Welcome to our 2021-22 Clips Nation season preview series, where we’re digging into something that interests us about each player for this coming season. Next up, should Eric Bledsoe be the team’s starting two guard?
When the Clippers made the trade to acquire Eric Bledsoe in exchange for Patrick Beverley, Rajon Rondo, and Daniel Oturu, many fans were skeptical of the direction the team was heading in. Swapping what seemed to be the heart and soul of a gritty L.A. Clippers team in Patrick Beverley for an underperforming veteran on a non-playoff team did not seem to promise increased success, at least on the surface.
We should take these concerns into account when setting expectations for Bledsoe this upcoming season, but it shouldn’t be a stretch to bet on him exceeding those standards. He has already proven himself as a reliable player on the court, offering a solid skillset that he applies on both sides of the court. He could add a whole new dimension to the Clippers’ offense.
Eric Bledsoe go-ahead three to ice the game ❄️— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) January 3, 2021
At his peak with the Suns, Bledsoe averaged 21 points, six assists, and five rebounds, using his compact build to out-muscle smaller guards (and match up with bigger ones) and outspeed slower wings on drives. He’ll offer rim pressure for a team that lacked a non-star inside-outside player, and it’s quite possible that the ideal spacing in the Clippers game plan will give him more easy opportunities to slash to the basket. He’s recently been averaging around a 70 percent conversion rate for shots at the basket, proving just how great of an interior scorer he can be.
Although those parts of his game sound great for a solid role player, there is a legitimate debate regarding his status as a starter. Ty Lue already announced his preferred lineups for at least the beginning of the season, and Bledsoe’s insertion into the starting five took precedent over players like Luke Kennard, or especially Terance Mann.
Mann’s breakout postseason performance against the Utah Jazz (which he brushed aside at training camp) begs the question of whether youth should be prioritized, or if veteran reliability should be counted on. He is currently being eyed as a potential Most Improved Player award candidate, and if he remains on the bench through the season, a Sixth Man of the Year award is achievable.
However, Bledsoe offers a sense of stability that the Clippers will need to bank on for at least the beginning portion of the season. New additions will need time to get oriented, and though Bledsoe’s alumni status may be far removed, he’s already fully committed to the Clippers’ system, stating that he will “... just help the team out the best way I can, [...] So whatever the case may be, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Kawhi Leonard’s absence has some contending that the Clippers are destined for the dreaded play-in tournament, so Bledsoe’s presence may provide some insurance for a team in win-now mode. That isn’t to say his spot as a starting guard is set in stone — a lineup with Mann on the wing, or even Kennard for more shooting is plausible. We’ve seen Mann’s talent, but we could see Kennard transform into a higher-volume shooter like Duncan Robinson in Miami, which contributed greatly to his relative success the past two seasons.
What will determine Bledsoe’s usefulness as a starter will come down to his shooting numbers and his defensive effectiveness, both of which could potentially be filled by Mann. If Bledsoe can reliably hit outside shots off of Paul George double teams, and if he can compensate for Reggie Jackson’s defensive weaknesses, it’s difficult to see this trade as a negative for the team.
And, even if Bledsoe is unable to fulfill the demands of a starting Clipper guard, his veteran status and playoff experience could prove to be a difference maker for the young careers of Keon Johnson (who could be deployed at point guard), Jason Preston, Brandon Boston, and Mann. Having a reliable player to help transition young guys from the college game to the NBA will also expedite the team’s developmental regimen for the new additions, shortening the time it takes for them to contribute to the overall success of the team and becoming professional basketball players in their own right.
We should not expect Bledsoe to return to his form that was displayed with Phoenix, nor should we expect him to return to his status as an All-Defensive Team member, but we can expect consistency and reliability in a comfortable role. Will that be enough to prepare the Clippers for the playoffs, when Leonard may return? We’ll only know with time, but we do know that Bledsoe deserves a fair shot at working to make his starter status permanent.