With the new NBA season nearly upon us, we’re running our annual preseason player preview series. Next up, a 2021-22 season preview for old friend Eric Bledsoe, who was recently acquired by the Clippers from Memphis for Patrick Beverley, Rajon Rondo, and Daniel Oturu.
Weight: 214 lbs
Years in NBA: 11
Key Stats: 71 G, 70 GS, 12.2 PTS, 3.8 AST, 0.8 STL, 42.1% FG, 34.1% 3PT, 5.0 3PA, and 2.7 FTA with the New Orleans Pelicans.
Contract Status: In the third year of a four-year, $70 million contract. 2021-22 salary is $18,125,000. 2022-23 salary is $19,375,000 with only $3,900,000 guaranteed.
The Clippers have given few indications so far as to how they’ll deploy Eric Bledsoe. (In argument with myself: Why would they? It’s September.) The general fan and analyst consensus, filtered through this writer’s occasional reading, is that Bledsoe will make a fine third guard. This writer agrees. Of course, many observers have wanted to make Bledsoe a third guard for much of his career. Bledsoe’s salary has generally merited more, and to be fair, so has his CV.
This time, though, a team might have the leverage and opportunity to do it. Bledsoe just submitted his worst professional season in nearly a decade. Fortunately, a distressed asset is different than a worthless one. Bledsoe may have a lot left to offer.
Well, it depends. Was Bledsoe’s lack of production in New Orleans the result of a poor fit with a bad team or a harbinger of things to come?
If you like your Kool-Aid cup half-full, let’s forget last season happened and look at Bledsoe’s time with the Bucks, when he was still a downhill, transition terror. The Clippers will take a heavy dose of that, please. Conceptually, the team thought it was getting something similar in Rajon Rondo. Bledsoe is a better bet.
He also starred in his role in a well-engineered team defense. Milwaukee’s Bledsoe wasn’t quite the menace he was as a twenty-something — who among us is? — but backstopped by competent rim protectors, he was free to wreak havoc in the passing lanes while using his literal strength to fight through screens and stay on the ball handler.
Bledsoe has long been a competent playmaker. His high-water mark in assist volume came five seasons ago in Phoenix, but he maintained that assist rate in Milwaukee. Bledsoe won’t cut you open with genius-level passes but he’ll take good care of the ball and make the plays given to him.
Finally, and not insignificantly, Bledsoe remains sturdy, which had to have been a key factor in the team’s decision to move on from the increasingly fragile Beverley. Bledsoe has appeared in 70-plus games in three of the last four seasons, and missed just a single game in 2020-21.
Bledsoe hasn’t solidified his outside shot, which ranges in effectiveness from sporadic to absent. His most successful mark at any kind of meaningful volume was 37%, which occurred two presidents ago. His inability to provide adequate floor spacing for Giannis Antetokounmpo spurred Milwaukee to part ways with him and a decade of draft stock for the right to pay Jrue Holiday an unholy amount of money.
Also, we need to talk about the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason career, especially during his otherwise distinguished years with the Bucks, is discouraging. To wit, he produced just a third as many win shares per 48 minutes in Milwaukee’s postseasons as during their regular seasons. The eye test concurred. With free space and fast breaks at a premium, Playoff Bledsoe was stifled into virtual oblivion.
But most worryingly, for the doomscrollers among you, is that Bledsoe might’ve fallen off the cliff already. What if last season was indicative of abrupt and natural degradation? Smaller guards who rely heavily upon their athleticism have nasty post-30 aging curves. (No, most are not Chris Paul.) Bledsoe’s free throw rate was his worst since his rookie season. His steal, block, and offensive rebound rates were his worst ever.
Before figuring out how he fits, Bledsoe will have to prove he can still play at a worthwhile level. Thankfully, these Clippers have had success with reclamation projects (see: Nic Batum), and Bledsoe’s last successes are more recent. If you want to argue that last year was a chaos-driven aberration, you have ammunition. Bledsoe’s usage rate was its lowest since his rookie season, and 11 years of Bledsoe have taught us that an on-ball role produces the best Bledsoe.
A totally realistic outcome is for Bledsoe to prove himself a prolific regular season contributor. The player described by the strengths above could drive a second unit long on shooting and defense. Careful planning by Ty Lue and staff could build a playoff rotation that minimizes Bledsoe’s shortcomings, especially if Kawhi Leonard returns in good health and fitness. You don’t have to look that hard to see a happy ending.
And, either way, this writer is happy to have him around. Eric Bledsoe has been a blur, a joy, an athletic specimen, a wunderkind, a competitor, and one of the few draft and development successes in the history of a franchise that has fewer than most. I can see a happy ending, and I’m ready to hope for it too.