Brandon Jennings has transitioned from the Milwaukee Bucks to the Detroit Pistons, but that doesn't mean his role is done changing. There's a chance he may find himself competing to prevent J.R. Smith from winning back-to-back Sixth Man of the Year awards.
The Pistons have four point guards on the roster—Jennings, Chauncey Billups, Will Bynum and Peyton Siva—but they have yet to determine which one will start alongside the talented frontcourt members.
According to general manager Joe Dumars, it's up to Maurice Cheeks, as reported by MLive.com's Brendan Savage:
That decision will be up to new coach Maurice Cheeks and he hasn't committed to anyone yet, according to Dumars.
"I don't know yet," Dumars said Tuesday after introducing Jennings in a news conference at The Palace. "I can tell you what Mo has told every guy from Chauncey to Brandon to every guy. He said, 'Look, come in and earn it. I'm going to give it to whoever earns it.' He said that to every single guy."
Jennings is the most talented guard on the roster, but that doesn't necessarily mean he should start. Neither does the fact that he's come off the bench in only two of his 291 NBA appearances.
Could he work as the sixth man next season? To answer that question, let's look at the positives and negatives of both roles.
Should Jennings win the job and become one of the five players lucky enough to be introduced over the loudspeakers before the beginning of a game, he'd end up playing alongside an undetermined shooting guard (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is my guess), Josh Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond.
It's a massive talent upgrade, both over what he played with in Milwaukee and over the second unit in the Motor City.
As is the case with any major decision, it's all about balancing the positives with the negatives.
The most beneficial aspect of remaining a starter would simply be playing alongside more talent. Better players help out their teammates, but that narrative rings even more true for the lefty floor general.
During his introductory press conference, Jennings admitted that he was forced into taking so many bad shots because he didn't have a sufficient number of competent scorers around him.
Brandon Jennings "I wont have to take a bunch of bad shots because I have talent around me" #Pistons— Detroit Pistons News (@PistonsNews101) August 6, 2013
Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the Bucks, huh?
But regardless, the sentiment may actually be true. Jennings has shown off great passing instincts; they're just often covered up by his proclivity for poor shot attempts.
During the 2012-13 season, only 16 players had games in which they recorded at least 15 assists. Jennings did so twice—two games apart, actually—which puts him in a more elite club. Just seven players found themselves on the list at least two times: Jennings, Jose Calderon, Goran Dragic, Jrue Holiday, Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo and Greivis Vasquez.
While the former Milwaukee floor general is still very much in possession of a gunner's mentality, he's getting noticeably better as a distributor. Maybe all he needs to get over the hump is an infusion of talent around him.
What's really key for Jennings, though, is where the assists come from. It's one thing to get lucky as teammates hit mid-range jumpers with alarming frequency, but it's another entirely to set them up at the basket for high-percentage looks.
In the video above, the highlight reel from Jennings' 19-dime outing against the Toronto Raptors, notice just how many of the plays are finished in the paint. With the exception of a J.J. Redick jumper on a curl-around screen, every single shot is a high-percentage one.
Playing alongside the expected starting frontcourt in Detroit will do wonders for him.
Take a look at how much more effectively the Smoove/Monroe/Drummond combo plays at the basket than the Luc Mbah a Moute/Ersan Ilyasova/Larry Sanders group that made up part of the most-used lineup.
First, their made shots at the rim:
While Smith and Monroe blew out their positional counterparts, Sanders was the only member of the Bucks to "win" the competition. And even that is a bit misleading since Drummond's back injury caused him to play 11 fewer games.
Smith and Monroe also played more games than their opponents, but the difference is so big that it doesn't really matter.
Now, let's see their field-goal percentages at the rim:
That graph is even more telling. Ever single positional matchup goes in favor of the Pistons' starting lineup.
Jennings needs to play alongside guys who can thrive around the basket, simply because it lets him make high-percentage assists and take away from his tendency to fire up shots with reckless abandon.
This is all about floor spacing.
Literally. That's the only negative to having Jennings in the starting five.
NBA teams need players who can spread out the court, preventing defenses from packing the paint with extra defenders and stopping the high-percentage shots in the paint. The best way to do so isn't by using multiple players who have trouble making perimeter jumpers.
Last season, Drummond and Monroe combined to make 61 shots from more than 10 feet. And that's unfair to Monroe, because only one of them can be attributed to Drummond, a lucky three-pointer that he made against the Denver Nuggets.
Neither of the true big men can realistically be counted upon to expand the range of the defense.
So that leaves Smith.
As any Atlanta Hawks fan can tell you, Smith shooting a lot of perimeter jumpers is a terrible idea. This is doubly true if he plays alongside Jennings for the majority of his time on the court.
While it's possible to survive with one player who should be arrested for his assault on the rim, overcoming the clangs of two players is rather difficult.
There is way too much red on the perimeter in that graphic. Neither Smith nor Jennings could find the bottom of the net with any sort of frequency from outside the paint, and that wasn't true from just one range.
|10 to 16 feet||16 to 23||Three-Pointers|
Hopefully those numbers are being drilled into the two men's heads, as they can't keep shooting so often when they're putting up such low percentages. If neither one changes his game, that's going to be disastrous, assuming Jennings is in the starting lineup.
Instead of spacing the court out, a Jennings/Smith combo could produce the exact opposite effect.
Defenses would focus on the paint exclusively because they'd be content daring the two southpaws to loft up ill-advised shot attempts. They'd be taking away higher-percentage looks while already getting into position for a rebound.
As Sixth Man
Even though coming off the bench is filled with negative connotations, it's not necessarily a bad thing. Sixth men can sometimes make or break a team, as James Harden and J.R. Smith have both shown in recent years.
Should Jennings function as the sixth man, he'd spend time among some of the starters, but he'd also play with the second unit. Right now, it looks like he'd be joined by Rodney Stuckey (a combo guard, which is relevant later on), Kyle Singler, Jonas Jerebko and Charlie Villanueva, since the Pistons don't have a backup center.
The main benefit of having Jennings fill the role of sixth man is simply the role itself.
Positional designations don't matter as much for the first guard off the bench, and neither do the typical expected outputs. As a sixth man, Jennings would be able to become an intriguing blend of point guard and shooting guard, which plays to his skill-set perfectly.
That's especially true if he plays alongside Stuckey.
He'd effectively be asked to serve as a gunner, and Jennings' Milwaukee career shows that he's more than willing to do exactly that.
Detroit's second unit is inevitably gong to have trouble creating open looks, but that's only true if Jennings is in the starting lineup.
While Chauncey Billups once was an effective, multidimensional point guard, he's much more of a floor-spacing guard than a distributor at this stage of his career. His declining assist percentage (percentage of teammates' made field goals that were assisted while on the court) is a testament to that.
And who else on the second unit is capable of creating looks for others?
Stuckey and Singler are the best bets, but they combined for only 5.7 assists per 36 minutes. Not per game. Per 36 minutes.
Even while serving as a leading scorer, Jennings would help out tremendously in this regard.
When the Pistons signed Jennings, they did so under the assumption that he could become a different player than he was with the Bucks.
It's hard to fathom given his high point totals, but Milwaukee was much worse off when the point guard was on the court in 2012-13. The following are all representations of how many points per 100 possessions Milwaukee scored and allowed with Jennings on and off the court:
That same point guard can't show up to the Motor City. He needs to be a positive contributor and actually break past 40 percent shooting, basketball's version of the Mendoza Line.
As mentioned earlier, Jennings is well aware that he needs to become a different player, and he doesn't expect to feel the need for volume shooting when he's playing alongside a more talented roster. Putting him next to a group of backups is just asking for trouble.
That's why this section trumps everything else. It's the biggest negative, and it isn't even close.
What role should Brandon Jennings fill?
While Jennings could work as a sixth man because that's the type of skill-set he works with, it's still setting the Pistons up to fail. Given the attacking nature of the frontcourt, Jennings' passing skills are even more valuable, and he'd be able to use them much more.
That's enough to make up for the lack of floor spacing, especially because the uncertainty of the shooting guard position allows Jennings to effectively serve as a combo guard until things get settled, which just happens to be the main positive of him coming off the bench.
The southpaw may not have officially won the job yet, but he will.
He has to for the Pistons to live up to the lofty expectations, ones that have them playing more than 82 games in 2013-14.
Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference.