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"The playoffs are bigger than anything thing else and nothing can happen until July 1 anyway. So I'm not counting down any days, I'm going to keep playing until it's all over."
-- Brandon Jennings
MILWAUKEE -- For some reason I've always seen Brandon Jennings in another uniform. Always felt that the Milwaukee Bucks were just a stop on the way to something bigger (not necessarily better) for him. The real beginning. That if he was truly the "next" Allen Iverson as he was marked immediately after the seventh game of his NBA career, Milwaukee was not going to be his Philadelphia.
(Iverson spent the first 10 years of his NBA career with the Sixers; this is only Jennings' fourth with the team that drafted him.)
To look at him now, his team down 0-3 to the defending champion Miami Heat, and to look at the faces and body language of Bucks fans along with the 30-to-50 percent off tags hanging from his jerseys on sale racks throughout the Bradley Center, there's sufficient evidence to say that these could be the last days of Brandon Jennings in Milwaukee.
The marriage is over. Irreconcilable differences. Yes, Jennings might return next season (probably for only one year because he reportedly already turned down a four-year, $40 million offer from the Bucks last offseason) after he officially becomes a restricted free agent July 1, but the feeling and vibe surrounding the situation is that once this series is over, so might be the Jennings/Bucks love/hate fest.
It started with not so much of a whisper. Open and honest comments from Jennings about how he saw his future. Then on March 27 after a loss to the Sixers when head coach Jim Boylan benched Jennings in the fourth quarter, Jennings released the pain: "I don't see any all-stars in this locker room so I think everybody should be held accountable, like anybody else. There's no maxed-out [contract] players in this locker room; there's no all-stars. So don't try to put me on a pedestal and just give everybody else the freedom to do whatever they want."
And in the context of Michael Jordan's "pampered superstar" line in "Space Jam," this was no way for the franchise player to be treated. Especially when all he might get is a one-year qualifying offer; especially after currently watching the team's "other" star, Monta Ellis, have back-to-back seven-point games (4-of-16 shooting, 1-of-9 on 3s) in Games 2 and 3 of a first-round playoff series.
The latter performance might be enough to make any GM think a few more times about whom he is going to ride with and whom he really needs to build the franchise around. And even though the front office of the Bucks claims it will match any offer any other team puts on the table for Jennings, there's still an almost sentimental feeling (even Aaron Rodgers said to me that it feels that way) that Sunday's Game 4 may be Jennings' last in front of a Bucks home crowd.
When I asked two guys from the crowd who were wearing two different versions of Jennings' jersey if there was any significance to their wardrobe beyond pulling for the Bucks to win a game, they said "because we're going to miss him."
The shot selection, at times anemic shooting percentage (career 39 percent), the standing around on offense, the 5.7/2.4 assist/turnover ratio, etc. may soon be appreciated somewhere else. Somewhere where his almost Damian Lillard-like ability to score and his rare Nick Van Exel ability to always keep his team in games regardless of the score will lead to more than 46 wins (the Bucks' best since he arrived, which came during his rookie season) and deeper than the first round of the playoffs (no, there's no miracle coming this year).
"I said some things, you know, that I probably shouldn't have to make [the fans] think that [these might be my last days]," Jennings said to me after the Game 3 loss. "But in general I wouldn't want to leave without actually accomplishing something here and that's getting out of the first round or something like that."
He also said that right now his focus is not on what my focus is for this story. "That's why we hire agents. At the end of the day this is a business but they take care of all of that and we can concentrate on playing basketball."
His focus in the moment is solely about where he stands and what stands in front of him: The Miami Heat. A young brotha still trying to find a way to make his pre-series claim of "beating the Heat in 6" wrong by just one game.
The worst thing that ever happened to Brandon Jennings was dropping that 55 points. He was only seven games in! Since then, Jennings' fans and Bucks fans (and the Bucks organization) have been expecting him to re-reach that moment. All he has been trying to do is hoop.
I only say that because that night, that game, put an Iverson label on him that he has been unable to shake. Very similar to how in the early years (and still now to a lesser degree) Kobe Bryant had been trying to shake the "Jordan guilt-by-non-association" label, Jennings unfortunately caught the same fate. People began to think and believe that he could score at the same pace and volume as Iverson. They saw that 55, they saw his size, his build, his speed, his swag, his persona, his overall ability to break down defenses, his shooting guard trapped in a point guard's body and automatically flashed back. It persists to this day even though Iverson has the sixth-highest scoring average in NBA history and Jennings has yet to average 20 points a game during a season.
He is not Allen Iverson. Which is a good thing. In that Jennings won't be stuck with the total responsibility of carrying a franchise's well-being on his 169-pound frame the way A.I., at 165 pounds, had to carry one on his shoulders. Which is probably why I've always seen Jennings eventually playing in a different uniform, evolving as a ballplayer in a different way. His relationship with the Bucks is a different type of loyalty.
Two years ago I kept, for some odd future reason, seeing Jennings back in his hometown, L.A . In my mind back then I kept seeing (and saying) that he was going to replace Derek Fisher as the Lakers point guard when his rookie contract was up in Milwaukee. It would guarantee the Lakers would never fall off. With him, Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum as the core, the Lakers were going remain the team the Miamis and OKCs and Bulls and Spurs and whoever else would be contenders at the time would have to go through to win -- earn -- their titles.
Little did I know then what the Lakers would turn into, little did I know that Steve Nash would eventually become the Fisher replacement, little did I know that Dwight Howard would be the centerpiece (literally) instead of Bynum. Little did I know then that the Clippers would become the Clippers and challenge the Lakers for L.A. supremacy.
But now -- and probably even more because of those changes -- my vision of Jennings (Note: He's from Compton) is clearer than HD. It makes even more sense now (regardless of current cap space issues/concerns that could drastically change by July 1) than it did when I was being Tyler, the Creator with my fictional/fantasy GM skills in 2011.
Can't you now -- and probably even more because of the changes, injuries, drama, dynamics, need and desperation -- see Jennings in a Lakers uniform? Replacing Nash instead of Fisher? Feeding and feeding off of Howard instead of Bynum? Holding it down offensively until Kobe returns and then battling Chris Paul for the most important player in L.A. once Mamba officially retires?
As long as sign-and-trades are an option in the collective bargaining agreement of the NBA, anything is possible. So maybe this farewell feeling hanging over Milwaukee is an indication that instead of matching the best offer another team makes and keeping Jennings around for a lame-duck season, the Bucks will sign him and trade him.
"At the end of the day they have supported me here since day one," Jennings said about the Bucks and Milwaukee. "The good and the bad. From my rookie year, from being a little guy that came from Italy that nobody knew about, they still had my back through it all. So at the end of the day, I still love this town and hopefully I'll be here."
But at this moment, with so much in limbo hovering around him in Milwaukee, with so many questions unanswered and the end of their playoff run almost imminent, it sure doesn't feel like he will be.