We’ve reached the point in the season where — and I say this warily, though I feel decent about it — we can commit to the idea of the Clippers being good. Not great. But good, sure.
Frankly, it’s unlikely that they can approach being great without Kawhi Leonard. But a five-game winning streak is a five-game winning streak. That’s tied for the longest win streak in the league with the Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns, both of whom are widely considered amongst the powerhouse teams in the ridiculously-deep Western Conference. And though the Clippers streak isn’t exactly filled with foes of the highest caliber, it’s a streak nonetheless, and a welcome one after a shaky start.
For the Clippers to have something in common with those teams certainly isn’t nothing. But it’d be lovely if there was more meat on that bone — say, a dominant, nay, consistent backcourt that can provide a boost on both ends. The Warriors, with MVP-favorite Steph Curry and a bevy of budding guards, namely Jordan Poole, Damion Lee, and the surprisingly-ascendant Gary Payton II, seem unstoppable. The Suns have Chris Paul and Devin Booker; any questions?
The Clippers, with Reggie Jackson and Eric Bledsoe, have a half-proficient backcourt that can help to steady the team’s offensive flow when too much of the burden is falling on Paul George, or better yet, when he’s off the court.
The proficient half of that backcourt is probably obvious. The other is on his second try in Los Angeles, and has yet to bear many fruits of his labor.
While Jackson is having what looks like it could be a career year, Bledsoe is showing how little of the player he once was remains. In other words: he’s been the exact opposite of what the Clippers had hoped for (and needed) when they reacquired him this offseason. They needed a dynamic backcourt presence with two-way ability and athleticism to match the likes of George and Jackson. The player they got appears to be mere remnants of that ideal form.
Back in August, Matthew Scammahorn wrote for Clips Nation that Bledsoe “is a dynamic combo guard who can both run the offense and play off the ball. He also brings a two-way game that the Clippers prioritize, with defensive stats that don’t significantly differ from Beverley’s numbers.” Although most of those assertions seemed to be true of Bledsoe at the time, even after a lackluster year in New Orleans, he’s failed on meeting just about all of them thus far.
In the years since the best seasons of Bledsoe’s career — which were primarily spent with the Suns from 2013-18 — he’s seen continued regression, almost appearing like a scheduled decline from year to year. At his peak in Phoenix, he was averaging 21.1 points per game on an efficient 43 percent clip to go with 6.3 assists; by the end of his time with the Suns, he saw those averages dip back down to 15.7 points per game on just 40 percent shooting. In 2018, Bledsoe was traded to Milwaukee, where he saw a minutes increase, as well as an all-but immediate scoring jump. He averaged 17.9 points in 71 games (all starts), before dropping to 15.9 and 14.9 per game in the successive two years.
The aforementioned lackluster season with the Pelicans saw Bledsoe average 12.2 points, struggle to find his shot, and find difficulty working into the unrefined New Orleans scheme. Transitioning back into a system that had a foundation (and clear-cut need for Bledsoe’s skillset) should’ve made for a fit like a glove. Alas, he’s struggled, averaging career-worst shooting percentages across the board, and scoring in double-figures just thrice: games 1, 2 and 10 (Tuesday night against the Blazers).
Now, that Bledsoe has struggled to score doesn’t paint the full picture of his abilities. Take Tuesday for example: he scored 11 points on 3-for-7 shooting, but tallied five rebounds, six assists, and two steals. His impact has the potential to stretch beyond scoring; take George’s word for it, if not mine.
“I don’t think people are understanding how hard it is for someone to come into a new system,” he said after the Clippers’ most recent win over the Timberwolves. “We all love having Bled out there on the floor with us. I don’t care about his shooting. He does stuff that box scores don’t show.”
But what George is more so speaking to — the non-box-score stats — don’t always translate in a positive way. Bledsoe “creates space,” but he often does so by aimlessly lingering on the outskirts of the three-point line, thus rendering himself useless as an option for a drive-and-kick or, really, a pass of any kind. He has a knack for moving with little to no intensity, and when he does move, it’s not enough to create passing lanes for teammates or to actually get open. Not to mention the fact that he’s never been a good 3-point shooter, yet persists as though he and Luke Kennard possess the same stroke.
He’s taken out a second mortgage on a home in no man’s land. There aren’t excuses for this.
I wonder why the Paul George/Eric Bledsoe lineups are so bad… pic.twitter.com/SQB81xcZm2— Joey Linn (@joeylinn_) November 6, 2021
I’m nitpicking a bit here. But it’s because there simply has to be more to Bledsoe than his efforts this season have let on. In that same August article on Bledsoe’s potential positive impact on the Clippers’ title chances, Scammahorn wrote, “Most of all, he is a premier drive-and-slash kind of guard, getting a first step on his defender that opens up easy inside buckets or passing lanes for open 3-pointers, and the Clippers were missing that kind of rim pressure last year. Nearly 70 percent of his career field-goal attempts are two-pointers, and his conversion rate at the basket has hovered right around 70 percent for the past few seasons.”
Bledsoe has shown flashes of being that guy this season, particularly against the Blazers in his passing game (as well as on one especially gritty rebound).
There’s also his defense, which statistically has amounted to one of Bledsoe’s better defensive years thus far, but positionally still leaves much to be desired. His 1.9 steals per game are the most he’s averaged since 2018, as well as the second-most he’s averaged in his career. If we’re longing to see shades of the player Bledsoe used to be, perhaps his active hands are a perfect place to start. He’s quick to react to steals in mid-air, and he’s more than capable of starting the break after making the interception.
Yet while he’s struggled to defend the likes of Damian Lillard and LaMelo Ball — who hasn’t? — he also doesn’t do himself any favors by failing to close out with any vigor. He also doesn’t aim to fight through screens, and he’s burnt far too often by players of a lesser speed/ability than the Lillards and Balls of the world. That lack of intensity we’ve seen on offense seems to occasionally stretch to the defensive end, too.
So, the steals that lead to breaks are something to write home about, but in the grand scheme of things, they fall into the same category as before: they are flashes. As in sporadic; infrequent; gone in a flash.
The Clippers are running out of excuses to keep Bledsoe in the starting lineup. Apparently, Ty Lue doesn't plan to change things up until Leonard returns. That could be a smokescreen; it could also be a strategic maneuver that keeps sparks like Terance Mann and Kennard coming in later to provide much-needed energy.
Right now, though, that energy is needed most from Bledsoe, a player who has started every single game this season, yet has shown minimal reason for that to persist. I have to imagine he’ll start knocking down shots soon. And his non-box score impact is bound to come to fruition in more visible ways that result in wins (and positive net ratings, which lineups including Bledsoe need in the most way).
But we’re still waiting for the Bledsoe of old to show up, even mere shades of him, especially on a consistent basis. If that player never reappears, Lue may have to rethink his stance on altering the starting five sooner than he wants to. Or worse: the Clippers’ ceiling may be capped sooner than anticipated.