ST. FRANCIS, Wis. — Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings were just 22 games into their career together, one portion of a lockout-shortened season, when Ellis turned up at Jennings’ apartment door a few days before the start of this year’s training camp.
Ellis lives in the apartment directly below Jennings, and the two have gotten progressively closer since Ellis’ return from his offseason in Tennessee. But on this day, their meeting was all business.
They talked about sacrifices, about expectations and about being leaders. Jennings told Ellis he wanted to prove everyone wrong — that he knew they could work together in one of the NBA’s smallest backcourts. But the 6-foot-3 Ellis is used to those doubts by now. He heard the same questions when he played in Golden State, working with Stephen Curry. He’s learned to ignore them.
“I don’t get into all that,” Ellis said at the team’s media day on the eve of camp. “The only thing we can do at the end of the day is go out play hard and leave it all on the court and try to get a win. I’m not here to trying to prove nobody wrong. Only thing I’m here is to help this team win. Proving everyone wrong really don’t matter.”
That’s been Ellis’ message to Jennings all along: They only need to fulfill their own expectations.
“That’s just Monta being a vet,” Jennings said, grinning, when asked about Ellis’ comments.
Jennings, a 6-foot-1 23-year old, says Ellis, 26, has taken on a sort of “big brother” role as their relationship continues to develop. It’s something Bucks coach Scott Skiles sees as progress, and he’s done everything he can to put the two on the court together during training camp. With Jennings out to prove people wrong and Ellis out to win by any means necessary, it’s a combination that could prove either very valuable or volatile as the season goes on.
But right now, they both want and believe this backcourt combination of two shoot-first, undersized but uber-talented guards will work. And there’s no downplaying how important their performance together will be for the fate of the Bucks’ season.
So can Jennings and Ellis – players who each have led their teams in scoring — sacrifice enough of their own games to make the Bucks’ offense go?
For his part, Skiles is more worried about playing two small, slight guards on defense. In the 22 games Ellis and Jennings played together last season, Milwaukee allowed an average of 103.0 points per game, which — over the span of an entire season — would have made it the second-worst defensive team in the league in 2011-12. For the season, the Bucks allowed 98.7 points per game, almost five fewer than in their final 22 games.
“It can be (a disadvantage),” Skiles said. “There’s certain games and certain matchups where it’s a bigger problem than other games. But both guys are quick, both guys are good with the ball. It’s why we try and play at a faster pace and try to get the ball up and down the floor and let those guys create and do things for themselves and other people. Then you hope at the end of a 48-minute game that some of the speed and quickness advantage played in our favor as opposed to a size disadvantage.”
That’s been Ellis’ answer all along. While others may have a size advantage, very few will be able to run with he and Jennings.
“I don’t worry about it,” Ellis said. “At the end of the day, both of us have an advantage. They’re bigger than us. We’re quicker than them. At the end of the day, they’re going to have to chase us.”
Ellis and Jennings certainly wouldn’t be the first undersized backcourt to overcome defensive inefficiency to succeed. Plenty of the NBA’s best backcourts included smaller-than-average players at both positions.
Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars comprised one of the best backcourts in NBA history with the Pistons, and they were listed at 6-1, 180 pounds and 6-3, 195 pounds. They led Detroit to two straight NBA titles in 1989 and 1990. New York’s Earl Monroe and Walt Frazier — at 6-3, 185 and 6-4, 200, respectively — also made up one of the best small guard duos in the league’s history, using flash and speed as their calling card in the 1970s.
But both of those duos had something else going for them: serious defensive help down low. The Pistons’ defensive focus and domination on the glass gave them enough of an advantage that they didn’t necessarily need to shut down other teams’ guards on the perimeter. And the Knicks had Hall of Fame weapons Dave Debusschere, Willis Reed, and Jerry Lucas working inside.
Since last season ended, the Bucks have tried to add more shot-blocking prowess in hopes of making up for a potential lack of perimeter defense. New centers Samuel Dalembert and Joel Przybilla and rookie power forward John Henson will help defensively if Ellis or Jennings’ man breaks free. So far in the preseason, the Bucks are racking up blocked shots.
“It was different (last season),” Ellis said. “We didn’t have any big guys. We had nobody in the paint that could control the play, and when guys went to the basket, we didn’t have a lot of shot blockers. We’ve got a lot of 7-foot guys here, a lot of guys that can block shots. So that’s a lot to help us out in the backcourt. … When it comes on the defensive end, only thing we have to do is hold our man to four or five dribbles. And if they go to the basket, we got the big guys there to wipe the guys out.”
If that help is there and it’s efficient, the onus of proving a small backcourt can work will be on the shoulders of Ellis and Jennings. It’s something they discussed at length in the meeting almost a month ago. They know they’ll need to make personal sacrifices in the area in which they excel: scoring.
“Thing about me and Monta, we feed off of each other,” Jennings said. “I think that’s going to be our biggest thing, just like it was last year. The only thing is we only got to play 22 games together. I think with a full training camp and us knowing each other’s game and knowing if he’s got it going that night, it’s his turn, and if I got it going or anybody else got it going, we’re just going to try to win.”
Still, questions remain. Will two players who like to dominate the ball know when to give it up? Will their defensive limitations be effectively masked by the big men around the rim?
After his meeting with Ellis, Jennings believes more than anyone this experiment is destined to succeed.
“We know what’s expected,” Jennings said. “We know what the pressure is. I’m glad we had that meeting. … The fact that now we’re going to play 82 games, the whole season together, just to see where his mindset is and my mindset is, and it’s on winning. We both want this to work.”