FanPost

Why Phoenix Suns fans should temper optimism over the Eric Bledsoe trade

USA TODAY Sports

I am going to go out on a limb and be that guy who is not all that gung-ho about this trade.

I should preface this whole post by saying, first, that I do NOT necessarily think the Bledsoe trade was a bad one. It was a trade where we moved assets for a younger asset. It happens all the time. I also do not think the trade was necessarily a good one, either, for a number of reasons which I'll address toward the end.

What I want to address primarily is the very high expectation level for Bledsoe, and how this is coloring our evaluation of the trade, and how, in my recusant mind, this trade might not be as good for us as people seem to be feeling it is.

This will have three parts. First, I'll address Bledsoe as a player. Second, I will address Bledsoe, the prospect. Finally, I will address the trade itself.

Bledsoe - The Player

I think is important, when evaluating a player, to have an accurate understanding of what it is Bledsoe as a player brings to the table. First, I think it is important to get an accurate understanding of Bledsoe as an offensive player. Then I will go into him as a defensive player. Finally, I'll highlight some of what I see as he key faults and weaknesses at this point in time.

Offense

At this point in his career, Bledsoe is not a polished offensive player. For the regular season, Bledsoe shot 44.5%. On the face of it, that should seem a little low, but not terrible, and that is about right. Compared to a reference group of guards that averaged 20+ minutes per game, Bledsoe grades out at slightly above average, falling 34th overall out of 114. However, this does not tell us the entire story, and requires further breakdown.

Using some more advanced efficiency metrics, Bledsoe grades out well worse. His EFG% of 47.3% ranks him 80th out of 114 eligible guards, and his TS% of 51.3 places him 82nd (HoopData.com). What is driving this seems to be two things. One, Bledsoe is noted as an opportunistic shooter from the 3. He only averaged 1 three per game, and while he converted at a decent clip (39.7%) he took far too few to be considered a wing scoring threat. What also is likely driving this is his relatively sub-par finishing at the rim. Last season, Bledsoe converted only 59.5% of his shots at the rim, placing him 74th among his reference group in terms of efficiency (HoopData). This seems to be driven by the fact that Bledsoe gets stuffed on his drives with fairly high frequency, getting blocked on 12% of his close shot opportunities (82games.com). For reference, Chris Paul had 8% of his close shot opportunities blocked, Goran Dragic 9%.

Looking at a mid-range game, Bledsoe also largely comes up below average. From 10-15 feet, Bledsoe's conversion rate of 31.7% was 105th out of 114 guards; from 16-23 feet, his conversion rate of 29% was little better, grading out at 106th (HoopData). His bright spot came from 3-9 feet, where he came up at a solid ranking of 30th and hit at 40%.

Bledsoe's poor ball handling and court vision skills also seem to leave something to be desired. His 1.7 ASST/TO ratio placed him 77th among his reference group (HoopData). His assist rate of 23.37 looks somewhat better, placing him 44th among his reference group, but still hardly at the level of a ball handling guard. If you reduce the reference group size to only point guards, he comes in 40th out of 56. There are very solid guards behind him (Kyrie Irving and Steph Curry among them), but they are almost entirely defined by being much better at outside shooting. Notably, Avery Bradley, an apt comparison for Bledsoe, fell at 55th with an assist rate of 15.4

Finally, using Synergy Sports data, we can break it down further. Synergy Sports breaks down offensive production based on play types, and then presents it as points per possession (PPP). The three areas Bledsoe grades out fairly well in, especially for a guard, are cutting, hand-offs, and offensive rebounds, where he produces 1.29 ppp (50th overall), .73 ppp (75th overall) and 1.28 ppp (16th overall) respectively. What's notable is these are all offensive values that are more commonly dominated by wing players, specifically small forwards. Getting to his weaknesses, Bledsoe grades out less well in isolation, spot up and, surprisingly, transition opportunities, where he produced .77 ppp (114th), .93 ppp (195th), and .93 ppp (280th), respectively. Isolation sets and spot ups are typically something guards grade out fairly well in. Goran Dragic in 2012-13 produced .97 ppp (20th).

The argument has been made that Bledsoe seemed to produce better when he was playing more minutes, but that does not seem to hold much water. Altogether this past season, Bledsoe had 34 games where he played for more than 20 minutes. In those games, he averaged 36.8% shooting on 9.9 shots per game (3.7 FGM). His Asst:TV ratio was somewhat better, at 2.67, but still leaves a little bit to be desired. Also, despite being a heavy penetrator, he only averaged 2.5 FTA per game in those 34 games, not exactly eye-popping numbers (all data from Basketball-Reference). What is true is that Bledsoe had a 3 game stretch in February where he tore it up, putting up very, very good numbers. This was a flash of brilliance, and potentially what he could develop, but the stats reveal that this performance might not have been as good as it seemed.. The Boston game was pretty masterful, but Avery Bradley was still rehabbing from his injury when he torched Boston and had only played 15 games that season. While he put up great numbers against John Wall and Washington, in fact he had the second lowest game +/-. Finally, against the Magic, he had a very solid night scoring against Jameer Nelson, but he also had more turnovers than assists. He made his money at the line, something that he didn't do all that often this past season. In these three games he showed flashes of various skills. He will need to figure out how to get at least a few of them to show consistently.

While the sample size is only one year, it seems to indicate that to be considered even an average threat offensively, Bledsoe has a ways to go. He is a freaky athlete, but he needs to improve his finishing and either improve his shot or improve his court vision if he is to get consistent minutes as a starter. As it stands, he is a mostly uni-dimensional offensive weapon that doesn't convert all that efficiently.

Defense

Defense is Bledsoes bread and butter. He is a really pesky perimeter defender. In games where he played at least 20 minutes, he averaged 2 steals per game and a little more than 1 block, both of which are solid numbers. His DRtg last season of 101 was the second best on the team (behind Lamar Odom). Some of this, it should be noted, was because the Clippers were a fairly solid defensive team statistically (team defense gets reflected to some degree in this stat). Nonetheless, 101 is a very solid DRtg. I earlier compared Bledsoe to Avery Bradley, who in this statistic put up a 105 rating. This is definitely an area of skill for Bledsoe.

Statistics do not in general do a great job with representing defensive impact, but the Synergy Sports data is widely regarded as some of the better data in terms of getting an idea of the impact of a player defensively. The Synergy Sports defensive data is not quite as kind to Bledsoe's defensive chops. In isolation and spot up defense, which represented roughly 50% of the plays run against Bledsoe combined, he allowed .93 ppp (265th) and 1.02 ppp (240th) respectively, not great numbers. He also struggled a bit defending off screens, allowing 1.08 ppp (166th). He put up solid numbers at defending the P&R ball handler, allowing only .71 ppp (58th), but this is a stat PGs usually do well in. Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley, both players that are sometimes used as reference for Bledsoe, had better results, allowing ppp and .65 ppp (18th) and .68 ppp (32nd) respectively.

The 82games.com data is a little more representative of Bledsoe's defensive skill, I believe. This data highlights Bledsoe's fairly dominant defense when it comes to defending the ball handler: opposing point guards only averaged 90.9 points per 100 possessions against Bledsoe, a truly remarkable defensive statistic. In comparison, Bradley allowed 96.7 points per 100 possessions. It should be noted, however, that when Bledsoe was asked to guard the 2 guard, he performed less well: he allowed 102.9 points per 100 possessions.

The evidence on defense, then, is a little mixed. Bledsoe seems to struggle a bit when defending true shooting guards, likely because these players, often times 3-4 inches taller than him, can shoot over him from outside. However, Bledsoe's defense is undeniably his strongest attribute, and he is probably one of the biggest plus defenders at the PG position in the league.

Strengths/Weaknesses

So, there is where Bledsoe is as a player. He has a few real strengths. Primarily, without a doubt, is his on ball perimeter defense. He is likely one of the top 5 guards in the league in this particular skill set. His penetration and athleticism are also definitely one of his major pluses as a player. Finally, and this was only partially mentioned, but Bledsoe is a really terrific rebounder for a guard, particularly offensive rebounds. This is largely tied to his freakish athleticism, but it should not be put down only to this. He just seems to have a nose for offensive rebounds.

His weaknesses at this point, however, are almost as apparent. The 82games data probably tells the story the best: even though Bledsoe is a stalwart defender of ball handlers, he isn't really one himself, producing only 94.5 points per 100 possessions at the point position. His court vision leaves something to be desired, and his outside shooting leaves much to be desired as well. In general, almost all of his offensive skill set needs to be improved upon for him to be considered an even average player on offense.

So the player today has an obvious contrast: he seems to be a defensive specialist with a somewhat inefficient offensive game. I don't want to use the word limited, because Bledsoe can do anything you ask of him on the offensive side of the ball (though inefficiently), but he doesn't seem to as of yet have a go to skill set. If it does exist at this point, it is largely off the ball offense.

Bledsoe The Prospect

The biggest problem with Bledsoe, in my mind, is the misconception I think many people have about what he brings to the table as a prospect. Going back to his time at Kentucky even, DraftExpress points to the fact that, in his limited minutes as the primary ball handler, Bledsoe was pretty mediocre at best, making poor decisions passing the ball, playing poorly in the pick and roll and, despite a truly strong ability to GET to the rim, an inability to finish effectively at the rim. In his 3 seasons to date in the NBA, those problems haven't changed much. One of the few things on offense that DraftExpress points to as a strength for Bledsoe at Kentucky, spot up shooting, has not translated well into the NBA.

Bledsoe could develop all of these things, but it would seem that it is unrealistic for a player who has already been in the league 3 years to suddenly develop a team-leading offensive repertoire. It doesn't seem likely that Bledsoe suddenly becomes a much better passer, shooter, and finisher after never really displaying that those are his strong suits as an NBA player.

What, though, does he project to develop into? This is a difficult question. MMotherwell and a few others were having a discussion about this before. We cannot think of another guard who had such a defensively oriented skillset that was a superbly memorable player. The best comparison we could think of was perhaps a Gary Payton-lite type player, and the comparison seems to fit, mostly. The lite caveat has to come in, however, because despite Gary Payton being a pretty mediocre at best three point shooter, he still managed in his third season to put up a significantly higher TS% and be, in general, a much more realistic offensive threat. Also, Payton was between 2 and 3 inches taller than Bledsoe. Payton wasn't nearly the athletic specimen Bledsoe is, but was probably as good a defender as Bledsoe could hope to be.

So then, Bledsoe as a prospect, to me at least, is at best a Gary Payton-lite type player. If he keeps playing at the defensive level he has been and can improve at least one facet of his offensive game, this is a realistic prospect ceiling. If he never improves any of his offensive skills, however, he seems to me very much like a Michael Cooper-type player: truly dominant defensively, but never quite putting it together offensively. That is not to say that is necessarily a bad thing: Cooper was a key member of 5 NBA champion Laker squads and a winner of the Defensive Player of the Year award. But Cooper was, at best, the 4th best player on his team in any given year.

The Trade

The trade, then, breaks down as a trade of a commodity on a good contract, a second round pick, and the absorption of a bad contract, for a player with a solid ceiling but a decent floor, as well. This is, I think, a trade for a fairly safe asset. I don't foresee Bledsoe suddenly becoming an offensive force or the next Rajon Rondo (it seems like everyone we pick up lately is the next Rajon Rondo), but I also don't foresee him suddenly becoming a sieve on defense.

I don't see the value being quite as high as most (though if the pick ends up being a 2015 pick I will re-evaluate a little), but its hard to terribly quibble with the value. I personally would have traded Dudley for a higher risk/reward player or commodity, but that's a matter of opinion.

What I do not believe is that this is a slam dunk trade, as many seem to think. There are a few key reasons for this. First, Bledsoe is in a precarious contract situation. He is in the last season of his contract before he becomes a restricted free agent. This leads to two problems. First, there is likely going to be pressure from some people in the Suns' camp and Bledsoe's agent for the team to give Bledsoe a contract extension without him having played a single minute for the team. That is not necessarily going to happen, but there will be very real pressure for that, in order to avoid a bidding war in the upcoming free agency period. I firmly believe that this would be a mistake. Giving a long term contract to a player like Bledsoe before you have seen how his game adjusts to playing on a much weaker team to me is a poor decision. But, if he does seem to produce at even 3/4 the ceiling some people have established on this site (20-5-5), then re-signing him in the offseason is likely to be an incredibly costly undertaking, in essence eating up 70-80% of our projected free cap space.

The second problem comes with how Bledsoe fits into a future vision of the team. This is obviously subjective. A lot of people around here keeping saying that this move is obviously a sign of the front office having a vision for the future, but we do not actually have evidence for that. We can hope that McDonough has a vision and that Bledsoe is a lynchpin in it, but it could also be that he simply saw the potential to swap an asset for something he considered a better asset and jumped on it. Going off of what we know, however, Bledsoe seems to have an awkward fit with the current team: he's a defensive stalwart on a team that has never truly embraced defense, with a coach that was never known as a great defensive player. Bledsoe comes in and is likely the second best guard on the roster, but pairing him with Goran is likely to create one of the worst shooting backcourts in the league. The best shooter on the team will likely be Caron Butler, if he is not bought out. Bledsoe creates some defensive vulnerabilities, as well. Goran is not a plus defender, even of his own position, and looks likely to struggle defending shooting guards, which he did this past season, allowing 103.8 points per 100 possessions when playing the 2 guard (82games.com). However, Bledsoe also struggles against the bigger two guards. Playing Bledsoe and Dragic together for long stretches, it seems, might not really be an option for the future.

The third problem comes about with the current guard situation. We now have 7 guards on the roster (including PJ), including 4 guys who we really need to be able to play at least a bit in order to see whether what we have is worth keeping. That is not likely to be an easy thing to manage. We also have 7 guards who are all sub-par shooters, with the best shooter being arguably Goran Dragic, who is a streaky shooter and not particularly proficient from outside when asked to shoot for volume. This leads to the prospect of potentially trading one or two of the guards, but the reality is only Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe have much inherent value. As I pointed out in an earlier post, I think it is probably unrealistic to believe that Goran Dragic is likely to fetch us much value in the trade market, largely because the league is saturated with really good point guards at the moment. Teams like Dallas could indeed want Dragic, but what they have to offer is really poor and not likely to fetch us fair value. Bledsoe might have more inherent value, but my feeling is that we are unlikely we are going to move the biggest trade pickup in the last decade before actually playing him.

TL;DR Version

Bledsoe is an interesting player who I think has decent potential to become a one or two time All-Star, but who I really think is likely going to peak as the 3rd or 4th best player on a good team. In many ways I see him as a very similar commodity to Dudley. Different skillsets (Dudley 3 and D, Bledsoe D and Cutting), but still 2 skill players who are really solid players to have on your team to complement the weaknesses of your better players. If he is going to develop, he has to greatly improve his offensive game, which at the moment is far from efficient in almost every aspect.

I'm cautiously optimistic about this trade. I think we probably over paid a bit (though this changes depending on the nature of the second round pick that was swapped), but not terribly so. But the general feeling that the trade was a home run for the Suns is, I believe, more rooted in how poorly our recent front office management has been than the merits of this trade. There are serious questions that need to be answered to fully grasp whether this trade was a good one for the long haul, and unfortunately we will not know the answers for quite some time. Until then, I'm going to remain in the camp of the guarded optimist.

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