1.) The Milwaukee Bucks had to spend relatively little in terms of assets to acquire Bledsoe, but is his acquisition enough to push the Bucks into another tier of contention in the Eastern Conference?
Brady Klopfer: Yes. The Bucks were already flirting with that tier, and may have reached it when Jabari Parker returned, or if they could ever move on from Jason Kidd. Bledsoe likely gets them there sooner. For Milwaukee, it’s not just about a talent addition with Bledsoe; it’s about the fit, and the impact it has on their other pieces. Their new piece instantly becomes their second-best scorer, which takes pressure off Khris Middleton; Middleton still has a case as the Bucks’ second-best player, but he was struggling mightily to fill the role as Option B on offense. Bledsoe’s addition allows Middleton to slide back into the role he is not only familiar with, but excels at.
Malcolm Brogdon – a career 41.2 percent shooter from downtown – now gets to spend more time off ball, which should make him a bigger scoring threat. And perhaps most importantly, Milwaukee can now stagger players so that one of Bledsoe and Giannis Antetokounmpo is always on the floor, while also bringing Tony Snell off the bench to space the floor. On the year, Milwaukee’s starters rank ninth in offensive rating, but their bench is 25th. Adding Bledsoe not only helps the former, but the latter as well. That’s enough to push Milwaukee up a tier in the East; it would not surprise me at all to see them competing for the top seed.
Dan Clayton: For this season, it at the very least moves them to the front of a large pack of teams (Hornets, Sixers, Pacers, Magic, Pistons, etc.) vying for a top five seed. Bledose gives them another late-game shot creator, so as long as he can fit into Milwaukee’s aggressive, frenetic defensive scheme, the move definitely upgrades their immediate-term win projections. Whether they can make some noise over the long-term depends on how they resolve some of the pending financial questions. Jabari Parker will be a restricted free agent next July, while Bledsoe and Khris Middleton could both walk the summer after that. If they can figure out a way to keep this group together though, watch out. This might push them past Boston as the team most likely to slide into the Cavs’ spot as Eastern favorites when LeBron James either declines with age or relocates.
Bryan Toporek: Absolutely. They were already flirting with being an upper-echelon team in the East, and this just sealed it. At this point, I’d be surprised if they aren’t a top-four seed come playoff time. The Boston Celtics appear to be cruising toward the No. 1 seed, and I’d still put the Washington Wizards ahead of Milwaukee as well, but the Bucks suddenly look like the favorites to finish with the third-best record in the East. Monroe played well off the bench for them last year, but the duo of John Henson and Thon Maker will be adequate fill-ins. And regardless, the value Bledsoe provides as a complementary scorer and playmaker far outweighs Monroe’s impact.
Vivek Jacob: I guess this depends on which tier you had them in prior to the trade. I had them below Washington and Toronto, but I love what this deal does in terms of leveling the playing field in the backcourt. A starting tandem of Brogdon and Bledsoe has the makings of a scary defensive combination and will give them every chance of neutralizing the likes of Lowry-DeRozan and Wall-Beal in a potential 4-5 playoff series. At the very least, they stand to improve on their fifth-worst defensive rating of 107.9 (per NBA.com/stats).
2.) How do you see the Bledsoe-Antetokounmpo pairing working on the court and where does the trio of Antetkounmpo-Bledsoe-Middleton fit in the NBA’s hierarchy of core groups?
Brady Klopfer: Bledsoe is a dream point guard to pair with the Greak Freek. He’s a strong shooter, which provides much-needed spacing. He’s a very good ball-handler and playmaker, so he can relieve Giannis of playmaking duties, but he’s not ball-dominant. The offense should still run through Antetokounmpo, and Bledsoe will excel if it does. But the offense can also run through Bledsoe when Antetokounmpo wants to work off ball, and Bledsoe will still excel. Add in Bledsoe’s defense, and it’s a match with little to no side effects.
The trio is one of the best outside of the Bay Area, and LeBronland (when Isaiah Thomas is healthy, of course). They won’t get recognition as such – Bledsoe is still underrated, and Middleton is criminally so – but from a pure value standpoint, it’s a stellar trio. All three of these players are notable above average defensively at their position, and their offensive skill sets complement each other very well. There are still a handful of trios I would take ahead of them, but Milwaukee is very much in the discussion.
Dan Clayton: The Middleton part of the equation is important, since Bledsoe is not a lights-out shooter from deep. Bled and Antetokounmpo are both at their best when they’re putting pressure on defenses with the dribble, so Milwaukee can use side-to-side movement to create fissures that either guy can attack, with Middleton around to punish teams whose approach is to wall off the paint. Bledsoe has also never played in a defensive system quite like Milwaukee’s. Middleton can still take the toughest on-ball defensive assignments most nights, but the bulldog guard’s fit on that end will go a long way to determine whether the Bucks can improve from their current bottom five defensive ranking.
Bryan Toporek: I still expect Antetokounmpo to be Milwaukee’s primary ball-handler, but having a capable secondary playmaker never hurt anyone. Bledsoe knocked down 37.0 percent on his catch-and-shoot three-point attempts last season, according to NBA.com, and he should receive a steady diet of those moving forward from Antetokounmpo and Middleton. Assuming Bledsoe can remain healthy, Milwaukee’s new Big Three—or Big Four, if Jabari Parker returns to form following his second ACL tear—is right up there among the league’s best. Golden State is in its own tier, but Milwaukee’s core group deserves to be mentioned alongside those in Boston, Washington, Minnesota, OKC and Philadelphia.
3.) With Monroe gone, how do you see the Bucks’ frontcourt re-configuring in terms of minutes and function?
Brady Klopfer: The minutes won’t be that difficult. Monroe’s court time slipped this year, down to just 15.8 per game. That’s not too much time to fill. Thon Maker (17.0 minutes) and John Henson (20.4 minute) will both have to take on larger roles, but Jason Kidd was already prioritizing them over Monroe; amplified minutes for each is not a bad thing. Add in a few minutes of Giannis at center, and they’ll be just fine.
As for function, this helps Milwaukee move away from Kidd’s biggest weakness: a desire to slow things down, and play isolation. Monroe demanded the ball in the post, where he would take his time, size up the defense, and go to work. While he was often effective, this style hindered Milwaukee’s play. Maker and Henson are better fits for the style the Bucks should be employing, given their personnel. They’ll pick up the minutes, and the team will likely be better for it.
Dan Clayton: Thon Maker, come on down. The exciting Sudanese center will surely see his minutes rise sharply from the current 17.0 mpg level, and that’s undoubtedly a good thing for Milwaukee in the long term. He’s still raw enough that the Bucks will still lean on John Henson at times, which makes it tougher to move him for salary reasons. Beyond those two, the only other rotation-quality bigs on Milwaukee’s roster are hybrid types like Giannis, Parker and Mirza Teletovic, so expect them to play small a lot from here on out.
Bryan Toporek: Thon Maker started Milwaukee’s first seven games, while John Henson supplanted him in the starting lineup for the past two. I’m expecting Henson to remain the starter moving forward, given the value he provides as a shot-blocker and rebounder, while Maker can come off the bench and serve as a stretch big. Once Maker fills out his frame more, he’ll slot in as the starting 5 alongside Antetokounmpo, but he still can’t hold his own against NBA bigs for 35-plus minutes per game at this point in his career. Once Parker returns, I’m also hoping to see the Greek Freak play some 5 at times in small-ball lineups. Good luck stopping a lineup of Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon, Middleton, Parker and Antetokounmpo.
4.) Does the addition of Monroe make any sense for the Suns? How will he benefit and/or hinder the younger players around him?
Brady Klopfer: Monroe makes sense in that he matches Bledsoe’s contract without costing anything after this year. Phoenix likely could have gotten more assets for Bledsoe elsewhere, but they would have had to eat more future money. This allows them to essentially dump Bledsoe’s contract, while getting some mediocre draft picks in the process. It’s highly unlikely that Phoenix re-signs Monroe, so chances are they’re already exploring the possibility of flipping him to a playoff team.
Monroe’s veteran presence could benefit the Suns’ young players, but he could also take their minutes. He has a bevy of post moves that he could teach, but if his minutes come at the expense of Dragan Bender or Marquese Chriss, then that’s a very bad thing.
Dan Clayton: It would be easier to worry about Monroe hindering development if any of Phoenix’s young bigs were playing particularly well. All of Alex Len, Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender are net negatives by Box Plus-Minus. Of that trio, Len is the only one who gets more than league average points out of each shooting possession. That said, Monroe doesn’t transform the Valley’s rebuilding project into anything, either, and he’s mostly enticing because his contract expires after this season. Phoenix can now get close to a max slot next summer; now we’ll see if they can do anything with that money.
Bryan Toporek: The Suns’ motivation for the trade was clear: get no long-term money on the books, and pick up draft assets. It’s unclear whether the Suns plan on keeping Monroe around or if he’s a candidate for a buyout, but assuming he sticks in Phoenix for the whole season, it’s bad news for those hoping to see Alex Len, Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender get extended burn. Considering the Suns have started the 35-year-old Tyson Chandler in each of their first 11 games, Monroe figures to supplant Len as the primary backup center, and he could steal minutes at the 4 from Chriss and Bender as well. But hey, why give minutes to your young lottery picks in a rebuilding season when you can play a 27-year-old on an expiring contract instead? Is it too early for the #FreeBender movement to begin?
Vivek Jacob: Are we really looking for the Suns to make sense? Playing Monroe and Chandler ahead of Bender/Chriss/Len would be peak Phoenix. The latest reports from Adrian Wojnarowski suggest a buyout is possible, and I’d be surprised if they’d be able to swing a trade that could bring back any value considering his impending free agency. I’ve never heard anything to suggest he could be a negative influence in the locker room, so perhaps he can teach the young guys a thing or two about finishing around the basket and using their body effectively.
5.) Are the Phoenix Suns the most dysfunctional organization in the NBA?
Brady Klopfer: Perhaps, but James Dolan’s idiocy and Bobby Portis’ fist would like a word.
Dan Clayton: That’s a pretty high bar. Their rebuild has been extremely directionless, though. It’s hard to just them based on a single trade, especially when they had no leverage and it was clearly a reset type of move. But their moves over the last 2-3 seasons in aggregate paint a picture of a team that isn’t quite sure what it wants to be, in basketball terms. There are plenty of bumbling franchises to compete for the “most dysfunctional” label, but the Suns are going to continue to be very bad for a while
Bryan Toporek: Unfortunately, no. The Chicago Bulls still take the cake there. As far as we know, no Suns player has punched a teammate in the face during practice, right? But with New York Knicks general manager Scott Perry keeping James Dolan in check and Sacramento Kings assistant GM Brandon Williams reining in Vivek Ranadive and Vlade Divac (for the time being, anyway), the Suns are a close second behind the Bulls. Until Suns owner Robert Sarver decides to sell the team—something he claims to have no interest in doing—the dysfunctional rot pervasive throughout this organization isn’t going away.
Vivek Jacob: I couldn’t pick between the Bulls and Suns in terms of who’s more dysfunctional. They’ve both had enough moments where they’ve left NBA audiences confounded by their decision-making, and Phoenix losing all of Eric Bledsoe, Isaiah Thomas, and Goran Dragic so quickly is just another feather in the cap of futility for these two putrid franchises. Make a plan and stick to it, for more than a few months at least.