By Duncan Smith
Just a couple weeks after Eric Bledsoe’s infamous “I Don’t want to be here” tweet, the former Phoenix Suns’ guard got his wish in a trade to the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday. To consummate the deal, the Bucks sent back Greg Monroe and a 2018 protected first and second round draft pick.
The Suns get future salary relief as Monroe’s $17.9 million comes off the books this summer and can add the draft picks (whenever they ultimately convey) to their stockpile of assets, and they rid themselves of a player who was likely never going to suit up for them again in Bledsoe. The Phoenix side of the deal entirely consists of long-game considerations, while the Milwaukee Bucks receive a competitive advantage at a time when they might need it most.
Among superstars in the NBA who need help, Giannis Antetokounmpo is chief. While it’s not uncommon for a big spread in on/off numbers when a team’s star leaves the floor, the differential is stark when he hits the bench. The Bucks are +1 points per 108 possessions when Antetokounmpo is on the floor, and a dreadful -14.3 points per 100 possessions in the 100 minutes he’s been off. They score just 102.3 points per 100 when he sits.
It may be a stretch to suggest the Bucks’ attack is all Giannis, especially with the emergence of Malcolm Brogdan and Khris Middleton, but it’s not a huge stretch. In a sample of less than 200 possessions, when Middleton is on and Antetokounmpo is off the floor, the Bucks have a net rating of -20.9. When Brogdan is on and Antetokounmpo is off (in a much smaller sample, less than 100 possessions), the gap is even worse at -31.9.
While we can optimistically chalk some of this up to small sample size and negative variance, all signs point in the same direction. The Bucks have a generational superstar and are at risk of wasting at least the early days of his ascent. Whether he’s willing to admit it or not, Giannis needs help.
The Bucks’ half-court offense outside of Antetokounmpo is heavily reliant on spot-up shooting, and their efficiency in that regard is buoyed by likely unsustainable shooting by Tony Snell. If we disregard Snell’s 1.655 points per possession when spotting up, we find the Bucks planted right in the middle of the pack in 16th across the league at .995 points per possession.
Defenses that get back in transition and can effectively hinder Antetokounmpo in isolation have a big edge on the Bucks, and Bledsoe could be the key to unlocking the potential of this team’s offense.
Bledsoe isn’t a superstar by any means, but he offers a particular set of skills the Bucks could utilize to improve some of their shortcomings. Again, their offense isn’t just Giannis, but it’s close enough to the truth that Bledsoe could provide strengths that turbocharge the Milwaukee Bucks’ scoring attack.
Bledsoe is gifted in the pick and roll as ball handler, scoring .986 points per possession last year. That placed him in the 88th percentile. His explosive burst gives the Bucks another player who can create offense off the dribble and take some of the load off Antetokounmpo.
While Bledsoe would be at his most useful alongside Giannis, staggering the two players occasionally could also help stop the bleeding when he goes to the bench.
The Bucks can certainly benefit from Bledsoe’s talent to score off the dribble and in the pick and roll but his ability to facilitate may be even more vital.
The Suns scored 1.038 points per possession off his passes from the pick and roll last season. Conversely, the Bucks infrequently utilize the pick and roll in spite of the fact that they have multiple components which could be devastating offensively.
With the gravity that the unstoppable Antetokounmpo brings to the floor and multiple knockdown shooters such as Snell, Middleton and Brogdon (Middleton is scoring an unimpressive .838 points per catch and shoot possession, a number which should improve, while Brogdon is scoring 1.28 points per possession), Bledsoe could be the missing link.
In spite of the personnel at their disposal, the Bucks run fewer pick and rolls (only 160 possessions scoring .869 points per possession) than all but five teams, and Antetokounmpo is both their best ball handler and roll man. Given his spotty three-point shot (33.3 percent this year but only 27.7 percent for his career coming into this season), running it with a player of Bledsoe’s skill set and freeing Antetokounmpo up to be the roll man could be a revelation.
The Bucks have one of the worst turnover rates out of the pick and roll in the NBA, turning it over 20.6 percent of the time. Only the Utah Jazz, Orlando Magic and Chicago Bulls are worse, all tied at 21.9 percent. This is one of the areas Bledsoe can help with the most. His turnover rate was just 13.4 percent out of the pick and roll last season and he gets to the line significantly more than the Bucks’ ball handlers do collectively.
Bledsoe can also capitalize on Antetokounmpo’s immense gravity. When Giannis has the ball, the attention he draws will free Bledsoe to spot up off the ball. It’s not his most natural role, but it’s one he’ll find himself in with great frequency on this Milwaukee Bucks’ squad.
Last season Bledsoe was in the 73rd percentile when spotting up, scoring 1.062 points per possession. He was deadly when catch and shooting as well, scoring 1.09 points per possession. He was spectacular (if unsustainably so) when guarded, scoring 1.289 points per possession off guarded catch and shoot opportunities. That placed him in the 98th percentile.
Bledsoe has earned a reputation as a good defensive guard, but his best is likely behind him. He’s posted a steal percentage over 2 every season in his career with a peak of 3.7 percent in 2012-13, but it’s dwindled since then. Last season it was just 2.2 percent, although it’s very possible that being on a team that doesn’t shut him down mid-season for being too good for their tanking plan (as the Suns did last season) may rejuvenate him.
We may indeed see that playing for a competitive team could be the cure for what ails Eric Bledsoe and perhaps his best basketball is in front of him after all.