In a lighthearted pregame moment in Oakland, the pair sit and laugh in front of their visiting lockers, an hour prior to a Saturday-night torching of the Golden State Warriors.
The tandem is proof that two smaller guards can coexist.
Since the All-Star break, Jennings is averaging 17.6 points and 10.4 assists, and Ellis is averaging 21.8 points and 7.4 assists. The Bucks are essentially a lock for the playoffs as the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference, 8.5 games up on the ninth-seeded Toronto Raptors.
On this night, before combining for 57 points and 15 assists at Golden State, they're situated in folding chairs. Jennings nibbles a slice of fruit while Ellis puts the finishing touches on dressing himself, both laughing.
It wasn’t supposed to work so well, at least to the doubters.
A flag of skepticism was attached early this season to the undersized backcourt of Jennings at 6’1” and 169 pounds and Ellis at 6’3” and 185 pounds. Cynics didn’t believe the scoring tandem could share the ball or defend bigger guards, the same experiment gone wrong in Golden State with Ellis and Stephen Curry.
The pair of elite scorers are proving the doubters wrong.
“—Almost,” Jennings interrupts. “Almost.”
Jennings, the more articulate and perhaps more candid of the two, is fickle in terms of talking before games, but tonight he’s in the mood to chat. Ellis chooses not to talk before the game, an option that many NBA superstars opt for during pregame media availability.
Jennings makes a point to say that the job, making the postseason, isn’t done yet.
Still, the duo is shedding the notion that smaller scoring guards can’t be paired. A point to which Jennings provides a simple answer.
“It’s just basketball,” Jennings said. “We both can score, so at the same time you have to control us too. We’re not easy to guard either, both of us together. Everyone wants to talk about how small we are, but on the offensive end you have to guard us just like we have to guard you guys.”
The 23-year-old Jennings was here first.
Drafted by Milwaukee with the 10th overall pick in 2009, it was his show, highlighted by a 55-point rookie performance that came against Ellis's Warriors. On that same night, Ellis had 26 points and rookie Stephen Curry had 14 points off the bench for Golden State.
Years later, much would change.
It was nearly a year ago when Ellis was shipped to the Bucks for Andrew Bogut in a March 13 deadline deal. The 27-year-old played seven seasons in Golden State, averaging 19.6 points and 3.7 assists in 413 games.
But when Curry was drafted by Don Nelson’s Warriors with the No. 7 pick in 2009, the same season as Jennings, skeptics questioned whether or not Curry and Ellis, as two smaller guards, could exist side-by-side.
Ellis questioned it himself, sending ripples on media day prior to the 2009 season. When asked about being able to play together as two 6’3” guards, according to Examiner.com, Ellis said:
"You just can't. They (the team) say you can, but you can't."
Maybe he was right, at least in Golden State. The Warriors went 62-102 in the smaller backcourt’s first two seasons together. The Warriors were 17-21 at the time they traded Ellis and his average of 21.9 points and six assists to the Bucks.
Could Milwaukee contend with a backcourt of Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings?
A successful pairing in Milwaukee
In Milwaukee it’s working, especially of late.
“I feel like we’ve held our own all year,” Jennings said. “We’re in the eighth spot but hopefully we can move up to the seventh, maybe the sixth, depending on how the season ends and then we’ll really be in good shape.”
Ellis is less of a talker, speaking after the game at Golden State in more cliches and abbreviated answers than his partner in the backcourt.
“I never tried to prove doubters; I just go out there and play basketball,” Ellis said. “The biggest thing is winning, at the end of the day no matter what it is all about getting Ws. Our team is going as far as we take them.”
Warriors coach Mark Jackson, who was Golden State’s coach when the trade was made, said he never believed the smaller backcourt couldn’t work.
“I’m not big on that and I was not big on that then,” Jackson said. “I think it’s blown out of proportion. I don’t look at the Milwaukee Bucks tonight and say, ‘Boy, they’ve got a small backcourt.’ No. I look at them like they’ve got two guys that can score the basketball and create problems.”
Why it works offensively
Jennings and Ellis are outscoring opposing starting backcourts 451 to 312 in the last 11 games. And it's not just scoring; the pair has also recorded more assists in 10 of those 11 games, according to the Bucks' stats department.
Both Ellis and Jennings are attacking guards who put opponents under pressure.
The offensive threat isn’t limited to opposing backcourts. In the NBA’s pick-and-roll game, the pressure is also placed on the bigs forced to switch and chase the two quick guards who can score inside and outside.
“(Opponents) have two guys out there they’ve got to get ready for,” Bucks coach Jim Boylan said. “Both guys can handle the ball and both guys can play off the ball when they need to. As far as scheming goes, you've got two guys in the backcourt who are always on the attack, so it puts a lot of pressure.”
Jennings said he doesn’t mind changing his role a bit to make it work. He has the abilities of a pass-first guard.
We both know our roles. Right now I’m trying to take a backseat a little bit as far as getting the team more involved and playing the point guard position.
I try to go out and be like, ‘let me see if I can get 10 assists before the first half is over.’ That way I know if guys are making shots and guys are in their rhythm. In the second half I like to be a bit more aggressive on the offensive end, attacking and finding my shot.
As the backcourt goes, so go the Bucks. Jennings is shooting 45.7 percent in wins and just 35.8 percent in losses. Ellis is shooting 43.1 percent in wins and 39.6 percent in losses.
With recently added shooter J.J. Redick, the Bucks have an additional offensive threat who is efficient with his game. When Redick isn’t coming off pin-downs or staggered screens to shoot, he’s quick to move the ball along to Ellis or Jennings.
“It all goes back to my teammates,” Ellis said. “J.J., Mike (Dunleavy), all those guys making shots. When they’re making shots it’s not as easy to guard us.”
Why it works (enough) defensively
Make no mistake, Milwaukee is looking to outscore opponents to offset their 19th-ranked defense that allows 99.4 points per game.
And it can't be ignored that bigger backcourts will look to take advantage of Milwaukee’s smaller guards. The Bucks are forced to change defensive schemes against post-up heavy guards looking to exploit size differential, but it hasn’t significantly hurt them.
Mostly because Jennings and Ellis won’t be bullied.
Coach Boylan explains:
They post them up some and while Brandon is not a big physical guy, he’ll get down there and battle. Monta is strong. Teams have tried to post him up and they haven’t had great success, so you don’t see a lot of teams trying to go down there on him because he’s got a way about him down there. A lot of times playing defense in the post is how tough you can be and Monta is pretty tough.
There are few guards in today’s league who utilize a post game anyway.
“Not too many teams try unless they’ve got a bigger guard,” Ellis said. “But at the end of the day I am going to go out and play my game. I don’t get credit for playing defense, but it’s not going to be easy, I can tell you that.”
Curry understands the challenges of undersized guards, but said it’s more of an adjustment defensively than it is a weakness:
When you had me and Monta you didn’t know who your matchup was going to be. He’s a quick guard, and uses his quick hands to keep guys at bay for the most part, but once you get guys in the post and have to double-team, it is different.
You don’t have to do that as often when you have a normal two-guard, so that’s the only adjustment. It’s tough but if you have guys around you defensively who can protect the paint and five guys on the string you can make it work.
The Bucks have the benefit of Larry Sanders, the team’s 24-year-old center, who can do just that. One of the league’s top interior defenders, Sanders leads the league with 3.17 blocks per game.
While Sanders’ abilities provides support for his backcourt, the young big man spoke about his increasingly productive guards.
“They’ve gotten continuity and they’re starting to bounce off each other,” Sanders said. "They’re unstoppable players in this league and they show it.”
Will it last past this season?
There will be plenty of decisions this offseason.
Prior to this season, Jennings turned down a four-year, $40 million extension to stay in Milwaukee, according to Yahoo! Sports' Marc Spears.
A restricted free agent this offseason, Jennings told Spears that if he signs a one-year qualifying offer, "there is no way" he returns to Milwaukee.
Spears quotes Jennings:
"I just want to win," Jennings said. "The way I am playing now, I just want to go to a winning team and play like that. I don't care about being a superstar or being the main guy. I did that [the] first four years. I just want to win and be somewhere where it's all about winning.
"I'm not saying the Bucks aren't about winning. But I think [a title caliber situation] will help me, motivate my game and then you have to perform."
Jennings is chasing max dollars and a contending team. Ellis currently holds an $11 player option for the 2013-14 season, and the team also has signed young talent in Sanders, Ersan Ilyasova and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute.
As Bucks management seeks a plan, at least they can use this season as proof that the undersized backcourt of Jennings and Ellis can work.
The remainder of this season and a shot in the postseason could offer further evidence.
Jimmy Spencer is an NBA Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him at @JimmySpencerNBA.