NBA Analysis: Should Brandon Jennings Ask Bucks for Help?

| by David Berri

The Milwaukee Bucks finished the 2009-10 season with 46 victories, a mark good enough for the 6th seed in the 2010 playoffs.  After such success (for Milwaukee, this was considered “success”), hopes were high for the 2010-11 season.  But now the Bucks have been officially eliminated from the 2011 playoffs.  And so the blame game has begun.

  • Brandon Jennings is blaming his teammates and the front office. 
  • And the front office might be blaming the coaches.

So who is to blame?

For an answer, we of course look at the data.

The following table details how the Bucks have performed in 2010-11. After 78 games, the team has won 32 games.  The team’s efficiency differential of -1.06 is consistent with a team that would win 36 games; or about 38 games across a complete season.  In other words, the team’s efficiency differential says Milwaukee should still be in contention for the playoffs in 2011.

Of course, even if the team was winning as often as their efficiency differential suggests, the team has still declined relative to last year.  Specifically, eight wins have vanished in Milwaukee.  So where did these wins go?

If we look at what these players did last year, we see a team that would have won about 42 games this year (or about 44 wins across the entire season).   That suggests the problem could be linked to the players – such as Andrew Bogut, Corey Maggette, and John Salmons – who have dropped off somewhat since last year.

There is, though, another issue.  Carlos Delfino, Ersan Ilyasova, and Bogut have combined to miss more than 50 games.  Had these players played more – and Larry Sanders (the only player to see more than 100 minutes of court time and produce in the negative range) played less – the Bucks would have won a few more games this year.  In fact, if these players had been healthy, the Bucks would have probably made the playoffs this year.

And if the Bucks made the playoffs, would Brandon Jennings be upset?  Would the jobs of the coaches be in jeopardy?

All of this suggests that people in Milwaukee do not understand what drives their success.  At least, if the issue is just injuries, then firing the coaches isn’t really going to help.

Of course, Jennings doesn’t seem to have a problem with the coaches. He has a problem with the people selecting the players.  But is this an argument Jennings should be making?  To understand this question, let’s talk about Mr. Jennings.

The Bucks selected Jennings with the 10th choice in the 2009 NBA draft.  In his first season, Jennings was the only player on the Bucks to score more than 1,200 points.  Of course, he was also the only player to take more than 1,000 shots from the field.

This year, Jennings leads the team in scoring and field goal attempts per game.  And given the role scoring plays in player evaluation, it is not surprising for Jennings to think that the problem in Milwaukee is someone else. 

When we look at Wins Produced, though, we see that Jennings was below average as a rookie. And he is below average in his second season.  Across the past two season, the players in Milwaukee have produced 82.1 wins (with four games left this season).  Of these wins, only 6.7 can be traced to the play of Jennings.

Imagine if the actual production of wins from Jennings was consistent with his perception of his skills.   For example, what if Jennings had a WP48 mark of 0.200?  Then the Bucks would have already won about 44 games this year, or in other words, the Bucks would have already clinched a playoff spot.

So what can the Bucks do to improve in 2011-12 (assuming we have a season)?  Here are some suggestions:

  • The team needs to keep the productive players on the court.  Again, if the productive players were healthy this year the Bucks would have probably made the playoffs.
  • The Bucks would also be helped if they got more production at the guard positions.  Currently the team does not have a single player who is above average in the backcourt.  Yes, I know.  Jennings is a “star”.  And Keyon Dooling is one of the best players in the league according to Adjusted Plus-Minus (seriously, APM ranks him 15th in the league this year).  But scorers are not always the most productive player (a story we have told many times before).  And APM is not a very reliable measure of player performance (a story we have also told more than once before).

If we look past scoring and APM, it seems clear the Bucks need help in the backcourt.  In other words, Jennings is right about the problem but he probably isn’t too keen on the solution.

If the Bucks can find a productive guard – and the other productive players on the team stay healthy – this team can make the playoffs in 2012 (assuming the playoffs are played in 2012).  And that can be accomplished without firing all the coaches (although if Jennings can’t play better, the team might have fire him).

- DJ