Jennings-Ellis combo succeeding for Bucks, but doubters persist
Across the NBA, from the executive offices to the bench to the scouts' desks, opinions on Milwaukee -- specifically its pint-sized backcourt of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis -- were largely the same. Can't work. Won't work. No way two small, ball-dominating point guards could co-exist on a successful team. The trade that brought Ellis -- a 6-foot-3 scoring machine who averaged 19.5 points per game over six-and-a-half seasons in Golden State -- to Milwaukee for Andrew Bogut made the Bucks more dynamic. But successful? Nah.
Quietly, though, Milwaukee has put together a solid start to the season. At 13-10, the Bucks are fifth in the Eastern Conference, a half game behind Chicago for the Central Division lead. Ellis is averaging 19 points while Jennings has chipped in 17.6. It hasn't been the most efficient production -- Ellis is shooting 39.8 percent, Jennings 40.1 -- but it has been enough. In Tuesday night's 98-93 win over Indiana, Jennings ripped off a season-high 34 points while Ellis added 19.
"Me and Monta talked about [how] at the end of the day, everything is going to fall back on us, the good and the bad," Jennings told reporters recently. "So it's going to be up to us to set the tone for team and leave it out there every night on the floor. We just can't take days off."
Overall, the offense hasn't been pretty: The Bucks are 24th in points per 100 possessions and 23rd in shooting (43.3 percent). Three-point shooting, which Milwaukee hoped would be a strength, has bottomed out: The Bucks are connecting on 32.8 percent, good for just 28th.
In an attempt to maximize the talents of his freewheeling guards, coach Scott Skiles, scouts say, has simply taken the reins off the offense.
"Skiles is letting them play," a Western Conference scout said. "They are getting it down the floor quick and running random pick-and-rolls, getting up early shots. If a guy has it going, he lets it go a little bit more. He is encouraging them to push it and get transition baskets. With Skiles, you give him a group of players, he will figure out what works for them. And with this team, it's just letting them play."
Said an Eastern Conference scout: "When Jennings was a rookie, this wouldn't have worked. I think he matured some. He understands how to play off of people a little better."
For all the concern about Milwaukee's defense, the Bucks have been surprisingly stout, ranking 10th in points allowed per possession. They gamble more, with Jennings (2.35 steals per game) and Ellis (1.52) leading a team that ranks in the top five in steals (8.8) and turnovers forced (16.8). A revamped front line that added John Henson, Samuel Dalembert and Joel Przybilla to a unit that already included Larry Sanders and Ekpe Udoh has helped the Bucks improve from 18th in points allowed in the paint (41.4) last season to 12th (40) this year.
"Most teams are going to have a 2-guard who can post Ellis up," the East scout said. "But they [the Bucks] have shot blockers protecting them on the back side that you have to worry about."
Entering a showdown with Western Conference powerhouse Memphis on Wednesday, the Bucks still have plenty of doubters. SI.com polled five advance scouts on whether Milwaukee could win a playoff series with this roster. Each said no.
"I don't see how that combination can be a consistently winning team," the East scout said. "When you are a purely jump-shooting team, you are not going to go very far. And they don't have a post presence they can consistently get the ball to."
Said the West scout: "They are going to live and die by Jennings and Ellis."
Doubters, of course, are nothing new to the Bucks, who have used those questions as motivation nightly. And just making the playoffs -- which Milwaukee has not done the last two seasons -- would be a positive step for a young franchise.
"The only thing we can do at the end of the day is go out and play hard and leave it all on the court and try to get wins," Ellis told OnMilwaukee.com recently. "I'm not here trying to prove nobody wrong. The only thing here is to help this team win. That's it. Proving everybody wrong really don't matter. The only thing we can do is prove it to ourselves and this locker room."