The great Bucks teams in the 1970s, those of Kareem and Oscar Robertson—and a young Don Nelson as head coach—still claim much of the now-dusty banner space in the rafters of the Bradley Center. Over the decades since, there have been few reasons to think about the Bucks.
There were the rosters of mountainous, tired-looking Caucasians in the 1980's, and the brief reign of Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson and Vin Baker in the next decade, which had its share of fun. There was also the making of Ray Allen, Superstar, which peaked with the Bucks one game from the NBA Finals in 2001. There were also, at one point or another, the cheap Roman candle sparks of Michael Redd and Sam Cassell and Anthony Mason. Gary Payton is in there someplace, too. More recently, though, there is not much. It's not a question of what you think of when you think of the Bucks, but why you'd even think about the Bucks at all.
Recently there have been the strange, Noel-inspired uniforms and a few flirtations and brief affairs with competence, most notably during the "Fear The Deer" playoff run of 2010. For the most part, though, both Milwaukee and the Bucks are not anyone's first or even second thought; if either enters a NBA-related conversation, it's as an “oh yeah, Milwaukee” brain twinge, one probably followed, quickly, by something about snow. At this moment, though, if you're thinking about the Bucks—provided you're not somehow thinking about Tim Thomas—you're probably thinking about Brandon Jennings.
In many ways, the Milwaukee Bucks are Brandon Jennings as much as Milwaukee is the Bucks. As my native Wisconsin’s most populous city, Milwaukee has plenty of personality—less outspoken and more Midwestern in its “weirdness” than a place like Portland, if not necessarily less weird—and a deep pride in being what it is. Jennings, as someone who skipped college to play professionally in Italy for a year, modeled an astonishing series of “Fresh Prince” hairdos, and crashed the NBA Draft when the Bucks selected him, has always staunchly been his own weird self as well; he and his current city are a better fit than they first appear. While such a relentlessly understated city would not seem to mesh with a flash-and-swag guard intent on mining maximum glitz through his game, the shared aversion for compromise in Brandon Jennings and Milwaukee helps them work deceptively but undeniably well together. To what extent either side finds what they’re looking for in the other will decide just how much longer Brandon Jennings and Milwaukee will continue staying different together.
Though his numbers in most major statistical categories have been steadily climbing over the course of his three seasons in the league, Jennings’ reputation remains that of one of the NBA's most fearless, shameless and relentless gunners; a big-time talent happily bereft of short-term memory. In 2011-12, Jennings shot better from the floor and behind the arc, made more shots in general, dished more assists, lowered turnovers and increased steals over the season before; he also set a career high in points per game. He managed to do all this while continuing to embody the least-charitable caricature of Brandon Jennings: a player who loves to jack shots, loves to be noticed, a player who believes, defiantly, that being this way is the proper path towards keeping up with his point guard contemporaries.
Working in Jennings' favor is the fact that teams have begun building around, or at least embracing, their resident playmaker's particular and quirk-intensive skill sets and style—think of Russell Westbrook or fellow Why We Watch subject Rajon Rondo—rather than cramming Player X into The Official Point Guard Role. A point guard still must be a point guard in a basic sense, but the Bucks—and the league—are increasingly willing to accept the idea of a point guard who thinks, plays and acts like Brandon Jennings. At least, so long as it works.
This is all well and good, but is limited by Brandon Jennings' unwillingness or inability to be anything but Brandon Jennings. His game—tantalizing, intermittently brilliant and expressive though it is—is one of spurts, of quick snipes and retreats. Even when he rips a few of his gliding, left-handed jumpers in a row off a stop-and-pop or kick-out, it’s hard not to wonder how long until the clip is emptied. As effective and heart-racingly great as Jennings can be, he can also disappear, without warning and without a trace, far too frequently and for far too long.
Watching him play is largely fun, but a team dependent on a circa-now Jennings seems doomed to the herky-jerky inconsistency that typically accompanies the eighth- or ninth-seed in the Eastern Conference. The difference between the two is vast for things like ticket sales, but also not so vast: neither team is headed anywhere special.
But where are the Bucks are actually trying to go? Last season's trade of Andrew Bogut, the former top overall draft pick, for fellow machine-gunning free spirit and free-agent-to-be Monta Ellis was Milwaukee moving on from one era. Ending another this offseason, with Jennings, would be painful— it would be tough to see Jennings finally figure things out, earn a lucrative contract offer from another team, and then leave the Bucks behind. More than that, though, the ‘round-in-circles cycling from one mediocre era to the next would be an obvious reminder that the franchise is stuck on this bleak treadmill, broken on the downhill setting.
Again, though, Jennings and Milwaukee need each other. Jennings is trying to prove himself worthy of a significant long-term investment. The Bucks are trying to make the same assessment of him, and understand that, as small-market team, overpaying an average contributor can be crippling. Jennings could play himself into a franchise-player contract with Milwaukee, or he could play himself to another city; the question, still, is what kind of player Jennings is, and will be.
This may explain why coach Scott Skiles—a man not known for a particularly flexible personality—has allowed Jennings to continue to shoot his way into and out of various hot streaks; Skiles, the organization, and Jennings all remain, in their own ways, enablers of his style. They need to know just how far he can keep going on like this, and how far, subsequently, he can take the Bucks. The best case scenario is The Next Step, which starts with a playoff berth. For Jennings individually, it’s about his game becoming more reliable while retaining its giddy Jennings-ness. One worst case scenario for the franchise is Milwaukee washing its hands of both Jennings and Ellis, triggering the beginning phases of a full-blown franchise do-over mode. For Jennings, the worst case scenario is just an endless present: no improvement, no development, no real success, just more of this.
Hot streaks always fizzle out. When that has happened to him, as it always has and always will, Jennings hasn’t had enough to fall back on,. He misses layups after nimbly slithering around contact; he doesn’t get to the free throw line all that much; he works, but his size hurts him on the defensive end. Jennings’ limitations, some of them self-imposed, are what define him. Their stubbornness and, in turn, his own, explain why, despite his year-after-year upticks, Jennings still can’t escape his picture in the rookie yearbook, with those 55 points remaining his Favorite Memory and everything else about his NBA career feeling blurry and indecipherable. That game's three-year anniversary is less than a week away.
But the future is coming for Brandon Jennings, one way or another. Franchises, including the one in Milwaukee, will be taking notice of his improvement or underdeveloped stasis, looking for new sturdiness or the same old yo-yo tricks, assessing the idea of spending the next few years watching Brandon Jennings be whoever he's going to be. The consolation, at least, is that even if Jennings delivers more of the same—more quiet increases to his numbers, more steps forward and back—he and the Bucks will not be trudging through the winter anonymous and alone. The better Jennings plays, the stickier this scenario becomes for all involved. But at least Brandon Jennings is going to be in the conversation, therefore the Bucks are going to be in the conversation. This is what Brandon Jennings wants, and what he deserves: to be noticed, to be seen, to be a topic of conversation. He'll embrace the exposure, whatever gets exposed.
Illustration by Philip Thompson.