The Eric Bledsoe Effects
After four games, Eric Bledsoe is shooting a career-worst 36.7 percent from the field and a career-low 16.7 percent on threes. His scoring is way down from last season (from 21.1 per game to 13.3), and he is getting to the line less frequently than any of the past four years. The last time he was averaging fewer assists, he counted Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Grant Hill, and Chauncey Billups as teammates in Los Angeles. His PER is league average, slightly below even.
After four games, the Bucks are 4–0.
Put side-by-side, these facts seem incongruent or coincidental. They might even suggest that the Bucks are winning in spite of Bledsoe. But sometimes the most obvious explanation is the right one, and the Bucks are not just playing better since Bledsoe arrived — it appears they are playing better in many ways because he arrived. A test of a good player is whether they make their team better even when they are not at their best individually. So far, he is passing that test.
And passing he is, too. Despite modest per-game assist numbers (a nevertheless team-leading 5.3), Bledsoe has kept the ball moving, often playing two passes ahead. Since landing in Milwaukee, he is tied for second in the league in so-called hockey assists, diving in from the perimeter to create space on the perimeter.
Middleton was always going to recover from a slow start, with or without Bledsoe, but he does look natural as ever in his slightly adjusted role, hitting 57.1 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes on (an increased) 3.5 attempts per game in those four wins.
Team offensive efficiency has stayed roughly level since Bledsoe arrived (in fact, points per possession are slightly down). Some of the things I was hoping to talk about in this story aren’t quite real yet. The Bucks have not found more open threes since Bledsoe arrived. Many of their strengths, weaknesses, and identities remain similar: The Bucks still rarely turn the ball over, they still play at a relatively slow pace, and they still don’t take a ton of threes. This has not been a stark offensive makeover.
But with Bledsoe, the already-promising offense is bending in the right directions. It is easier to picture how Giannis will carry the team and go for 40 without going for 40 and eight turnovers in a loss. It is clearer to see how Middleton will function more efficiently with more room, how Snell and Henson will specialize. And how, even after trading away a legitimate Sixth Man of the Year candidate from last season in Greg Monroe, names on the depth chart listed 6–15 look a touch better suited for their roles (and when Jabari Parker returns, that will be truer yet). The Bucks are heavier at the top with Bledsoe, yet at the same time they pulled off the trick of being less top-heavy.
Just now getting around to the defensive improvement is burying one of the ledes: The Bucks have transformed into the fourth-best defense in the league during their past four games. Before that, they were 29th.
No point guard can make that type of difference, but Bledsoe is strong at the point of attack, and he swarms and recovers well — keys in a defensive scheme approximating organized chaos. During the ESPN broadcast of the Bucks/Spurs game, Jeff Van Gundy said something to the effect of Bledsoe having the potential to be one of the best defensive point guards in the NBA. It didn’t feel far off as the Bucks held the Spurs to 87 points that night, and it doesn’t feel far off now.
Not as much does.