At 6 p.m. Sunday, the Bucks open this year’s NBA playoffs with the Miami Heat, the team with the 2-to-3 odds to win the title. Yes, 2-3 odds, not 3-2.
How can Milwaukee, the team that finished six games under .500 (38-44) beat the Heat (66-16), the team that reeled off 27 wins in a row?
They can’t. They’ll only win if LeBron James AND Dwayne Wade don’t play.
That’s it. They’re not winning. Not even a game.
It’s not even worth talking about. Instead, let’s take a look at where the Bucks season went wrong.
First, Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis and Samuel Dalembert are still on the team.
Yes, I mentioned Samuel Dalembert. He’s the easiest to explain. He’s a 31-year-old veteran center with an expiring contract. He would have been a commodity for a playoff team and the Bucks could have got a little something for him. Not much, but he’s gone next season, doesn't help this season. Anything would have helped.
Ellis is almost as easy to explain. He’s 27 with one year, $11 million left on his contract, but it’s a player option, and he won’t take it. He’ll sign somewhere else long-term for less money. He’s gone and Milwaukee gets nothing.
As for Jennings, the Bucks opted not to pick up the final year of his rookie contract, which would have been for $4.3 million – a ‘bargain,’ though that could be argued based on what Jennings brings. Milwaukee did this so he would become a restricted free agent and could match any team’s offer.
So, to keep Jennings, the Bucks will have to match a pretty high offer. Whether they want to do that or not is up in the air. At the beginning of the year, they did. Then we all watched him play.
Milwaukee opted out of his rookie contract because he would leave for nothing after next year and Milwaukee couldn’t match offers and retain him. They could offer more money, but nobody wants to pay him that much. The Bucks would be throwing it away on someone who isn’t a difference maker.
Jennings told reporters two years ago he will explore his options. Later that season he told OnMilwaukee.com, “I can't say I've been playing hard the last couple games because I really haven't. I need to look in the mirror and ask myself is this something I'm up for.”
Every team needs a guy like that (#sarcasm). Jennings, 23, is also one of the most inefficient point guards in the NBA. He’s ranked 28th in Player Efficiency Rating (PER), one worse than … Ellis.
Jennings is a shoot-first point guard who can’t shoot (39.1 percent). Yet, he jacked 16.8 shots a game, while averaging 7.5 assists and 2.8 turnovers. To compare, Chris Paul, who led PGs in PER, shot 54.7% (10.7 shots). He averaged 10.4 assists and 2.1 turnovers. And he doesn’t have better weapons than Jennings. Similar, but not better.
But enough about Jennings and how he ruined the Bucks season. Where else did they go wrong?
Right before the trade deadline, Milwaukee made the biggest splash when they essentially traded Tobias Harris and Beno Udrih for J.J. Redick.
It seemed good on paper, except that Harris turned into bonafide stud when he was allowed freedom to play. You wouldn’t know it from his days in Milwaukee because he averaged 11.6 minutes a game, plus, if he got in the game, he wouldn’t touch the ball anyway – see Ellis, Jennings. And you probably don’t how good Harris is now, because he’s in Orlando and who cares about Orlando?
But Harris, who is 20 and 6-foot-8 and 226 pounds, put up 17.3 points on 45.3 percent shooting, including a 3-pointer a game. And, more importantly, he averaged 8.5 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.4 blocks and .9 steals.
Aside from the assists, those scrap categories are LeBron James’ numbers, except James is 28 and makes $22 million a year. Harris will average $2.8 million over the next three seasons – one of the best bargains in the NBA.
Meanwhile, Redick, 28, is a solid shooting guard, but he also has an expiring contract. Maybe the Bucks will re-sign him, but he’s making $6 million this year.
Milwaukee just traded for a 20-year-old potential all-star in Harris at a bargain and, Udrih, who averaged 10.7 points, 6.1 assists after the trade, at $7.8 million on an expiring deal for a pure jump-shooting guard who leaves after this year or is overpaid. Udrih and Redick cancel each other out. They just gave Orlando a stud for nothing.
Did the Bucks staff not watch Harris in practice? Was he not doing what he did for Orlando in practice? Or was he on a team with chuck-first guards Jennings and Ellis?
To argue why they made the trade, you could say Milwaukee was overloaded at forward with Ersan Illyasova and rookie John Henson. But you can’t say they traded Harris to give Henson, who is two years older (22), a look. He only averaged 13 minutes a game. And Harris didn’t play either. Mike Dunleavy and Marquis Daniels played. Who? Exactly.
It wasn’t until the last five games of the season that Henson played starter minutes and then he, too, dominated statistically – Jennings did miss two of those games. Henson averaged 15 points, 15 rebounds, 2.8 blocks and 1.2 steals in the final five.
They let this guy rot on the bench all season, too? Milwaukee’s not winning a championship anytime soon. Why didn’t Henson play more?
What the Bucks did with their personnel this season was very confusing.
Aside from the Henson and Harris debacles, once it was evident that they were going forward with Jennings, Ellis and Redick, they weren’t utilized correctly.
Since Ellis was having the worst shooting season of his career (yet still putting up the shots), and he’s an undersized shooting guard who, like Jennings, has to have the ball in his hands, Milwaukee should have made him the sixth man.
See Manu GinobIli, Jamal Crawford, Andre Miller, J.R. Smith and James Harden last season.
Jennings could have pounded the ball and did his thing with Reddick spotting up in the corner, then when the second teams came in, Ellis could have mopped up and got some confidence back in his shot.
Is it any surprise Golden State’s Stephen Curry is having the best year of his career – and arguably was the best guard of the season – with Ellis gone?
Last, but not least, on where the Bucks went wrong this season, there’s Ersan Illyasova. Everyone probably thinks where they went wrong was signing the 25-year-old to a five year deal around $8 million per. Wrong.
Illyasova came into his own last year averaging 13 points on 49 percent shooting from the field and an incredible 45 percent from beyond the arc to go with 8.8 rebounds and nearly a block and a steal a game.
He started off the year in a bit of a funk after a good preseason, but that can be attested to minutes, injury AND … Jennings and Ellis.
Listed at small forward, Illyasova was sixth in the league in PER behind James, Kevin Durant, Paul Pierce and Kenneth Faried. Aside from Faired, those other four played over 33 minutes a game. Illyasova played 28.
Not many fans respect what Illyasova can bring, because he rarely has a chance to show it when Jennings and Ellis are chucking 33.1 shots per game and hitting 41%.
Illyasova didn’t shoot horrible, but not great (46% on 11 shots), but he didn’t get consistent minutes and when he did, he didn’t get consistent shots. He could never get into rhythm and he was never a first option … or second option and maybe not even a third option when Redick was acquired.
However the Bucks are made up next year, it has to be Illyasova’s team, as silly as that sounds. He’s Dirk Nowitzki lite – yeah, yeah, very lite, but he’s a better 3-point shooter and rebounder. Illyasova just hasn’t had the spotlight or the blessing of his teammates to take over. And maybe it's not his mentality to take over games, but hopefully that comes with maturity and the help of his coach and teammates deferring to him.
If Jennings is on the team next year, hopefully he realizes the potential he has to create shots for others and becomes the creator he can be. He won’t. Hopefully, the Bucks sign and trade Jennings.
If not, where the Bucks went wrong next season will start with overpaying Jennings.