Name: Eric Bledsoe
2012-2013 Key Stats: 8.5 ppg, 3.1 apg, 3.0 rpg
Years in NBA: 3
Years With Clippers: 3
2012-2013 Salary: $1,707,720
Contract Status: Signed for next season at $2,626,473
In A Nutshell:
One of the challenges for coach Vinny Del Negro this season was balancing minutes on a deep squad. For the most part he handled it pretty well. He kept minutes relatively low for Chris Paul and Blake Griffin compared to other stars in the league, which should have paid off in the postseason though of course it did not. And with the exception of odd-man-out Grant Hill, he kept everyone else in the rotation and happy. But there was one major failure in minutes distribution on the season as a whole: Eric Bledsoe didn't play enough.
Bledsoe presented a particular challenge of course. He happens to play point guard, where the Clippers happen to feature Paul, the best player at the position in the league and a first team All NBA selection. So it's no mystery as to why Bledsoe was limited to a little over 20 minutes per game.
But it was still a mistake. Measured by PER (an imperfect but nonetheless useful metric) Bledsoe was the third most productive player on the roster at 17.5, behind Paul and Griffin. However, he was seventh on the team in minutes per game at 20.4. And that's including 12 starts while Paul was hurt where Bledsoe played over 34 minutes per. As a reserve in the standard rotation, Bledsoe was limited to under 18 minutes per game, which would have been ninth on the team. The first job of a coach is to get his best players on the court, and in Bledsoe's case, Del Negro failed.
NBA basketball is by and large a player's game, and there are a limited number of players who are difference-makers, who provide a unique advantage to the team or present a unique challenge to the opponent. Bledsoe is one such difference-maker, really one of four on the Clippers roster this season (the other being Paul and Griffin and Jamal Crawford). His other-worldly athleticism creates problems for the opponent on both ends of the floor. The Clippers needed to find a way to utilize him more this season.
Think of something you would not expect an NBA point guard to do well. Odds are, Bledsoe excels at it. For instance, point guards don't block shots, but Bledsoe led all guards (in fact, all players under 6'7) in blocked shots per minute this season. For a bit of perspective, 1.3 blocks per 36 minute was about the same as Lamar Odom this season, and better than Tyson Chandler.
Point guards don't get offensive rebounds either, but Bledsoe managed to grab 1.8 per 36 minutes, second among qualified NBA guards behind the 6'4 Tony Allen (note that basketball-reference lists the 6'8 Moe Harkless as a guard, but he played almost exclusively at forward this season). Again, one needs to realize that this offensive rebounding rate is not just good for a point guard (it is in fact, ridiculous for a point guard) -- it's pretty good for any NBA player. Among the players getting fewer offensive rebounds per minute than Bledsoe this season were Kevin Garnett and LeBron James.
And then there are steals. We no longer need the caveat of limiting our search to guards in this case: Bledsoe was second in the NBA in steals per minute on the season. The one player ahead of him? Chris Paul. And Bledsoe's defense goes beyond steals and blocked shots as well. He's a complete nuisance to opposing point guards and on multiple occasions this season thoroughly rattled an opponent with his constant pressure. It's true that he gets many of his steals by gambling off his man -- but his astonishing athleticism allows him to recover more often than not. He's one of the only players in the league that can cheat to go for a blind side steal in the post and recover to the three point line without getting beaten. When the Clippers' second unit was clicking early in the season it was because of defense, and Bledsoe was the motor driving that defense.
So when Bledsoe is on the court, he's providing benefit across the box score -- benefit that contributes directly to the team's bottom line. Steals and offensive rebounds are extra possessions, which equal points. Steals and blocked shots are defensive stops, which keep the other team from scoring. These are not just plays that get fans up on their feet and cheering (though FSM knows that Bledsoe makes at least one of those per game): these are plays that win games.
As for the more traditional point guard skills like scoring and distributing, Bledsoe is still a work in progress, but the key word there is progress. At almost 15 points per 36 minutes, he was the second best scorer on the Clippers successful second unit, and one of only two players who could create offense.
Bledsoe's super power is that he creates chaos -- but that sword cuts two ways. As a young point guard still learning the position and thriving at a breakneck pace, it is inevitable that he will get out of control at times. The question is, does the good he is creating from his chaotic style outweigh the bad? In most cases the answer is yes. But coaches will almost always err towards control -- they don't like chaos because they don't know how to coach for or against it. In that light, it's not surprising that Bledsoe's minutes were somewhat limited this season.
While Bledsoe does a lot of things you don't expect a point guard to do extraordinarily well, unfortunately he does not excel at the traditional point guard skills. He led the Clippers in turnovers per minute, and coupled with his relatively anemic assist rate, he had the second worst assist-to-turnover ratio in the NBA among 50 qualified point guards. This propensity to give the ball away was particularly glaring compared to the man he was backing up -- Paul led the league in assist-to-turnover ration, committing one turnover for every 4.3 assists he handed out. Bledsoe committed one turnover per every 1.7 assists.
Bledsoe is not considered a great shooter -- though his improved numbers from this season may force a re-evaluation of that conventional wisdom. He does not shoot a traditional jump shot but rather more of a set shot. The scouting report on him is not to let him drive, so he actually gets plenty of open looks for his funny little shot, and he hit it surprisingly well this season, making almost 40% of this three pointers. That strong percentage notwithstanding, he'll need to develop his perimeter game, including the ability to shoot off the dribble, if he wants to reach his full potential.
His most interesting weakness could be the very thing that gives him his strength. A 20 minute per game reserve can afford to fly all over the court, making risky plays going for steals and blocked shots at every opportunity. The role of a starting NBA point guard is different though. In a perfect world, a player like Bledsoe would create chaos for opponents while being in perfect control while running the team, but that is not always possible. He will clearly need to dial back the chaos and exhibit more control as he gets more responsibility -- but some of that will come with experience.
Future with the Clippers:
Regarding his future, Bledsoe is easily the most intriguing player from the the 2013 Clippers. The Clippers were considered a young team this year, partly because the franchise had so rarely been to the postseason, but truthfully, beyond Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Bledsoe, the team wasn't young at all. Bledsoe provides several things the Clippers desperately need: youth, athleticism (that fits well with the Lob City identity) and inexpensive production (he's got one more year left on a very cheap rookie contract). But there's a basic problem -- he plays the same position as the Clippers best player.
With Del Negro gone, a new coach may be more willing or more able to find ways to play Bledsoe more. The simple fact is that Del Negro almost never played Paul and Bledsoe together, but there's no reason they can't play together. In the final week of the regular season, Bledsoe and Paul played more sustained minutes together than they had all year, and the small backcourt helped turn around key wins in New Orleans and Memphis.
Traditionally the problem with playing two six-footers in the backcourt would be on the defensive end where one of them would likely be giving away significant size to a shooting guard. But Bledsoe's length, strength and athleticism almost completely compensate for any size disadvantage, and defensively a Paul/Bledsoe backcourt becomes an asset, not a liability. The perception of a defensive problem persists, but I for one don't see it that way. The real problem with playing Paul and Bledsoe together is on offense, where Paul and Griffin need to be surrounded with great perimeter shooters -- but if Bledsoe continues to develop his perimeter game and shows he can hit a spot up three, then that problem is mitigated as well.
But even if a new coach is hopefully better able to utilize a unique asset like Bledsoe, the Clippers best case scenario is still to trade him this off-season to improve the roster at other positions. Other teams can look up the same stats I've looked up, other teams can see the impact that Bledsoe can have on a game, and one good thing about the fact that he was underutilized this season is that he still has almost unlimited potential in the eyes of the rest of the NBA. Yes, I believe he and Paul can play together -- but they would be co-existing, not thriving.
Teams were rumored to be interested in Bledsoe at the trade deadline, with the most talked about potential trade being Bledsoe and Jordan for Garnett (a trade that Del Negro pushed for, which put him at odds with the front office and was likely a factor in the Clippers not keeping him as coach). At the time, the Clippers were said to be reluctant to lose Bledsoe as an insurance policy against the free agent Paul. That never made any sense to me -- the team has to move forward on the assumption that Paul will re-sign because to do anything else would be admitting defeat -- but they will likely shop him aggressively this off-season. By packaging Bledsoe with Jordan or Butler, the Clippers can bring back a star-level player, though it will likely be one with some amount of baggage if they are available.
Can the Clippers turn Bledsoe into a much-needed upgrade on the wing or in the front court? If they can, they will. Bear in mind, even if they retain Bledsoe as an inexpensive asset for next season, he'll be a restricted free agent after that, and won't be inexpensive any more. The mid-range future for the Clippers -- that is, anything beyond next season -- almost certainly excludes Bledsoe. As such, it's probably better to make a move now and start moving towards that future sooner rather than later.