Brandon for Brandon: What Does the Jennings-Knight Deal Really Mean for Detroit and Milwaukee?

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First of all, let’s congratulate the Pistons and Bucks on collaborating for a fitting capper to the NBA’s silly season. It seemed at times like these two were at the center of at least half the free-agency rumors after July 1. The Pistons used their cap space — earned mostly via sacrificing a first-round pick to dump Ben Gordon on Charlotte — to sign one polarizing lefty free agent, and have now nabbed another via sign-and-trade. In between, they signed Italian sharpshooter Luigi Datome, who joins Milwaukee’s Miroslav Raduljica in the club of “international guys only 2 percent of NBA fans had heard of before Detroit or Milwaukee signed them.”

The Bucks, meanwhile, turned over two-thirds of their roster in ditching every perimeter player from their 2012-13 squad, save for Ish Smith. They signed Zaza Pachulia in what might have been a clerical error, and they and the Hawks damn near discussed flipping rosters at one point. The Bucks and Hawks should have worked a token swap of second-round picks into this Brandon Jennings deal, making it a three-team trade that would have worked as a convenient shorthand for the entire non–Dwight Howard portion of the 2013 offseason.

The trade is a little easier to understand from Detroit’s perspective, even if the $4.5 million difference between Brandon Knight’s 2014-15 salary and Jennings’s could be the difference between big-time cap room and middling space for Detroit next summer — in a potentially crowded free-agency marketplace. Jennings is better than Knight, and the Pistons badly want to make the playoffs this season after four straight lottery trips. They got Jennings at a very nice price — Jeremy Lin money — and concluded three years of Jennings at a reasonable $8 million per is worth more in their current state than whatever progress Knight might make in the final two years of his rookie deal. That’s really it.

Knight is only 21 and works really hard, both on the practice court and in the film room. The Pistons love him, and think he is a very nice person. But as I detailed two weeks ago, he has had a frighteningly difficult time reading the floor in the very basic ways point guards must manage. Knight on the pick-and-roll is often out of sorts, slow to spot passing lanes, unable to engineer those lanes, and a step behind in understanding how and where the defense is rotating. Experience and work can refine those skills, but Knight’s struggles have been so profound as to call into question, even at his young age, whether he will ever be a competent starting point guard on a good NBA team.

Jennings isn’t exactly Magic Johnson, and he had become persona non grata in Milwaukee. He fancied himself a max-level superstar even though he never played like one, he dropped hints about his desire for big money and his unhappiness in Milwaukee seemingly on a biweekly basis, and he blatantly dogged it on defense the entire second half of last season. Milwaukee was sick of him, and he was sick of Milwaukee, and the situation was probably beyond repair even before the Bucks signed Jeff Teague to an offer sheet. (The Hawks, of course, matched that offer sheet.)

But Jennings can play point guard, and he’s gotten better at it over time. He understands the rhythms of a pick-and-roll — how to read layers of help defense, the art of an inside-out dribble, the prodding impact of a well-timed hesitation bounce, and the trajectory of a slick wraparound pass in the lane. He’s got a little Chris Paul–style start-and-stop to his pick-and-roll game now, and he uses that to get further into the paint, in more dangerous ways, more often than he did one or two seasons ago. Jennings can even go right, at least occasionally, and he especially likes to do so when defenses anticipate him dribbling around a pick set to his left — this allows him to cross defenses up by rejecting the pick and dribbling to his right into the teeth of a surprised defense.

He’s not an inherently selfish player either, despite some hellish shot selection. He seemed to enjoy picking out Monta Ellis, Mike Dunleavy, and J.J. Redick (all Bucks as recently as, like, five minutes ago) as they curled around screens, and he had a nice chemistry with the wily Ersan Ilyasova. Milwaukee’s offense during the past two seasons was much healthier when Jennings shared the court with Ilyasova, a deadly stretch power forward who knows how to move without the ball, per NBA.com. I’d be a little worried, if I were Joe Dumars, about how Jennings might function without both a rangy power forward and an off-ball shooter running the baseline. Perhaps Datome and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope could help on the latter front, and head coach Maurice Cheeks could add some stretchiness to the frontcourt by staggering Smith’s, Monroe’s, and Andre Drummond’s minutes.

But Jennings’s shot selection can indeed trend toward hellish, and he’ll have to dial that back if he wants to reach his peak efficiency and mesh within a starting lineup that will contain three very talented teammates in Smith, Drummond, and Monroe. Two of those teammates — Smith and Monroe — require the basketball, meaning there will be a feeling-out process for both those three high-usage players and Detroit’s new coaching staff.

But you can squint at Jennings and see the outlines of an efficient NBA point guard. He rarely turns the ball over, an underrated asset that can make up for horrid field goal percentages that hover around the 40 percent mark — the NBA’s Mendoza/Antoine Walker Line. (The same is true, by the way, for J.R. Smith, though people don’t mention the low-turnover thing with him as often as they do with Jennings.) And Jennings has been a league-average 3-point shooter despite an addiction to high-difficulty looks. Knight is a better 3-point shooter, but it’s possible Jennings’s long-distance skill set might fit better on this Detroit team so in need of a lead guard; Jennings shot 40 percent on 103 3-pointers taken while running a pick-and-roll, per Synergy Sports, indicating he can use the shot as a weapon off the dribble in the flow of the NBA’s bread-and-butter play. Only 30 of Knight’s 327 3-point attempts came as the ball handler in a pick-and-roll, and though the midseason trade for Jose Calderon, which shifted Knight off the ball, dampened that number a bit, only 46 of Knight’s 276 3-point attempts in 2011-12 came via the pick-and-roll, per Synergy. He’s more comfortable, at least for now, jacking 3s as a spot-up guy.

Detroit is going to need all the shooting it can get around the spacing-challenged Smith-Monroe-Drummond threesome, and Jennings as a long-distance threat with the ball is crucial in that regard.

Jennings is short and skinny, without killer hops. He’s always going to struggle near the basket, where he typically shoots an abysmal 50 percent, and he’s never going to draw fouls like Russell Westbrook or Derrick Rose — freight trains in comparison. But the path to efficiency for him might be as simple as trading two or three tricky floaters and step-back 20-footers each game for a chance to reset the offense instead. Jennings has shown signs of an effective Tony Parker–style in-between game of 16-footers and artful teardrops, but he “supplements” those solid looks with more difficult and selfish versions of the same types of shots.

A floater in rhythm, and with some space both in front of Jennings and behind him? Fine. A floater off the wrong foot from an awkward distance, like this?

Pocket that baby, or take it to the rack. Ditto for floaters in heavy traffic, like this:

A clean 15-footer, in rhythm, with both feet set and a straight up-and-down balance? Fire away. But let’s bag the 20-foot step-back jumpers, taken with shaky balance after a very tough backward dribble, and the gruesome baseline leaners that follow an even trickier sideways bounce:

Jennings jacks lots of these bad boys with 10 or more ticks left on the shot clock, plenty of time to improvise another pick-and-roll or work some kind of dribble handoff. Drummond will be stationed somewhere as Detroit’s most threatening pick-and-roll screener, and Monroe will often be hanging around near one of the elbows — the perfect spot for a dribble handoff or pitch-back that really functions as a pick-and-roll. Monroe has a great all-around elbow-area game, and Jennings ran a ton of high-speed dribble handoffs as part of Scott Skiles’s scurrying side-to-side attack in Milwaukee.

The ceiling for this roster might not be all that high, at least for now. The spacing issues are real, Drummond just turned 20, and both Smith and Jennings need to prove they can shave back their worst tendencies. Monroe has to improve as a defender, and Cheeks has to balance the frontcourt minutes among his three star bigs. Detroit may top out as a leading candidate for one of the Eastern Conference’s last three playoff spots next season, and that’s fine. This ownership and front office was never going to tank the 2013-14 season, even if Philadelphia outlined the path to doing so — trade Monroe for future picks, including a potential 2014 lottery pick, take a giant step back, and watch the Ping-Pong balls. But the Sixers, from the ownership to the GM to the fans, are just in a different spot than these Pistons.

And there is always another shoe to drop. Detroit isn’t stoked about giving Monroe a max-level contract extension, and if they fall in love with the Smith-Drummond front line, they may dangle Monroe at some point. And they’ll have cap space in each of the next two summers. No harm, no foul.

Milwaukee is always in the same spot — competing for the no. 8 spot amid a never-ending roster churn that has to stop at some point. The Ilyasova–LARRY SANDERS!–John Henson front line is a very nice foundation, and the Bucks are likely to ink SANDERS! to an extension before the October 31 deadline. Milwaukee envisions a Pacers- or Rockets-style path of rebuilding without the benefit of a top-10 draft pick. It’s hard to see that kind of upward trajectory, and swapping Jennings for Knight didn’t really change that.

Milwaukee has acquired a bundle of intriguing assets, including some tradable young bigs (Henson, Ekpe Udoh, etc.) and a basket of future second-round picks, but they don’t have the kind of single killer asset — a guaranteed extra lottery pick, for instance — the Rockets used to snag James Harden. They’ve nailed a bunch of picks outside the top 10, but they haven’t unearthed a two-way force quite on Paul George’s level. In other words: This is a nice nucleus, and a young one, but unless someone among this young core (SANDERS!, O.J. Mayo, Knight, or Giannis Antetokounmpo, the mystery man of June’s draft) takes a giant leap forward, they don’t appear to be one David West–type free-agency signing away from a top-four seed in 2015 and beyond.

Knight isn’t a likely candidate for that kind of leap, but he’s worth a look in Jennings’s place, and especially with Luke Ridnour around to soak up some of the ballhandling and passing duties. (And Mayo can help with that after showing improved passing chops last season in Dallas.) He’s a good character guy, like Mayo and Ridnour and Pachulia and Gary Neal, and the Bucks are clearly invested in lightening the mood of the post-Jennings locker room. He’s a good shooter with speed and athleticism, and he should develop into a solid defender with enough length to take on some shooting guards.

Still, Jennings-for-Knight is a step back in raw production for a Bucks team that wants to make the playoffs, a task that won’t be easy with three postseason spots up for grabs among six teams — Atlanta, Detroit, Washington, Toronto, Milwaukee, and Cleveland. (In theory, you could add Boston and Orlando to the back end of that list, but I’m convinced those front offices will trade out of the playoff race if they have to.)

But the Bucks had to do something, and they’re set to have plenty of cap room in each of the next two summers. A monster extension for SANDERS! would leave Milwaukee with something like $10 million in space next summer, and perhaps less depending on some other variables, and that really highlights the price of the puzzling three-year, $15 million deal that added Pachulia to a crowded big rotation. But Milwaukee is still flexible, and it wouldn’t be difficult to shed salary in a trade.

Jennings is a sexy name, with an Internet footprint and hype level that outpaces his actual basketball ability by a huge margin, but I’m not sure this trade really moves the needle much for either team. Each may have more interesting moves to make down the line, and this doesn’t dramatically affect their ability to chase any such deals.

Filed Under: Milwaukee Bucks, NBA, Zach Lowe

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

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