The number three holds some significance in the NBA. Just look at recent NBA champions.
Last year’s Los Angeles Lakers were led by Kobe Bryant obviously, but Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum were among the league’s best at their respective positions as well (it didn’t hurt having Lamar Odom and Ron Artest to make up for Bynum’s injury woes either). And how about the Celtics of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce. Or the Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili led Spurs. Each of these teams were easily able to establish cores and build around those key players. It wasn’t much of a debate in any case once these players were acquired. The great cores win games and define themselves. They become evident.
It appeared Milwaukee was well on their way to finding their own last season. Brandon Jennings surged out of the gate as a rookie and Andrew Bogut finally found some offensive consistency after years of toying with the idea. And then this season happened.
So, now I’m kind of thinking about it and wondering: do the Bucks have a core, or at least two thirds of one? Despite last year’s success, it’s far from certain that Jennings or Bogut are going to be part of long term success in Milwaukee.
Before a December foot injury put Jennings down for the past 17 games, he seemed to be making progress in his second season. He’s improved his shooting percentage, earned more trips to the free throw line per game and has kept his assist numbers steady despite playing in what had been while he was healthy a historically bad offense. How much of that was his fault? It’s tough to say. As a point guard, you’d like to think he’s creating a number of easy shots for his teammates, but Milwaukee’s problem all season has been making easy shots. The team that ranked 11th in the league in points per possession on spot up jumpers last season, suddenly has plummeted to 21st in the league this year. Jennings has largely been making the passes he needs to make, he just hasn’t seen his teammates connect on the other end.
But Jennings physical skills and overall play pale in comparison to some of his point guard counter parts. Despite his invitation to the dunk contest, he’s not in the same class as a finisher as Derrick Rose or Russell Westbrook. And he’s a good shooter, but not a Steve Nash or Chris Paul 50/40/90 type. When it comes down to it, Jennings is probably a slightly above average player at this point. Maybe that’s not bad for a 21-year-old second year player, but it’s not nearly enough to be considered a franchise point guard. Look at the other young point guards in the league: Rondo (24-years-old), Paul (25), Rose (22), Westbrook (22), Wall (20) and Williams (26) are all better or as good as Jennings and in his age group. Could Jennings surpass any of these guys in the next four or five years? Sure, it’s possible. But unlikely.
So is Jennings really a core piece? A guy who isn’t going to be elite when compared with other players at his position in the league? He could be, but he’ll certainly need two players better than him around him. Milwaukee needs someone that’s going to consistently be one of the top performers at their position somewhere.
And that hasn’t been Bogut. He’s obviously spectacular defensively and he’s grown into much more of a leader over the past few years. But offensively, Bogut hasn’t been able to maintain any sort of consistency throughout his career. Last season offered a glimmer of hope, but that has faded away. The elbow injury was significant enough that it’s carried over into this season. Bogut went a month or so before he made a shot with his right hand. He’s done that more regularly now, but he’s currently battling a virus that’s sapped him of energy and left him looking passive offensively.
The viral infection is the most recent problem, but the back spasms earlier this season and the leg problems last year, all those things are apart of a bigger picture. Bogut is nearly constantly injured. That’s just the life of a really large, 7-foot human being. Look at what Bogut does for a living! He is constantly clashing with over 7-foot, 300 pound players looking to bang into him and dominate him physically. It’s not an easy life and certainly not one that produces healthy results.
Look at other big men that have been able to stay healthy over the years. Garnett is more of a face-up player than a back to the basket banger. Duncan steps out and shoot jumpers more often than he bangs inside and tosses in hooks. They are more nimble than powerful the majority of the time they are on the court. They avoid the pounding Bogut takes regularly. To expect Bogut to hold up for more than 70 games a season is difficult.
Can a player so often fighting through pain be relied upon year in and year out as a core piece? When Bogut’s healthy and plugged in, he’s a top five center no doubt. But here we are halfway through his sixth season and Bogut’s struggling through his worst shooting season by far, plagued by injuries again. Better times may lay head for Bogut when he’s healthy again, but he’s never been able to put together a season’s worth of strong offensive basketball.
With Jennings and Bogut surrounded by role players, Milwaukee’s essentially going to max out over the next few years as a fifth or sixth seed. Right now that sounds great, much better than this season. But that’s no way to live life. Shooting for mediocrity is what got the Bucks in trouble during the Michael Redd era. Do we really want to sit through that again? Finding a third piece may requiring parting with Luc Mbah a Moute or Ersan Ilyasova or anyone else on the Bucks, and even that probably won’t be enough.
But the Bucks can replace those players, they are complementary, just like most of the Bucks. And in the NBA, complementary players surrounding two guys who are pretty good, but not great, just won’t get it done.
Jeremy Schmidt writes the Milwaukee Bucks blog Bucksketball.com. Follow him on Twitter. Then become a fan on Facebook (in the sidebar).