Let’s start here: the Milwaukee Bucks have a type.
They want length and athleticism. They want guys who can swallow up opposing ball-handlers, who teleport into passing lanes and turn lazily lofted lobs into transition buckets, and who can close out with hands high, recover and repeat until the shot clock buzzes.
And so, here comes Eric Bledsoe — 6-foot-1 in high tops with a 6-foot-7-1/2 wingspan, with enough burst and bounce (even after three knee surgeries in the last six years) to menace, maraud and make magic happen on both ends of the court. When he’s engaged, that is.
That Jason Kidd and company would be eager to swing a deal for Bledsoe might seem surprising, given the fact that the about-to-be-28-year-old triggerman has made many more headlines of late with his tweeting than with his play. The former Kentucky standout hasn’t suited up for an honest-to-goodness NBA game since Oct. 21, when he played a quiet 23 1/2 minutes in the Phoenix Suns’ third straight season-opening disaster: the one that wound up costing Earl Watson his job.
It’s worth remembering, though, that Bledsoe’s now-infamous angst over his ongoing presence on the Suns’ roster stemmed in large part from the organization’s decision to shut him down for the season last March, despite the fire-hydrant guard being healthy enough to make 66 starts in Phoenix’s first 67 contests. A year that started with Bledsoe trying to take the reins of a sashimi-raw roster and establish himself as Phoenix’s focal point ended with him being told, three-quarters of the way through the most productive season of his professional career, to go home and stay put, because it’d be better for everyone if the Suns lost.
The Bucks want dogs: guys who crave competition, who prize opportunities to get better. ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz detailed in a great recent feature Milwaukee’s commitment to “night school” — a naturally evolved practice in which “players would voluntarily return for a little more work, including individual film sessions with the staff.” They want guys who want to be there.
The bet here is that Bledsoe, now gifted the chance to line up alongside ascendant supernova Giannis Antetokounmpo, wants to be in Milwaukee. He might even write his check to the league office with a smile on his face.
Bledsoe had Milwaukee on top of his list of places he wanted to go to – looking forward to playing with the Greek Freak and go to playoffs
— John Gambadoro (@Gambo987) November 7, 2017
Might've been the best $10,000 Eric Bledsoe ever spent
— Brian Windhorst (@WindhorstESPN) November 7, 2017
Especially if, as Suns general manager Ryan McDonough has suggested, Bledsoe’s “misguided” public campaign further depressed his trade market to the point that the Bucks were able to acquire him for the price of center Greg Monroe, along with protected future first- and second-round draft picks, according to Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe of ESPN.
Just three summers ago, Monroe was Milwaukee’s signature free-agent coup, evidence that a Bucks team building around Giannis and No. 2 overall pick Jabari Parker had begun to develop enough cachet as an NBA destination on the rise to outduel glamor markets for in-demand talent. The sport’s tilt toward unicorns left Moose in the lurch, though, with his game as an elbows-and-in mauler (albeit one with plenty of interior playmaking touch) who doesn’t protect the rim relegating him to sixth-man duty.
To be fair, Monroe excelled in that role. He averaged 11.7 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.3 assists in 22.5 minutes per game last season, and while he didn’t start any of his 81 appearances, Kidd often deployed him as a closer for a team that won 42 games and made the playoffs. Monroe, appropriately enough, finished sixth in Sixth Man of the Year voting. But with sophomore curiosity Thon Maker ready for a larger workload and shot-blocking dive man John Henson around as a reserve, the Bucks didn’t need quite as much from Monroe, who had averaged a career-low 15.8 minutes per game for the Bucks in five games before going down with a calf strain.
His greatest value, from the perspective of a Milwaukee side looking for a shot in the arm, came in the expiring contract he carries, offering any taker a chance to clear $17.9 million from the balance sheet this summer. With the Suns evidently lacking any other attractive offers and, dead-cat bounce aside, still going nowhere now while deeply entrenched in a rebuilding project, that and the picks were enough to get the deal done. Giving up draft picks, even protected ones, will always give fans goosebumps, especially in markets that don’t typically draw top-flight free-agent interest. But bringing in Bledsoe without sacrificing a core young piece — namely Maker or guard Malcolm Brogdon — feels like a win in the moment.
The question, then, is what the Bucks brought back for their bargain, so let’s keep going: Bledsoe, on balance, might be a top-10 point guard. Might.
That’s not a shot. It’s just that Stephen Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, John Wall, Damian Lillard, Kemba Walker, Mike Conley, Kyrie Irving and Goran Dragic all line up at the one spot, too. When they’re healthy, so do Chris Paul, Isaiah Thomas and Tony Parker. Then there’s the next tier — guys like George Hill, Ricky Rubio, Jeff Teague, Dennis Schroder, Jrue Holiday, Reggie Jackson, Patrick Beverley, and so on — who can make or break their team and yours, depending on the night.
The NBA currently features a staggering array of MVP, near-MVP, All-Star or near-All-Star talent at Bledsoe’s position. This, in part, is why it was tough for Phoenix to extract a whole heck of a lot of value for him; not many serious teams really needed a top-line lead guard.
“Need” might not seem like the right word for Milwaukee, with Brogdon off to a strong start. The reigning Rookie of the Year is averaging 15.5 points and 4.8 assists in 33.1 minutes per game, shooting 50 percent from the field, a blistering 45.7 percent from 3-point land, and 80 percent from the line. But look under the hood.
The Bucks’ offense has fallen down when The President, a.k.a. Humble Moses, has been off the floor, scoring six fewer points per 100 possessions in non-Brogdon minutes. Milwaukee has gotten blasted on the rare occasions when Brogdon takes the reins without Giannis. Matthew Dellavedova, Rashad Vaughn and Jason Terry, bless their hearts, are not the answer.
There’s room for another playmaker here — one who can handle the ball and move without it, operate in the pick-and-roll and work the weak side of the floor, scramble a defense and get to the foul line, and help the Bucks find some other non-Giannis source of sustainable offense. That was supposed to be Parker, who’s not available. Khris Middleton remains fine and underrated, but he’s not a life preserver on his own.
Enter Bledsoe, one of only 15 players to average better than 18 points, four rebounds and four assists per game over the past four seasons, according to Basketball-Reference.com. He’s a dynamic creator in the screen game, ranking among the league’s top-10 point producers among high-volume pick-and-roll ball-handlers in each of the last two seasons, according to Synergy Sports’ game-charting.
As productive as he’s been, though, he’s never been an especially ball-dominant player, sharing time of possession and touches first with Paul and Chauncey Billups in L.A., and then with Dragic, with both Dragic and Thomas, and more recently with Devin Booker in Phoenix. He’s always felt capable of doing more, but he’s also capable of doing plenty with less, which should allow him to get in where he fits in while Giannis goes to work or Brogdon initiates. He should siphon minutes from Dellavedova and some shots from Tony Snell, which should help boost a Milwaukee offense that sits 10th in the league in points scored per possession but has the potential to rise.
He’s quick off the dribble, and really freaking strong. Dude just gets to the rim, finishing eighth, tied for 18th, 13th and 11th in the NBA over the last four years in points scored per game on drives to the basket. But he doesn’t go into the paint with blinders on; he passed out of his drives to open teammates last year more often than Thomas, Lillard, Westbrook, Wall, Walker and Irving, despite sharing the floor with a gaggle of teenagers. He’s never averaged more than 6.9 assists per 36 minutes of floor time, but he’s shown advancing craft the past couple of seasons, elevating the share of Phoenix’s possessions where he notched an assist while curbing his turnover rates to career lows.
Bledsoe’s not a tailor-made spot-up threat, having shot better than league average from 3-point range only twice in his career, and knocking in only 34.1 percent (133-for-390) of his catch-and-shoot triples over the past four years, according to NBA.com’s shot tracking. But he did finish in the 73rd percentile in points produced per spot-up possession last season, according to Synergy. He wrung points out of those trips thanks in part to a knack for drawing fouls off the catch — freebies that could be a boon for a Bucks team that ranks 23rd among 30 NBA teams in free-throw rate.
While Bledsoe entered the NBA-watching public’s consciousness as the nightmare-inducing defensive demon who hounded Mike Conley during the Clippers’ seven-game first-round win over the Memphis Grizzlies in 2012, he rarely approached that level of interest and exertion during his circling-the-drain stretch in Phoenix. He can still be active, though; he averaged nearly three deflections per game last season.
The dog might have slept more often the past few years, but he’s still in there. Dropped on a team with playoff expectations and hopes of storming up the Eastern standings, with a clearly established No. 1 option to bump Bledsoe down the pecking order, and with a defensive system that encourages its adherents to wreak havoc, this could be our best chance in years of seeing Bledsoe get back to the chaos-creating ways that helped make him such an exhilarating, tantalizing prospect.
Adding Bledsoe, who’s on the books for $15 million for the 2018-19 season, complicates Milwaukee’s math next summer. Keeping him around will put the Bucks within hailing distance of the projected luxury tax line at a time when the organization has to make a massive, likely franchise-shaping decision on what to do about Parker, who’s set to enter restricted free agency after two season-ending ACL tears. The Bucks now have a thin margin for financial error, which can make you sweat when the guy you’re importing isn’t a no-doubt-about-it star who makes you feel like you’ve vaulted closer to legitimate title contention, like Paul going to Houston, Irving arriving in Boston, or Paul George going to Oklahoma City.
His entry introduces questions for Kidd’s rotation management. Are the Bucks better with Bledsoe in the starting lineup than they’d be with the existing group standing untouched and him acting as a super-sub off the bench? If not, will Kidd be able to sell that to Bledsoe, as he did with Monroe? As Milwaukee makes its way toward the postseason, will Kidd really be comfortable running Maker and Henson out there at the five without a defensive-glass-cleaning bruiser to finish possessions? (The answer might be, “When it matters, Giannis is your center,” but that’s not something Kidd’s loved going to — 29 total minutes for Giannis-and-no-centers this year, and only 127 last season, including lineups in which Parker, Michael Beasley or Mirza Teletovic were nominal pivots.)
There are risks. But for a Bucks team that began the season with so much hope fueled by the rise of Giannis, only to sputter to a 4-5 record with a bottom-five defense and an overall profile that absolutely disintegrates whenever Antetokounmpo hits the bench, they’re risks worth taking. (Especially at the cost of a player who’s not in your long-term plans, a pick most likely to wind up being a late first-rounder in 2020, and a conditional late-second.)
Bledsoe might not be one of the 10 best point guards in the NBA, but he elevates Milwaukee’s talent level, depth and diversity of options, and remains a rare commodity all the same — a 20-point scorer who’s willing to move the ball and dig in defensively, if you can just give him a reason to believe, a cause for devotion. Good thing Milwaukee’s already got a Greek god.
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