The scoreboard is the final judge and jury in basketball. The team with the most points wins.
Drawing up opportunities to score can be difficult without a Picasso on hand. Try to manufacture them without the right match of artist and palette, and you wind up with a disaster unfit for the refrigerator door.
Picassos are generational, but there's no shortage of above-average playmakers in today's point guard-oriented league. Phoenix has doubled down in that category over the past two years, signing Eric Bledsoe in 2013 and then pulling off a sign-and-trade for Isaiah Thomas in 2014.
Though he willingly and frequently defers to Thomas and Goran Dragic, Bledsoe has become the primary facilitator in a Suns offense that runs on one type of fuel: movement. Whether it's on run or in a half-court set, Bledsoe has shown an aptitude for seeing, recognizing and reacting to the open man, whether it's a teammate or himself.
Sharing the ball is fine in theory, but the when and how of it is an under-appreciated skill. Some players prefer receiving it on the move. Others are of the catch-and-shot variety. Even stand-still receivers can be complicated depending on how they like to shoot the ball. Do they want the delivery at the chest or higher in order to feed a quicker release?
It's up to the point guard to memorize all those nuances. That's on top of an already meaty playbook's worth of homework. In the 1980s, Hall of Fame coach Pat Riley taught a then-young Magic Johnson that a turnover is "always the fault of the passer." While that might be an extreme point of view to take, it does highlight the boulder of responsibility playmakers shoulder on a night-to-night basis.
Some wondered whether Bledsoe, as physically built as he is, could do so as a full-time starter when he first arrived in Phoenix.
"I think that’s what’s impressed me most about him," said Suns Head Coach Jeff Hornacek. "Coming here, I wasn’t sure about his passing ability and what he saw as a point guard. Right away...you’d think, ‘yeah, okay. He sees the floor well.’ He’s making those passes.”
Whether it's to streaking Goran Dragic, rolling Alex Len or waiting Markieff Morris, Bledsoe has been able to deliver the ball to his teammates in time and at the right spots.
Shooting Percentage off Bledsoe Passes
Brendan Wright: 71.4%
Alex Len: 65.5%
Miles Plumlee: 65.1%
Marcus Morris: 50.0%
Markieff Morris: 49.8%
P.J. Tucker: 49.4%
Goran Dragic: 48.8%
To recap, that's seven rotation players shooting above 48 percent when Bledsoe is the quarterback making the connection (per NBA.com). That is not an accident. Bledsoe spends time watching film with teammates in groups both small and large, learning where more pass-and-score opportunities might be found.
His favorite targets notwithstanding -- Goran Dragic (25.1%) and Markieff Morris (21.2%) account for nearly half of Bledsoe's deliveries -- there's value in knowing Player X's pass will result in universally good looks for nearly everyone on the roster. Even Plumlee, whose playing time with Bledsoe is scarce, recognizes the quality opportunities he'll receive.
"He’s got great vision," Plumlee said. "He’s got a great feel for the ball, and on top of that he’s a freak athlete. It doesn’t really matter, because he gets in there, hits the biggest guys and he still has time to come down and hit you for a late pass.”
Picking His Spots
Long-lived fans of the game bemoan the lack of "pass-first" guards in today's league, but Bledsoe would be sorely miscast in that complaint. The 6-1 guard averages 50.9 passes per contest, nearly four times the amount of shots he takes.
Remember, this is on a team that features two other qualified point guards in Dragic and Thomas. Per NBA.com, Bledsoe's passing rate ranks just below the likes of Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose and well above James Harden. Per NBA.com those three rank in top five in the NBA in usage. Bledsoe? 35th.
Still, passing is only a weapon if shooting is a threat. Defenses have to respect Bledsoe enough to play him for the shot, otherwise they sag toward the middle, dare him to shoot and pop the bubble of spacing created by Phoenix's pick-and-roll game.
Bledsoe can slash. He shoots 75.6 percent on drive layups. His jump shot is the question mark, but it's a question that lies in time, not distance. The faster he runs the offense (fast break or "early offense"), the more dangerous he becomes.
When Bledsoe is forced to create his own shot, he's remarkably consistent regardless of how much time he needs to do so. In catch-and-shoot situations, he hits a respectable 44 percent. Throw in a quick getaway dribble, it creeps up to 45 percent. Two dribbles (usually the most he needs to get to the rim), and it climbs to 48.6 percent. Three-to-six bounces (often in pick-and-roll sets), and he's still nailing 47.0 percent.
Bledsoe Comes Up Big
More importantly, Bledsoe is learning the intangible art of picking his spots. As the season has progressed, he has made a more concerted effort to pass up a good look to get teammates a better one, especially in the early stages of the game.
"He's done a better job of picking when to shoot that shot," Hornacek said. "As point guards, you've got to set the tone of how you're going to attack. If you want a pull-up jumper early in the game to bring those bigs out to you so you can drive by, you do that. It's just mixing it up and really being selective about when to shoot it to make the defense do something different."