First it was Corey Maggette‘s left ankle. Then it was plantar fasciitis in Drew Gooden‘s left foot. Now it’s a left foot that really matters. Bucks point guard Brandon Jennings, who’s never missed a regular season or playoff game in his young career, will miss 4 to 6 weeks with a bone fracture in his left foot.
The timing couldn’t be worse. The Bucks had struggled with chemistry and new personnel, injuries and All-Pro center Andrew Bogut‘s overall health since the start of the season. After a miserable 5-and-10 start, they had begun to pull the car out of the ditch, powered by Bogut’s return Dec. 4 from a two-week bout with back spasms. Prior to Bogut’s return, the Bucks had lost five out six games. Since then, they’ve won four of seven against one of the toughest schedules in the league.
Jennings’ backups are Keyon Dooling, who — until recently — was turnover prone, struggling with his jump shot and generally hurting the team (seven negative game scores don’t lie); and diminutive Earl Boykins, electrifying, good-shooting but too, too short to guard anybody in the NBA.
It’s been said before and there’s no more opportune time than now to say it again: Bucks GM John Hammond‘s decisions to let quality point guards Ramon Sessions (2009 to the T-Wolves), Luke Ridnour (2010 to the T-Wolves) and, yes, even the unsung Royal Ivey (201o to the Thunder) slip away in free agency stick out now as a glaring miscalculations. (If the trend holds true, Ivey will be back, one way or another). No, those decisions didn’t seem so important as long as Jennings was the Bucks iron man — but Hammond, all along, was tempting the NBA fates and winning with Jennings, until now.
Can the Bucks expect help from their guards and forwards? It’s not as simple as it was in Nellie’s day, when not having an effective point guard meant that the Bucks could keep Junior Bridgeman, Marques Johnson, Sidney Moncrief and Brian Winters on the court as much as possible, and give Paul Pressey something to do off the bench. “The point forward” was an invention of obvious necessity and made the 1983 Bucks more potent offensively than they already were. The current Bucks are a different story, and Scott Skiles’ options are limited.
If there’s a Pressey on this team, he’s 6-8 Luc Richard Mbah a Moute — perhaps even better than Pressey was, defensively, and that’s saying a lot (Pressey was a multiple time All-NBA defender). Skiles has dispatched Mbah a Moute to defend point guards in the past guard — Chris Paul, to name one. Luc has the smarts and a decent enough handle to play the point, and he’s played in more games for Skiles than any current Buck. But much of his offensive game remains in development.
Other forward-assisting candidates are out with injuries: Carlos Delfino, who played some point last season, is out with a concussion; Maggette is still struggling with his own left foot, along with other issues, such as remembering that it’s sometimes a good idea to pass the ball to one’s teammates when three defenders collapse on a drive to the hoop. Nothing new with Maggette there, and he’s not a good option.
3rd-year forward-guard Chris Douglas-Roberts may be the most likely candidate to run some point for Skiles. A disciple of the Calipari dribble-drive, CD-R puts a lot of pressure on defenses by taking it to the hoop and can easily create movement and space off the dribble — enough to run an offense. He’s been the Bucks most effective shooter in the Bucks last ten games (after missing the first 15 with an eye injury). At forward, CD-R is an eager defender, often guarding players much bigger and longer than he is, but he’s better suited for guard duty. He’s simply not strong enough on the glass to go up against many small forward in the NBA — 2.8 rebounds in 24 mins are a guard’s haul. And with John Salmons ensconced as the Bucks shooting guard and Mbah a Moute the likely small forward for now, it only makes sense to elect CD-R as a utility point guard, if for no other reason than to extend his playing time.
For the most part, however, it’s incumbent on Keyon Dooling to step up. In New Jersey, Dooling had become something of a 3-point bomber off the bench, only to find himself throwing anvils at the rim in Milwaukee. It cost the Bucks a couple of games early on in the season, but in the last seven (perhaps not coincidentally, the seven games since Bogut returned from his lower back problems) Dooling has been sharp. He’s shooting better and he’s not turning the ball over — just 2 turnovers in the last seven games, remarkable in almost 20 mins per game.
Dooling’s defense has been fairly solid, if not very good, which became noticeable in the five-game stretch that Bogut missed. Skiles challenged his players in those games, and Dooling was one Buck who responded. He’s quick enough to stay in front of most point guards and his long wingspan is havoc-causing in opponent passing lanes. But he’ll be replacing Jennings, one of the best point guard defenders in the NBA — there’s really no replacing Jennings’ dogged D or his determination.
Dooling will need help — lots of it — from all corners. At times, he’s been a better distributor than Jennings, who’s still learning when to pick his “me-first” spots. But if Salmons, for example, stays in his scoring funk, good ball distribution only ends with the ball finding the rim. If Bogut can’t get his true shooting percentage up into the mid-50’s range or higher, the Bucks will continue to play most games in a five-point hole. If coach Skiles can’t get the Drew Gooden-Ersan Ilyasova situation at power forward figured out once and for all, the Bucks will continue to wonder who they are.
Andrew Bogut might have said it best when asked what it’ll take for the Bucks to make-do while Jennings recuperates:
“It’s a matter of getting guys to play hard in their minutes, knowing they’re going to play and try to earn minutes for when Brandon is back and healthy. Maybe we’ll find a couple of shining lights.”
Maybe Dooling is “a shining light.” Maybe it’s CD-R who will pick up the scoring slack. Maybe Salmons finds his groove and breaks out of his season-long slump. More minutes for Mbah a Moute has usually meant that the Bucks are more competitive — they’ll soon find out if that still holds true. Players “knowing they’re going to play” was a key phrase in Bogut’s comments. He may have been referring to the sparse 12 minutes Mbah a Moute got against Utah. He may have been referring to the 17 minutes Ilyasova played. He may have been referring to Boykins, who’s hardly played all season. Whatever Bogut was implying, the injuries have left Skiles with little choice but to play the nine or 10 guys available to him now. Given Skiles’ sometimes maddening quick hooks– regardless of the matchups on the floor — and unexpected DNPs, less may turn out to be more for the Bucks.
And again, much as it was last season when Michael Redd’s knee gave out, this is another chance for the Bucks — and the rest of the NBA — to rediscover how good the Bucks leader, Andrew Bogut, really is.