today’s NBA, the Bucks could win playing through BJ and ME.
“We move the ball. Guys pass. It’s not like we don’t find guys—everybody touches it,” Boylan would say. “It’s not a team that’s a greedy team. It’s a team that moves the ball well and plays together.”
Bucks forward Luc Mbah A Moute points out that the extra attention paid to the backcourt has opened up lanes for players like he and Ersan Ilyasova, who owes some of his recently signed $40-million deal to his speedy guards. “You play with guys like that, they’re always creating with their penetration or the attention they draw, so it’s good for other guys. You can see it with Ersan getting stretch and getting shots,” says Mbah A Moute. “These guys are so good at getting to the rim that it draws people. They understand that.”
Like in back-to-back home wins for Milwaukee in early March, when Jennings dished out a career-high 19 assists to beat the Raptors, then had 17 more dimes against the Jazz. Ellis went off for 23 and 34 points in those games, and Ilyasova added 29 of the Bucks’ 122 points against Toronto. That’s what Milwaukee envisioned when Ellis came over last March with Ekpe Udoh and Kwame Brown in exchange for Stephen Jackson and Andrew Bogut. Only the adjustment—er, accommodation—period took time for the pair.
After the loss to the Knicks, Ellis is nowhere to be found in the post-game scrum at MSG. Jennings sits with a towel over his head and stares at the empty locker Monta has already vacated. “It was different,” he says bluntly of his first few games on the court with Ellis. “We kind of have similar games. We both wanted to score a lot.”
“But now we’re just feeding off each other,” continues Jennings. “We’re comfortable.”
Comfort doesn’t breed success, though. Statistics be damned, the only numbers that matter to management are in the win-loss column, where despite showing flashes en route to the Playoffs, the feeble effort against the Heat was proof this version of the Bucks has fizzled.
“When you’ve got two guys who are the same type of player, after a whole full year they’ve played with each other, everybody’s going to look at themselves in the mirror and say this is what I could have done better. That’s what a professional does,” Dalembert explains. “You’re not going to be able to control what the organization is going to do, who they’re going to keep or not.”
Jennings has reiterated that he plans to keep his options open in regards to free agency, and Ellis has hinted at opting out of his deal, which means that in all likelihood, one or both may have played their final games in a Bucks uniform. On what will happen next, Jennings says only, “We’ll see.”
But short of the Bucks pulling a rabbit or two out of a hat, one thing we won’t see is this: the NBA’s modern-day imagining of Laverne & Shirley, locked up together long-term.