Court Changes: Jennings Finally Finds a Home

by August 01, 2013

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.

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