For starters, let me say that I like what John Hammond has done this offseason. He didn’t bring back any huge mistake players. He didn’t take on too much long-term salary. He hasn’t succeeded — there still isn’t much talent on the roster — so much as he hasn’t failed yet.
But I still get the sense that he occasionally tries to overcompensate for recent mistakes. Burned by injuries to Andrew Bogut in recent years, the Bucks spent far too much time with Drew Gooden and Jon Brockman playing out of position at center. Swing the pendulum the other way and enter Samuel Dalembert, Joel Przybilla, then Zaza Pachulia (for $15.6 million) and Miroslav Raduljica.
Last year, the Bucks went until the trade deadline with one functioning shooting guard, Monta Ellis, who was secretly better suited to running the point. But fear not, there will be 2-guards this year! Milwaukee spent a fair chunk of cash to secure a starter, O.J. Mayo, and they’ve since added depth in Luke Ridnour.
And Gary Neal.
And Brandon Knight.
Holy convocation of combo guards, Batman.
One could make the case that all three can run the point. Ridnour did it in past seasons before sliding over to play next to Ricky Rubio last year. Neal was the instant offense playmaker for the Spurs, often with the ball in his hands. Knight, too, was playing point guard before a midseason trade brought Jose Calderon to the Pistons, but Detroit took the 21-year-old off the ball for good reasons: not enough completed passes and far too many turnovers. Which one will be the point guard this year? It’s a reasonable question to ask and there may not be a highly successful answer in the multiple choices.
Aside from that, the Knight/Jennings swap makes sense for a lot of reasons. The Bucks will no longer be asked to pay Jennings too much money for too many seasons. Knight is younger than Jennings (21 to 23), bigger (at least two inches taller), cheaper (two years left on a rookie deal), and more athletic. But here’s the thing: if not being enough of a point guard was a knock on Jennings, then it should be two or three knocks on Knight.
Knight hasn’t developed a point guard’s passing instinct yet. He shoots too often. He overdribbles, often leading him into dangerous spots. His pick-and-rolls need help too. As Zach Lowe of Grantland noted:
He also has a troubling habit of short-circuiting pick-and-rolls before they have a chance to develop, mostly by pursuing his own shot. One maddening tic: Knight loves to go around a pick in normal fashion, only to immediately cross back over toward the middle of the foul line and attack from there. Getting into the middle of the floor is generally a good thing. But doing so 18 feet from the hoop at the start of a pick-and-roll creates some problems. It puts Knight right in front of his rolling big man, mucking up the floor and taking away the most important passing lane in the pick-and-roll. And by getting middle so early, Knight allows opponents to defend the play without tilting all five guys too far toward one side — the dramatic kind of contortions that stretch a defense to its breaking point. The floor has appeared so tight in Detroit over the last two seasons in part because Knight hasn’t been able to exploit the cracks that do appear.
The numbers bear it out. Among starting point guards, Knight generated assists at a poor rate, and he ranked dead last in assist-to-turnover ratio. Forget the point guards, even centers like Al Horford and Al Jefferson had better ratios.
Knight does however have a nice shooting touch in a way totally opposite what Jennings did — but with similar results. Where Jennings had a beautiful release on a high-leaping jump shot, Knight shoots a split-legged shot that wouldn’t look completely out of place in a reel of 1940s set shots. Where Jennings sometimes gets into trouble by falling back or to the side, Knight leans in and gets his momentum going toward the hoop. The results are similar. Jennings shot 40% FG to Knight’s 41%. Jennings made 38% of his threes and Knight made 37%.
The chart from Vorped.com also shows that Knight struggled in the same place as the other Brandon: at the rim. (The colors are a bit misleading here. The green in close isn’t a very good green for that spot and the reds/pinks from three are actually quite decent when compared to league averages.)
He may not be much of a point guard yet, but Knight does have the potential to be one of the “three and D” players that are desired are floor-spacing cogs among contending teams already flush with talent. Knight shoots from long-range about the same as Jennings, but he defends much better than the old Brandon did.
If the team’s core identity going forward is Larry Sanders and defense, then Brandon Jennings had to go. For as badly as Monta Ellis was maligned for his soft defense, it was Jennings who was the hole in the bottom of the leaky boat. The Bucks were 13 points better per 100 possessions with Jennings off the court than on, and for that he had to go. (They were +3.7 with Monta on.) The Bucks couldn’t afford to pay him like a featured core piece if he wasn’t going to defend.
On the other hand, Knight burned two embarrassing plays into the memories of his observers: getting crossed up by Kyrie Irving in the Rising Stars Game and getting smothered by a DeAndre Jordan dunk. Is he a bad defender? Not by a long stretch. Among Pistons players with 500 or more minutes, Detroit was a team-best +4.5 points per 100 possessions with Knight on the court. And that difference was made up largely on the defensive end as they yielded 7.8 fewer points per 100 possessions with Knight playing.
The Bucks essentially exchanged their worst defender for the Pistons’ best. Maybe Jennings will turn that around in Detroit, but he wasn’t going to do it in Milwaukee.
(In a related story, the Bucks version of Jennings would have toreador-ed both Kyrie and DeAndre. The absent effort that spares Jennings a poster moment or two also hurts him on dozens of other plays.)
Probing a little further into the defensive numbers using Synergy, the Knight addition promises to help.
Knight posts solid marks in isolation (0.72 points per possession) and in the low post (0.78 ppp) while not faring too badly on spot-up situations (0.99 ppp) especially on two-point shots (39.2% FG). From the video, it looks like he generally uses his above-average athleticism and his 6’7″ to bother offensive players.
Here’s the other thing: Monta Ellis, Marquis Daniels, and Luc Mbah a Moute finished 7th, 14th and 15th in points allowed when defending pick-and-roll ballhandlers. What did Ellis, Daniels, and Mbah a Moute have in common last year? They all had Larry Sanders behind them. (Detroit did not — they finished 29th among 30 teams in the same stat.) Expect that part of Knight’s game to improve in Milwaukee.
In summary, Knight is younger, cheaper, more athletic than Jennings, and he is miles of Brandon ahead as a defender. But he’s not really a point guard by our traditional definition, at least not at age 21. Where does that leave the Bucks?
It leaves them with a very different team than the one John Hammond tried to assemble at last year’s trade deadline. That team is in Detroit.