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Despite constant knocks, Ellis, Bucks think it can work

POSTED: Oct 5, 2012 11:36 AM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner


Monta Ellis will have a full season to work with after playing only 21 games with the Bucks last season.

— Undersized backcourt. Too small at the guard position. The hand-wringing over the Milwaukee Bucks' most glaring defensive liability is so incessant and consistent that, if you didn't know better, you'd think the team was employing one shrimpy player named BrandonJennings MontaEllis.

Y'know, a four-caps guy like DeMar DeRozan, built on an Earl Boykins scale.

In reality, Jennings is a 6-foot point guard (he doesn't try to claim that inch the official roster grants him). Ellis is a legit 6-foot-3 at shooting guard. They're both slender -- Jennings is 169, Ellis 175 -- which would be a concern if they were getting backed down to the paint all the time. But that wasn't the problem in the 21 games they played together last season, after the March 13 trade that delivered Ellis from Golden State to Milwaukee.

2012-13 Milwaukee Bucks Preview

"The thing about being undersized, are they getting run down into posts by bigger guards?" Bucks coach Scott Skiles said Thursday after a morning workout. "Are bigger guards going down there and scoring on us? That usually doesn't happen. There aren't that many guards who post up anymore.

"We just flat-out had too many blow-bys. We have to do a better job of containing those guys. ... Their main responsibility is keeping people in front of them on the perimeter. Brandon took a step back last year with that. We felt like Monta came in and bought into our defense."

Well, there was the night in Charlotte when Gerald Henderson, 6-5, rose up time and again for clear looks at the rim. He hit 13 of 19 shots that night for 29 points, with Ellis held to 13 just 10 days after the trade. Two weeks later, though, Ellis scored 25 and Henderson shot 4-of-13. Milwaukee won both games.

As for the blow-bys, the Bucks are significantly bigger across the front line this year with the addition of Samuel Dalembert and Joel Przybilla at center, 6-11 lottery pick John Henson added to Larry Sanders and Ekpe Udoh and 6-8 Tobias Harris swapping in for departed Carlos Delfino.

It might not be as tempting for opposing guards to blow by Jennings and Ellis.

"Everybody always says about somebody being too small," said Ellis, who has heard it for years. "Listen, I don't really buy into it. The only thing I'm going to do is go out and play basketball. We have to play as a team. It's not just me and Brandon."

It can, however, be Ellis and Brandon at the other end, making the other teams' backcourts look smaller, slower and defensively challenged overall. " 'Cuz at the end of the day, they've got to come back down the court and stick us too," Jennings said.

Adding Ellis with barely a month left in the 2011-12 season -- while giving up center Andrew Bogut, a skilled but oft-injured rim protector -- raised all sorts of questions beyond backcourt defense for the Bucks. Would the high-octane Warriors scorer be able to coexist with the shoot-first Jennings? How would Ellis react to Milwaukee after nearly seven seasons in California and Skiles' grindier system after years playing faster with Golden State?

Would there be time for Ellis to fit in, given the scrunched-together, practice-lite, post-lockout schedule? And what about long-term, if he invokes the early-out clause in his contract after this season?

Here are the short answers: Yes. It's business and the transition wasn't too bad. No, of course not. And "I'm not thinking about it."

Bucks efficiency after trade
On Floor MIN OffRtg DefRtg NetRtg +/-
Ellis + Jennings
601 105.3 107.7 -2.4 -24
Ellis alone
154 106.6 95.3 +11.3 +50
Jennings alone
232 107.8 95.0 +12.8 +42
1 of the 2
386 107.3 95.1 +12.2 +92
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions

Ellis and Jennings were fine together, though the shooting guard also did well as an alternate at point (5.9 assists per game in Milwaukee). Before the trade, Jennings averaged 19.1 points on 41.8 percent shooting; after, it was 19.2 ppg on 44 percent. Ellis dipped from 21.9 points for the Warriors to 17.6 in 21 games for the Bucks.

"I suppose people thought he was going to come here and just average 25 points a game," Skiles said. "He hasn't averaged that in awhile, he averaged that early in his career [25.5 in 2009-10]. He came in and tried to fit in with our passing game -- he's a very underrated passer. He gets in seams and sees the open man. He's a very good pick-and-roll player because he can shoot but also because he'll give the ball up if he's covered or trapped."

Already, in a week of camp, Ellis and Jennings have had more practice time together than they had last season. And there has been off-the-court time, too. They live one floor apart in the same apartment building in Milwaukee and had what Jennings called a "little brother-big brother talk" the other day.

The gist of it: Winning matters, stats not so much.

"We said we'll sacrifice whatever just to win," the point guard said. "So if he's got it going that night, he's got it going. If I've got it going, whatever. He said, 'We don't even have to score that many points.' As long as we're winning and everybody's happy, that's fine with us."

The two guards are even trying to turn Milwaukee's unsettled future into a positive. Neither Skiles nor general manager John Hammond has a contract beyond this season. Owner Herb Kohl has looked for a buyer for the franchise. Teammates Beno Udrih, Mike Dunleavy and Dalembert are in the last year of their deals.

Jennings is eligible for an extension by Oct. 31 but, like a lot of the players in the 2009 draft, is waiting for James Harden and Oklahoma City to maybe start the dominoes. Otherwise he's headed to restricted free agency. Ellis could be gone if he opts out of the $11 million due him in 2013-14.

"I think it's good for all of us, just the fact that time is ticking," Jennings said. "It's either now or never. I'm enjoying the pressure. I'm enjoying the criticism that's going to come, everything. I think it's just going to make us stronger as people."

For years, NBA types have speculated that Ellis would make a great Sixth Man on a championship contender, a potent offensive weapon as a combo guard off some stacked team's bench. He's heard it too, and has zero interest in it.

"Say what now?" Ellis said, unsmiling Thursday when the idea was floated again. "I don't believe that. People are entitled to their own opinion. You put me on a team with a whole bunch of guys, I guarantee you that I'm going to win that starting position. No matter who it is.

"I've been hearing that all my life. It don't do nothing but make me go out and work hard and accept the challenge."

The Bucks will settle for that, for 82 games in which Ellis can do all that rather than just 21.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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