Like an NBA version of Forrest Gump, Eric Bledsoe has unwittingly played a key role in this year's battle for the title. How? Follow the bouncing draft pick. Bledsoe was taken with a pick that originally belonged to the defending champion Miami Heat, who traded it to the Oklahoma City Thunder to clear enough cap room to sign LeBron James and Chris Bosh. The Thunder too could have had Bledsoe, but they picked him for the Los Angeles Clippers, who gave them a future first-round pick.
As Bledsoe developed into a key contributor in L.A., Oklahoma City used that pick as part of the trade for Kendrick Perkins that vaulted the Thunder into last year's Finals.
Now, another Bledsoe trade could tip the scales again. Blocked by Chris Paul, the 23-year-old Bledsoe is the Clippers' best asset as they consider upgrading their starting lineup for a run at knocking off West favorites Oklahoma City and San Antonio. Just what kind of player would teams such as the Boston Celtics (for Kevin Garnett) or the Utah Jazz (for Paul Millsap) be getting? Let's take a closer look at Bledsoe's game and future.
Ready to Start
Because Bledsoe is averaging only 21.8 minutes per game, advanced statistics give a better indication of his play this season. He ranks eighth among point guards in PER and ninth in win percentage, the per-minute version of my WARP ratings. Half of the eight players ahead of him, including Paul, played in Sunday's All-Star Game.
This story isn't entirely new. A handful of the players my SCHOENE projection system deems most similar to him at the same age also were stuck on the bench then: Devin Harris in Dallas, Terrell Brandon in Cleveland and Kyle Lowry in Houston. All made good on the promise they showed in reserve roles.
When he was Bledsoe's age, Harris was playing behind Jason Terry. The Mavericks started using the two point guards together during their run to the NBA Finals, and the configuration stuck the next season. Harris' scoring took a slight hit before rebounding the next season and exploding when he was traded to New Jersey as part of the return for Jason Kidd. Harris was an All-Star in 2009 before injuries hampered his career.
Like Bledsoe, Brandon happened to play with one of the league's best point guards, four-time All-Star Mark Price. Brandon wouldn't get a chance to start until his fourth season, when Price missed time because of injury, but quickly established himself as an upper-echelon starter. Brandon would make two trips to the All-Star Game before a knee injury forced him into retirement at age 31.
Lowry is still writing his story after forcing his way into the starting lineup in 2010-11 at age 24. He has improved his per-minute scoring and assist rates in that role and is known as one of the league's better defenders at the point guard position, just like Bledsoe.
Filling in for Paul
Cynics will point to the Clippers' 6-6 record when Bledsoe filled in for the injured Paul as an indication he's not yet ready for prime time. Besides the fact that there's no shame in being worse than the All-Star MVP, that record doesn't tell the entire story. The Clippers outscored their opponents by 23 points in those games, and did so against a tough schedule.
Blame LL Cool J: 10 of the 12 games Bledsoe started were played on the road, mostly during a grueling eight-game trip to accommodate the Grammys at the Staples Center.
Moreover, to the extent the Clippers struggled it was actually because of the domino effect of Bledsoe's promotion to the starting lineup. Jamal Crawford became the Clippers' backup point guard with Grant Hill joining the rotation. Over the course of the season, NBA.com/Stats shows Bledsoe playing just as well with the Clippers' starters as Paul. Both units are plus-6.5 points per 100 possessions. However, the standout bench lineup -- outscoring opponents by 11.3 points per 100 possessions with Bledsoe -- falls apart without him; the Crawford/Hill unit was actually outscored.
Individually, Bledsoe more than held his own despite a shooting slump. He averaged 14.2 points, 5.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds in his 12 starts. Bledsoe's average of 2.5 steals per game as a starter would rank second in the NBA this season behind Paul and only Rajon Rondo and Russell Westbrook grab more rebounds from the point. The combination speaks to Bledsoe's otherworldly athleticism.
Still a work in progress
Other criticisms of Bledsoe's game hold more merit. When he drives the lane, he usually looks to score instead of setting up teammates. Only three starting point guards (Mario Chalmers, George Hill and Isaiah Thomas) hand out assists on a lower percentage of their teams' possessions. At the same time, Bledsoe also can be prone to turnovers, ranking in the bottom third among starting point guards in the percentage of his plays that end in miscues. The low-assist, high-turnover combination is a bad one that only Chalmers shares.
Bledsoe has made strides in this regard -- he has cut his turnover rate by more than a quarter from last season -- and teams can project further improvement. At the same age, similar players improved their assist rate by more than six percent and committed nearly five percent fewer turnovers. Bledsoe in particular may have room for development as a playmaker because he's still inexperienced as a point guard. He played mostly off the ball at Kentucky, where he shared the backcourt with John Wall, and his NBA playing time has been limited by Paul's presence.
It should be noted that Bledsoe has a style all his own. Only three players dating back to 1990 -- Harris, Rondo and Rod Strickland -- have a similarity score of better than 90 to his game at the same age. Nonetheless, if we look at the 10 players most comparable to Bledsoe, they've averaged nearly six wins above replacement (WARP) over the following three seasons. That's easily starter-caliber production, and would peg Bledsoe's value on the open market starting north of $9 million a year and going up.
While Bledsoe has a chance to earn fair compensation in 2014-15, whether in restricted free agency or by signing a contract extension next fall, any team that acquires Bledsoe will get one bargain season. He'll make $2.6 million in 2013-14 during the final year of his rookie contract. That's more than enough to make up for the fact that any Bledsoe deal would surely have to include either Caron Butler ($8 million next season) or DeAndre Jordan (two years left at more than $22 million) to match salaries.
There's no question that Bledsoe will be a coveted target right up until the deadline. What remains to be seen is whether the Clippers will move him or keep Bledsoe as a crucial part of their second unit. Either way, Bledsoe will loom large in the postseason picture -- again.
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