Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings are two of the league's premier playmakers, but can a backcourt flourish with both of these trigger-happy guards?
The Milwaukee Bucks added Ellis during the middle of the year with high hopes, but it didn't even land them a playoff berth.
On paper, these two look wonderful playing alongside one another, but this is not fantasy basketball.
Perhaps the Bucks are still mightily lacking at other positions, but it is also easy to wonder if Ellis and Jennings are the right mesh in the backcourt. Based on the lack of results last season, it's certainly a questionable pairing.
For this pairing to work offensively, Ellis must learn the art of playing off the ball.
Both Ellis and Jennings are so accustomed to having the rock in their hands that they lack an understanding of how to run off screens and catch and shoot. They prefer to create off the dribble and shoot pull-up jumpers.
The Bucks must learn to diversify their style of backcourt play, and Ellis is going to need to learn how to move swiftly without the ball, coming off screens and ready to either shoot, penetrate or dish.
Ellis must learn to play away from the ball for numerous reasons.
First of all, if he doesn't, he risks standing and watching while Jennings has the ball in his hands. Ellis suddenly becomes much easier to guard if he's not at least using his agility to make his defender chase him.
Second, despite his size (6'3'', 185 pounds), Ellis actually attacks the rim exceptionally well. He has hop in his step and should thus focus on taking more high-percentage shots closer to the bucket rather than step-back fadeaways from 23-feet.
Lastly, and most importantly, this team needs this added dimension.
Jennings is more than capable of being the floor general who sets up the offense. Ellis is a stellar creator as well, but his creating needs to come in the flow of an offense.
This will not only make defending the Bucks more tricky, but it will also stabilize their offense and create more shot opportunities for others, such as budding big man Ersan Ilyasova.
For instance, on a given night, let's say Jennings establishes his mid-range jumper and is successfully creating for others, and Ellis is catching the rock of screens and weaving his way into the lane for floaters. Then defenses have much to think about, much more to think about than if Ellis and Jennings are merely exchanging isolations.
This forces the defense to adapt, which will leave holes for Milwaukee to capitalize on. A primary hole will be a wide open Ilyasova for kick-out jumpers and slips to the basket.
Offensively, this overall style of play is what is needed for the Ellis and Jennings duo to work.
Another factor to consider in all of this is how the Bucks offense can best help their defense. With Ellis and Jennings playing a "run and gun" style of play, misses early in the shot clock can quickly lead to fast break opportunities for the other team.
In fact, this happened quite frequently last season, and by and large, the Ellis and Jennings duo proved to be horrendous defensively. When Ellis and Jennings shared the floor last season, teams scored a lofty 107.7 points per 100 possessions of floor time. Only the Charlotte Bobcats compiled a worse rate.
Therefore, what's decidedly evident is that the main concern regarding this pairing is defense. They will find ways to score, but can they stop anybody?
Interestingly, Monta Ellis is typically near the league-leaders in steals (Jennings also averages a solid tally), but this is where steals are not a good indicator of an elite defender. Yes, the steals often lead to transition buckets, but gambling for steals often doesn't work. It actually typically ends up giving the opponent a wide-open look.
Ellis and Jennings must establish discipline on defense, learning to guard for whole possessions and forcing opponents into low-percentage jumpers. This, more than anything, is needed for these two backcourt mates to prosper.
As cliche as it is, defense is the name of the game, and this is the message that must be bought into by Ellis and Jennings.
Offensively, they need more stability and patience. If they can establish this and cut down on the turnovers, then they can likely be one of the most efficient offensive teams in the league.
But this can't come with the atrocious defense that was present last season. Defensive intensity must be installed into these two prominent backcourt weapons, otherwise they will be a middle of the road team that can only win shootouts.
Pairing these two extremely potent offensive players on the same team is undoubtedly intriguing. But it's an experiment that requires much discernment and time. Superstar players must learn the art of playing with one another, and the reality is that it sometimes doesn't work.
It didn't spawn the results Nuggets fans were yearning for. In fact, this duo never exited the first round, but after Iverson was dealt, Denver found itself in the Western Conference Finals. Safe to say, the Anthony-Iverson pairing looked splendid on paper, but the chemistry was lacking on the hardwood.
This isn't to say that Ellis and Jennings are in the same mold of the Anthony-Iverson pairing. But they could be if they don't soon make adjustments.
If their chemistry is found, and, more importantly, a defensive identity is established, then a playoff berth is certainly within reach and so is some major noise come playoff time. They could become the team that everybody fears playing, because they are versatile in a bevy of ways.
But for this to happen, imminent changes are necessary, and they hinge upon developing more stability offensively and finding defensive consistency.