The unpredictable identity of the Milwaukee Bucks

One half of what’s made the Bucks who they are this season. (Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

After a disappointing 105-100 loss to the Detroit Pistons on Saturday, Milwaukee Bucks guard Brandon Jennings made it clear that he’s willing to do whatever it takes the rest of the season for the Bucks to win.

“From here on out, I’m just gonna be aggressive,” Jennings said. “If I gotta take 20, 30 shots to win a game, that’s just what I’m gonna do. I need to be more consistent as far as being aggressive and competing more.”

Bucks fans will likely be quick to let people know that above quote sounds as scary as it does heroic. That’s kind of a perfect way to describe The Brandon Jennings/Monta Ellis led Milwaukee Bucks though, isn’t it?

Identity is always a hot buzzword in the NBA. I think I read something like 20 different tweets this past weekend about the Los Angeles Lakers’ identity. From what I can grasp, it’s their lack of one that’s hurting them. They don’t know if they’re a pick and roll team, a Seven Seconds or Less team, Kobe’s team or Dwight’s team. That’s why they’re a mess, I guess.

But as someone who watches a ton of Milwaukee Bucks basketball, I can assure you that having an identity is not exactly a surefire way to turn things around.

Milwaukee has a strong identity. The Bucks are a good defensive team that likes to force turnovers and push the pace of the game as often as possible, while being sure to take care of the ball and keep it moving on offense.

The part about keeping the ball moving on offense is really more just the Bucks at their best. Ultimately, regardless of how much the ball is moving, the Bucks come down to Jennings and Ellis on offense. And that combo of scary heroes has delivered everything basketball fans should have expected.

Breakdown of Bucks Record in Jennings and Ellis Specific Context

In games where both Jennings and Ellis shoot 40% or better: 10-3
In games where both Jennings and Ellis shoot less than 40%: 1-11

Through 49 games, Jennings and Ellis have 13 times both shot better than 40% and 12 times both shot worse than 40%. It’s almost poetic how unpredictably predictable they are. You never know when they’ll both be on or both be off, but they’ve found a way to balance it all out.

That “you never know” aspect of Jennings and Ellis has consumed the entire Bucks team this season. Milwaukee is as capable of coming back from a large deficit as they are blowing one themselves. No lead is safe and no hole too deep to dig out of.

That unpredictability has given Milwaukee wins over the Bulls, Pacers, Heat, Nets and losses to the Wizards, Pistons and Bobcats.

The Bucks have made changes throughout the season seemingly in an attempt to maintain some sort of the consistency that would be required for them to be more than the team that we’ve seen this season. Scott Skiles and the organization parted ways. Numerous players have rotated in and out around Jennings and Ellis in the starting lineup. But thus far, nothing’s been able to keep these Bucks on the right track for more than small stretches.

They continue to remain unpredictable. It’s almost as if they’re two players who will likely be the same players regardless of system, coach or teammates.

Most of us watched the Bucks come into this season with two quasi-star players looking for contract extensions, a number of other expiring deals, a few young players looking to carve out roles in the NBA and a front office uncertain of its own future and saw something of an experiment season. This would be the year the Bucks would decide their future.

The ball has quite literally been in the hands of  Jennings and Ellis from day one this year. If they could grow as players, become better defenders and more efficient, there was a very real possibility that they’d be a big part of the Bucks going forward.

But they haven’t grown much. They’re both still inefficient and they’ve taken the Bucks offense down with them. The biggest issue with both Jennings and Ellis may be that they truly think they’re doing what’s right for the team when they shoot because they have so much confidence in themselves. It takes a lot of confidence to talk about shooting 30 times a game when you’re shooting exactly 40% as Jennings is. Kudos to him for his unwavering faith in himself. That faith is surely a big part of what’s gotten him as far as he has.

But organizations typically prefer to throw their confidence behind players whose certainties can rest on something other than blind faith. Right now, it has to be pretty hard for the Bucks to be all that certain about either Jennings or Ellis on a nightly basis, regardless of how much those two believe in themselves

So the Bucks have some decisions to make with the trade deadline approaching. What will this team look like next season? What will it look like for the rest of this one?

Appropriately enough for this team, we have no idea.

As if it could be any other way this season.


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  1. Great thoughts about the identity of this team (or lack of). I think what the Bucks have been missing for years is a team “confidence” from ownership, executives and coaches. There is no vision for this franchise… what needs to be communicated from the top is a true belief that Milwaukee can be a great place to play… that Milwaukee can be a significant team in the NBA (as they once were!)… that they CAN something special here and a demand that players work on developing their skill within the framework of that vision. The Bucks are so afraid their stars will leave, they refuse to demand more of them. Brandon Jennings is barely old enough to drink legally… why on earth is he allowed to define the role he is going to play on this team? Why is it not being expressed to him what is required for the team to succeed?

    A great case study is the OKC Thunder… the success of OKC actually started with the Nuggets, when Scott Brooks was the top assistant to George Karl. Karl had a vision… had a confidence that his vision could be achieved, and demanded his players develop within that framework, sit or get out (Carmelo & JR Smith?). A hands on approach with a young, raw Ty Lawson, who has now developed into one of the top PG’s in the league, and makes everyone around him better. Brooks has gone on in the spirit of G.K. to build that same vision and confidence in OKC, where the young stars believe in the systems, and play an important role within the greater vision for the team, or they sit.

    Bucks need to stop feeling inferior… they need to stop feeling inadequate. MAKE this a team players want to be a part of, and quit being afraid that it’s not. It’s pathetic, and it’s not helping our players or our team become any better. Go find OUR Scott Brooks….and be bold enough to turn Jennings into OUR Ty Lawson, or send him packing.

  2. Are you predicting that we’ll lose to the Wizards tonight, because they haven’t lost to them yet this season.

    • Lol.. they have now.

      Yeah they are like 2 different teams. one night they look like they can beat anybody.. The next they look like they would have trouble with a good high school team (well maybe not that far, but you know what I mean).

      Not sure what to do going forward but there is a definite ceiling on how good they can be as currently constructed. Jennings and Ellis have very similar skill sets and deficiencies except ellis is a little better on drives and Jennings is a slightly better outside shooter. I really like Sanders. I have been hoping for this kind of epiphany from him since his first summer league games given his athletic potential. He is however really light and will likely always have trouble with power players. Ersan has played well recently but his confidence is really fragile. The others are a mix of unused/ unrealized potential and role players. Maybe they should move people around at the deadline. I love them but is getting swept in the first round really a goal??

      They really should try and develop Tobias and Henson more, get some idea as to what they have in them. I also would really like the Redick for expiring and pick trade idea if he isn’t too overpriced. Then unfortunately you have to move either Jennings or Ellis, hopefully ellis. Jennings being younger has more upside potential and will be easier to keep being restricted. not sure what you do with all their 6-11 95lb bigs though (Sanders, Henson, Udoh, and Ersan).

  3. Well stated….Some very significant points made about turning Milwaukee into a great place to play. Not really sure HOW (?) that can be done…but must be a way,right?

    A BIG name an talent player could help! Remember how crappy the Packers were prior to Reggie White showing up? The sense of “Green Bay” was an awful place to play changed within 2-3 seasons. Good players were actually wanting to come to a place they could WIN. Winning really does cure most woes- Lets get this team to a WINNING MENTALITY status.
    You will then see a boost in the entire city/ and a packed BMO BC

  4. Sikma…just read your post again

    WOW-really appreciate the POSITIVE message and sense of “it can be done”

    My thanks to you for such an honest and uplifting post :)