In the first major blockbuster trade of the season, the Milwaukee Bucks nabbed a big name to pair with their franchise star. After first glance, this trade seems like a no-brainer for both teams. But the more you look at it, the more fascinating it becomes for a Milwaukee franchise trying to move into the top part of the Eastern Conference. We’ll break to the deal in three parts over the next three days in order to tackle all the factors involved. And any examination of this trade starts with the man at the center of it: Eric Bledsoe
Part I: The Enigma
Ever since Giannis Antetokounmpo catapulted himself into stardom, the Bucks have been desperately seeking an established star to slot alongside him. With the East looking to be wide open for the first time in the LeBron James era, the Bucks saw Eric Bledsoe sending up smoke signals from the valley of the sun (or more accurately, tweets from a salon) and made their move.
It’s pretty clear from Milwaukee’s perspective that Bledsoe is the big name player needed to take the team to the next level of contention. Despite a bumpy ride during his time in Phoenix, Bledsoe managed to put up impressive numbers -- like two consecutive seasons over averaging over 20 points per game. And at 27 years old, Bledsoe is smack dab in his prime on a team ready to ascend the Eastern Conference.
It seems like a perfect marriage at first glance. But after toiling on mostly bad teams in Phoenix while overcoming a few long-term injury layoffs, Bledsoe’s somewhat of a mysterious quantity. In order to begin assessing what this means for the Bucks, it’s important to really understand Bledsoe’s game. And to do that, you have to start from the beginning of his career.
Right away in his rookie year, Bledsoe forged a reputation as an elite defender. During his formative NBA seasons with the Clippers, Bledsoe used to come off the bench and absolutely dog opposing point guards while Chris Paul rested. It was such a fun revelation that Bledsoe’s ferocious defense made him sort of a cult following on League Pass early on in his career.
It was hard to imagine that in his first crack at an expanded role with the Suns, he’d be able to keep up his defensive impact. Yet despite a starter’s role in Phoenix during the 2013-14, Bledsoe ranked first among point guards in ESPN.com’s defensive real plus/minus (DRPM).
But that year is the start of the paradox that comes with players like Bledsoe. His defensive prowess helped increase both his value and his role. But with expanded duties, Bledsoe’s ability to be a rabid dog on defense diminished, lessening his impact. Even that impressive mark in the Suns' “Springtime for Hitler” season is a little misleading as Goran Dragic, not Bledsoe, did the heavy offensive lifting during a career year for the Slovenian point guard.
Dragic departed the next season and in perhaps just a strange coincidence, Bledsoe’s DRPM has been in a nosedive ever since. Last year, the veteran point guard hit bottom, ranking 37th among point guards. While DRPM is an imperfect tool and some of that decline is likely attributed to Bledsoe’s effort waning during a dreadful Suns season, there’s certainly some fire behind that smoke.
The reason guards like Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley and Patrick Beverley continue to operate as elite defenders is because, well, they’re Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley and Patrick Beverley. Smart comes off the bench in Boston and has played alongside offensive fulcrums like Isaiah Thomas and now Kyrie Irving. Avery Bradley is an off-screen player, rarely ever asked to expand energy handling the ball. Beverley functions as mostly as a second-side pick-and-roll operator.
Bledsoe’s role in Milwaukee is going to be drastically different -- he’s there to take the offensive burden off Antetokounmpo. While the Bucks' superstar forward could have a Dragic-like effect and Bledsoe could ramp up his defensive intensity now that he’s out of the Phoenix quagmire, there’s no guarantee of either. At this point, Bledsoe in an expanded offensive role could mean that his defense isn’t game-changing anymore. And if just turns out to be capable, it’s hard to consider the Bucks drastically improved over incumbent point guards Malcolm Brogdon and Matthew Dellavedova.
The defense being a wash would be fine because the real improvement from Bledsoe’s arrival is supposed to come on the other end of the floor. By just looking at raw numbers it’s quite clear Bledsoe represents a massive upgrade over the aforementioned Brogdon and Dellavedova. And though Bledsoe’s outside shooting is a nitpicked point in most breakdowns of this deal-- he’s only had one season with a high volume of attempts where he finished above league average -- Bledsoe shot 37.9 percent on a shade under two attempts per game in catch-and-shoot situations last year, per NBA.com data. If he hangs somewhere around that mark in Milwaukee, Bledsoe should be just fine spotting up when Antetokounmpo has the ball.
When Bledsoe has the ball is when things get a little weird. For all his athletic gifts, Bledsoe isn’t a the same world-destroying transition force his new, Greek teammate is. In fact, he’s nowhere near that level. During the 2015-16 season, Bledsoe’s points per possession (PPP) output on transition attempts ranked in the bottom half of the league, per Synergy data. Last year, he finished in the bottom third. As much as he looks the part, Bledsoe simply isn’t a player that wants to or excels at getting out on the break.
Instead, Bledsoe’s most potent way to attack a defense is through the pick-and-roll in the halfcourt. Watch him play in the NBA’s staple action and there’s a lot of things to like. Bledsoe plays with a probing pace, taking his time weaving around screens while using his strong frame to hold off defenders. This is a smart, savvy way for players to play in pick-and-rolls.
But most players that utilize this probing, plodding style in pick-and-roll do it as a way to capitalize on an accurate jumpshot or give themselves time to slice open a defense with their distribution (Think someone like Chris Paul). It’s one of those anthropological things where they adapted to that pace because their skillsets encouraged it. Which is why it’s so fascinating that Bledsoe, a big, strong, attacking guard, plays like a veteran in the Euroleague.
The problem for Bledsoe is that he is not Chris Paul. While it has improved, Bledsoe’s jumper and playmaking ability aren’t at the elite level they’d need to be at in order to really punish a defense from the spots his plodding pace typically opens up on the floor. When Bledsoe takes a jumper out pick-and-rolls, something he did 292 times last season, his PPP is a meager .986, per Synergy data. Of the 23 players that had at least 200 such attempts in 2016-17, Bledsoe ranked just 14th. Most of the players Bledsoe was ahead of on that list -- like John Wall, Dennis Schroder and Russell Westbrook -- don’t exactly have a reputation as efficient, dead-eye shooters.
Unlike, say, Wall, Bledsoe isn’t making up for a so-so conversion rate on jumpers with elite playmaking ability. Per Synergy’s database, Bledsoe struggled to create good offense when he moved the ball out pick-and-rolls. It’s a little unfair to hang that totally on Bledsoe. Those those numbers were obviously influenced by the fact that Phoenix wasn’t very good on offense (teammate error, basically). There’s also an argument to be made that moving to a better offense in Milwaukee will mean better results for Bledsoe’s passes.
Yet dig into Bledsoe’s film and you might not want to leap to that assumption. Though we tend to think of passing (and most basketball skills) in these binary descriptors -- good/bad, willing/non-willing descriptions -- there are different levels within the skill. When it comes to just passing to the roll man alone, some players are fantastic at finding windows to deliver the ball at all levels (early, on the roll, late). Others can only hit basic pocket passes while there’s obviously plenty that just eschew passing entirely.
Bledsoe is something of a robotic passer. He can make reads on both throwing to the roll and the weakside, but lacks the flair and creativity to find or create windows that truly elite passers consistently find. In other words, Bledsoe (to his credit) is a trained passer, rather than a guy who is a natural playmaker.
It’s something that might be reflected best datawise by NBA.com’s player tracking data that measures individual passing. According to the site, Bledsoe ranked 5th in total passes made at 62.5 per game. That put him behind just pass first guys Ricky Rubio and TJ McConnell, MVP candidate James Harden and, of course, Paul. Yet despite this high volume of passes, Bledsoe ranked just 16th in assist opportunities -- a category that takes out “teammate error” because it doesn’t rely on the shot to be made. This doesn’t mean Bledsoe’s playmaking is totally overrated, it just means it’s not the type that bends a defense.
Part of why Bledsoe is such a fascinatingly weird player is that while he’s adapted his game to a very productive style, he’d almost be better off selling out as downhill attacker. Bledsoe was one of only 17 players with over 100 attempts at the rim out of pick-and-roll (when using the screen). He ranked 5th with 1.292 PPP in those attempts -- a number that outranks both his playmaking and midrange madness.
Now it’s an oversimplification to say a player is better off if he just attacks the basket. Defenses and situation obviously dictate how possible that is. And Bledsoe still needs the threat of a functional jumpshot to set up a downhill approach. But there’s definitely a conversation to be had that Bledsoe’s best self is not the player he currently operates as.
After looking a bit more under the hood on what Bledsoe’s game brings, it makes it easier to really assess what this means for the Bucks going forward. And that’s where things get really interesting.
Part II: Seeing the Forest for the Trees (Upcoming)