One of the under-the-radar surprises of this NBA season has been the scrappy Milwaukee Bucks. After two years of falling just short of the playoffs, the Bucks are having their best run since the “Fear The Deer” days of 2010, and the odds are extremely likely they will qualify for 2013 postseason. The potent backcourt of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis is a big part of the Bucks’ success. While neither is an elite shooter, both are capable of putting points on the board, and when either gets hot, they can be downright deadly.
The question is, how far can the Bucks go with Jennings and Ellis as their leaders? Unfortunately, the answer is probably not too much further than the first round. Ellis and Jennings can both be great at times, but their inconsistency makes them rather frustrating to have on your team. While both players are capable of having 30, and even 4o point explosions, they also have their fair share of nights where they just can get a shot to go down. Ellis has had countless games where he’s shot his team out of contention with an endless stream of bricks, and Jennings, while somewhst more efficient than Ellis, is still a shoot-first point guard who only shoots 40%. Having two erratic jump-shooters in your backcourt can make for quite a rollercoaster ride. One can’t help but wonder how long the bucks front office will be willing to take that ride.
Clearly, Jennings and Ellis can’t turn a team into a contender by themselves, so a lot of questions lie in the frontcourt. The Bucks have looked pretty solid in that department this year. After a rough start, Ersan Ilyasova once again looks like the hyper-efficient three-point shooter who was so alluring last year. After being banished to bench early on, Ilyasova’s strong play has allowed him to fight his way back into the starting lineup. Larry Sanders has been the breakout star of the team, and right now he has a decent shot at Most Improved Player and Defensive Player Of The Year. He’s the kind of young player coaches dream of; a defensive specialist who makes excellent use of a limited offensive skill set. As Sanders develops, he could turn into the sort of all-star big man that Tyson Chandler has become for the New York Knicks. His ceiling is higher than anyone would’ve thought.
Unfortunately, there has been a lot of indecisiveness with regards to how much these young Bucks should play. Former coach Scott Skiles was notorious for his ever-changing rotations, and while interim coach Jim Boylan has brought some stability, there is some uncertainy as to who the leaders of the frontcourt should be. Consider this; Ellis and Jennings have both played more than 1600 minutes this season, while no other player has played more than 1100. There is no big man who Skiles or Boylan has trusted enough to receive heavy playing time on a consistent basis. The team will need leaders other than Jennings and Ellis, so this issue needs to be resolved soon.
My guess is, as time goes on, Ilyasova and Sanders will firmly establish themselves as the leaders upfront, giving the team a core of Jennings, Ellis, Ilyasova, and Sanders. This is a group talented enough to carry the Bucks to the playoffs every season (especially in the weak Eastern Conference), but probably not much else. They simply don’t have the star power to hang with the likes of the Miami Heat and the New York Knicks. On their best nights, Ellis and Jennings might both temporarily appear to be the type of player you can build a team around, but soon after, their bad, inefficient sides will come out, and Bucks fans will once again be reminded of how flawed their two leaders are.
This leaves the Bucks with a tough choice: do they keep rolling with the Jennings-Ellis combo, knowing it can get them to the playoffs, but not much further, or do they let one player go, and begin the tough task of trying to create a dynasty in a small market unlikely to appeal to free agents. My guess is, the team will resign Jennings when he becomes a free agent after this season, if only because he’s already a top-15 point guard, and he could get better. In 2014, they’ll have a very tough decision to make about Ellis. That’s when they’ll have to decide whether they want to become a fringe playoff team with Jennings and Ellis, or if they wander into no-man’s-land with the hopes of eventually becoming something more. Considering how win starved this fanbase is, and how tough it is to bring free agents to Milwaukee, it wouldn’t be shocking if they chose the former. They won’t win any titles, but they’ll be fun to watch, and they’ll bring a little joy to the fans who sorely need it.
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