There's no telling how the move will play out. But the problems that existed with the Smith deal aren't present with the Jennings move. There are red flags, concerns that Joe Dumars just signed the biggest, flashiest available player left. But there are reasons to feel good about it - in fact, this move may have made the summer for Dumars.
Jennings isn't as bad as you've heard
Many saw B-Ball Breakdown's analysis of why Jennings has been unable to land a contract up to this point and shuddered with relief that Dumars denied interest in the point guard. He's known for his lousy shots, his weak defense, some poor advanced figures.
But he's not that bad.
He brings a fine assist percentage, assist/turnover ratio, and steal percentage. He's also obviously a volume shooter, yes, which is not ideal with his 51% true shooting, but it could be worse. The league average TS for point guards is 52.7%, so he's not tremendously below it. He's an average point guard, maybe slightly below because of his shot selection, and 23 years old. That's fine for this contract.
Most importantly, Jennings can run the pick and roll. Brandon Knight can't. Last year according to Synergy Sports, Knight averaged .69 points per possession and a 20.6 turnover percentage as the pick and roll ball handler. Jennings' numbers were .84 points per possession and 14.5 turnover percentage. John Calipari spoke earlier this week with Keith Langlois on the subject, that Knight never touched the pick and roll in college.
Entering the season with Knight as the presumptive starting point guard would have left a huge void in the offense due to this inability. We saw last year when Will Bynum stepped in the transformational effect the play has on an offense, particularly with an athlete like Andre Drummond on the court. Adding Smith makes the play that much more important.
Let's play a quick game of alternate reality. Suppose yesterday Dumars pulled off a sign and trade of Brandon Knight, Khris Middleton, and Slava Kravtsov for Jrue Holiday. That'd be pretty nifty, considering he cost the Pelicans Nerlens Noel and a first rounder in next year's wildly anticipated draft. Well, last year Jennings shot the ball less than Holiday and for a better TS. His assist to turnover ratio was much better, their steal rate was identical, and Jennings' Synergy numbers were better on the pick and roll. Where Holiday has been on the decline in the key efficiency figures the past three years, Jennings has shown signs of progress. Brandon Jennings is the superior player. And he's on the hook for about $17 million less.
Or what about Jeremy Lin? Well, Lin and Jennings are twins. Lin's a bit more efficient as scorer, Jennings a bit more efficient as a passer, both weak defensively and paid nearly exactly the same. This may be a case where we're getting carried away with name and reputation.
Improves balance, flexibility, roles
Joe Dumars deserves credit for his patience in the Jennings negotiation. The amount, length, and return in the sign and trade are all reasonable, and he a showed utilization of leverage in a way that he hasn't in previous signings.
He didn't overpay for Jennings, something that would have been easy to do - which is readily apparent taking a look at other guards in his draft class or John Wall. The price tag was reasonable and the three year deal was ideal. Long enough to have his Bird Rights if he's a success, short enough to hedge the risk if he's not.
Some may feel Knight's value was higher than just inclusion as a sign and trade, but the Bucks were in a great position for the deal. They could have held on to Jennings at the qualifying offer and had a decent point guard at a bargain price. Dumars had to negotiate acquisition costs with two separate entities, Milwaukee and Jennings, and he was successful in both.
One of my personal biggest concerns in discussing a potential Jennings sign and trade was that it would be for either the Charlie Villanueva or Rodney Stuckey expiring contracts. If it is possible to run into difficulty in re-signing Monroe or Drummond due to too many long-term contracts, it seemed like loading up with long term deals for players like Jennings would be the way that it would happen. But their exclusion from the trade keeps cap flexibility intact, allowing the front office to adjust if there is an expansion in the salary cap as Sean Corp suggested or budget if necessary.
This move also provides Maurice Cheeks something the past three Pistons coaches haven't had: the players and skills that the roster needs to be successful.
I don't want to pick on Knight, but his removal from the roster helps with this. He's young, hard-working, and hopefully he can one day fulfill his potential. But as a Piston, he struggled running an offense, struggled to find a position, struggled with turnovers, struggled at times defensively, and struggled through a horrendous shooting slump last year. He was set to play a big role again this year. Taking the question mark that Knight represented out of the equation makes it so that Cheeks doesn't have to be a mad scientist to be successful. The skillset of a guy like Billups, Stuckey, or Singler is much more defined without the highs and lows that has been seen through Knight's development process.
Spending $80 million on Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings wouldn't have been how I'd have spent the summer. I was hoping for cost-effective, efficient production. Well, Dumars certainly had a different plan.
Take another read of Kriz' masterpiece on her approach to Smith as a Piston. One paragraph that particularly stood out was her mentioning of odds. On paper, it's tough to see Smith or Jennings significantly impacting the Pistons' odds. Plugging in figures, neither addition does in the way that guys like Darren Collison and Brandan Wright would have. But maybe there's something we're missing.
Tom Ziller had a great piece on this earlier this week in his look into shot creation, with the primary point that it's complicated. Maybe Jennings and Smith improve with a steady, talented guy like Moose alongside them. Maybe Moose's efficiency will improve with less responsibility on the offensive end. Or maybe the whole mix really would have been better with Collison and Wright. I don't know. We'll see. The change is so dramatic that it's impossible to make any particularly bold claims with certainty.
Jennings certainly represents a risk, but he was a necessary risk. If Dumars was betting on Smith, it was best to go all in with Jennings as well - particularly if the price was right. While the odds for Jennings are uncertain, the bet for Knight was that this year he would develop capabilities that he has never shown the signs of attaining.
Again, I don't know if this is going to be successful. I'm not going to try talking myself into the idea or out of it, and certainly not worried about convincing anyone else. But it will be fun to watch. Even if it's a disaster, it'll be fun. This will be an aggressive, attacking, athletic team that could overwhelm a lot of teams or be a dysfunctional mess. For the first time in a lot of summers, I'm legitimately excited to see what it looks like.