Amid uncertainty, Milwaukee and Jennings find a common ground
Both the Bucks and their point guard, Brandon Jennings, face an uncertain future
Jennings enters year without a contract extension; Bucks lack a long-term plan
Also: Get to know: Wizards' Kevin Seraphin; breaking down Miami vs. Memphis
During the Bucks' 2-0 start, Brandon Jennings was leading the way with NBA-best averages of 13 assists and four steals. The 34 points he scored over those two games -- including a last-second three-pointer to beat the Cavaliers -- were inspired by the failure of his contract negotiations.
"It's a humbling experience again for me," Jennings said of his inability to agree to an extension with the Bucks in advance of the Oct. 31 deadline, setting up the 23-year-old point guard to test the free-agent market after the season.
The last time he had so much to prove was during the 2008-09 season, which he spent mainly on the bench as a 19-year-old in Italy. Coming off that experience, he put together a terrific NBA rookie year in which he started every game while leading the Bucks to the playoffs.
"When I went to Europe it was humbling, and this one now -- not getting an extension,'' he said. "So I just go out there and play every game and I just push myself."
So the absence of a new contract was bringing out the best in him?
"Oh, yeah, no doubt," he said. "I can compare this year to the Europe year when I didn't play at all, and I came back from Europe so hungry, just trying to go get it.''
Jennings isn't alone in his uncertainty. The Bucks could make the playoffs and continue to build on the promise of their young roster. Or conspiring events could lead to the departures of everyone from Jennings (who will be a restricted free agent next summer) to shooting guard Monta Ellis (who could opt out to become unrestricted) to coach Scott Skiles and general manager John Hammond, who are each in the final year of their contracts.
"When you use terminology like, 'We're trying to figure it out,' people probably think you've got to be better and you've got to be smarter than to use terminology like that," Hammond said. "But that's where we are. We're a work in progress, and I don't know what road we're going to go down. Can we eventually acquire enough young assets? We have some now, and we're going to have to acquire more. Can we acquire a group that's good enough to contend?"
The Bucks aren't seeking to trade Jennings because they want to keep him and because they're trying to make the playoffs -- trying to win even as they rebuild with youth.
"Everybody wants young players, and they want to see a bright future, but obviously they want to win," Hammond said. "I always talk about what Danny did." He was referring to the course established originally by Celtics president Danny Ainge, which was to rebuild through the draft. Then the Celtics lost the 2007 lottery, and Ainge traded most of his young assets for veterans Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett.
"He sits here today with a championship and still a very competitive team," Hammond said. "And that's where we want to be someday."
That's the ultimate example of figuring it out along the way. The best plans are subservient to unpredictable events.
The Thunder serve as a model for how to develop a small-market franchise. But the Thunder established their foundation of young players first by picking No. 2 when a franchise player was available, which was fortunate because a star like Kevin Durant isn't on the board every year; and also by losing an average of 55 games for four straight years, which is something the Bucks haven't been willing to endure.
"Oklahoma City was built with the second pick, the third pick, the fourth pick and the fifth pick," Hammond said. "The projection for our team going into the season is, if they don't have us as a playoff team, they have us right at the cusp of being in the playoffs. So we're still trying to serve two masters, to be honest with you. We're trying to win now, we're trying to do it with young talent, we're trying to do it with a fair salary structure.
"A top-five pick has a 42 percent chance of being an All-Star," added Hammond, referring to a 20-year study of NBA drafts. "In the last few years, we haven't been drafting in the top five. We've been in the 10-through-15 range the last four years, and it's difficult to do it that way.
"I hate to say these kinds of things because when you're an NBA general manager and you say we're still trying to figure it out, people say you've got to give me something better than that. But sometimes that is the terminology that is appropriate for what we're going through right now. ... I hate to go to the word luck, but small-market teams still need that luck. You need that lottery ball or that pick to fall your way."
The Cavaliers got lucky with LeBron James. The Magic got lucky with Dwight Howard. And the Bulls won the right to select Derrick Rose No. 1 when they entered the 2008 lottery with the ninth-worst record.
On Wednesday, the young Bucks endured their first loss, 108-90 to visiting Memphis and its behemoth front line. Jennings shot 6-for-20 and finished with 20 points and five assists, and his team was outshot 53 percent to 38.5 percent. The hard work will continue all season long, and no one can say where it will lead.
Some quick thoughts on a few hot topics around the NBA:
Q: How much will the Pacers miss Danny Granger whilehe recovers from a knee injury over the next three months?
A: We're seeing the impact right now. The Pacers are struggling to score without Granger and Darren Collison, who tried to push the pace for easy baskets. But they may yet benefit if Granger's injury forces Paul George to become a go-to scorer ahead of schedule.
Q: Should Thunder fans worry about OKC players snapping at each other during games?
A: It may turn out to be a good thing. They're trying to make the hardest NBA move -- from contender to champion -- and there should be accountability between Thabo Sefolosha and Russell Westbrook. Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins shouldn't let it slide when they're unhappy with each other's play. The Thunder are approaching that stage in their development where the bottom line is more important than anything. Tension among ambitious people isn't necessarily a bad thing.
Q: How have the devastation of Hurricane Sandy and the ensuing nor'easter storm affected the Knicks and Nets?
A: Who cares?
There are more important issues. Here are two suggestions on how to help:
1. If you'd like to donate goods to the stricken familes of the storms, please visit https://www.facebook.com/SendingSunshine2012.
2. If you'd like to donate money, please visit: jerseyshorerelief.com.