Before we completely write off the union of Bledsoe and Dragic on the Phoenix Suns, let's recall just how good Eric Bledsoe was last year in his 38 games next to Dragic.
While his contract negotiations are still underway, Suns fans can't get distracted from how good of a player Eric Bledsoe was last year. There is no "subtraction" situation currently that ends in the Suns being a better team than last year if Bledsoe leaves and some fans are missing that point while they take these negotiations personally.Amin Elhassan of ESPN, and formerly the Suns front office, ranked the Slash Brothers pair the #4 backcourt in the league.
The unconventional union of two point guards in a starting backcourt was met with skepticism this past summer; much of that perception is colored by the influence of football, in which a team with two starting-caliber quarterbacks is labeled a "controversy." For the Suns, the marriage worked splendidly (in the time both Dragic and Bledsoe were healthy) for several reasons:
• Both players had had extensive time prior to 2013-14 playing off-ball alongside another point guard: Dragic with Steve Nash in Phoenix and then Kyle Lowry in Houston, and Bledsoe with Paul in Los Angeles and Wall at Kentucky. That prior experience made playing alongside each other a lot more natural.
• Both players are above-average defenders who, because of their previous time playing off-ball, were accustomed to guarding larger players (shooting guards) for stints.
• The simplicity of the Suns' playbook allowed each player to not overthink positioning when off-ball.
The bottom line here is that Bledsoe was a phenomenal offensive player last year that would have had a legitimate argument for an All-Star spot had he stayed healthy. Here's a look at the major parts of his offense last season.
There were not that many players better in the NBA on a high volume of drives last year than Eric Bledsoe. For players who took at least six drives a game, Bledsoe was fourth in Drives FG% at 53%. All three players in front of him were on the Heat (LeBron, Wade, Chalmers). He is an incredible athlete with laser speed and some great hesitation dribbles. He is one strong dude at the rim and he uses his athleticism to make his adjustments on the fly to get the look he wants at the rim.
The amount of positives that come from a broken possession or a simple ball screen for Bledsoe is seriously impressive. Bledsoe has an incredible eye for how these situations are going to play out while also doing some unique things that only a few other players in the league do. He has a couple of "go-to" moves I will highlight.
We will start off simple. Damian Lillard is not a prolific defender and Bledsoe understands this. He enters this dribble with a little bit of momentum off of the jog up the court so he uses this to build up the speed. One dribble to a certain side is very underrated as a hesitation move for point guards because defenders are so used to ball screens. I'm not saying that Lillard is expecting a screen here, it's just something he is accustom to doing and Bledsoe is going to take advantage of that lullaby rhythm he creates. One dribble to the left and....
Goodbye. As you know by watching the Morris twins play defense, the ole "oh crap he's gone time to try the bailout strip" is a classic and Lillard tries it here. Poor guy.
Bledsoe is so freaking fast that Lopez can't even establish himself for a shot block. His only hope is a fake step at Bledsoe to try to force a pass or something, but Bledsoe is always going to go up strong with that much space. Dame can only hold up his hands. Mike D'Antoni takes a look at the shot clock and nods his head in approval.
Bledsoe enjoys creating this space in an isolation because when he turns on the jets and catches top speed no one can catch him. His handle is good enough to create space as well so it puts defenders in a difficult situation. The other thing to note is that Bledsoe prefers to jog his way through games and then turn on that lightning speed out of nowhere. I think it's smart and enhances the effectiveness of the weapon. It's also something that his former mentor/teammate guarding Dragic right now does (this will become a theme). Watch for both of these throughout.
The ball screen is on and poor JMZ has tried his best to create contact and stop Bledsoe somewhat. Look at all that space in the middle of the key.
Like I said, JMZ tried his best. Bledsoe is entering the space, can attack Blake Griffin, and go from there.
Bledsoe does this nifty drop-step where he jabs towards the left (he's never going there), but since it's so fast it makes Griffin hesitate for a split-second. It's sort of a fake pass and move at the same time.
The fake step creates the space and all it takes is one more step for Bledsoe to make it into the lane and score on an easy bucket.
A broken play here from an airball has given Bledsoe the space here on the left wing as he calls for the ball.
We will get to this in a bit, but Bledsoe has become an established three-point shooter and with a low shot clock Griffin has to come out on the shot fake.
Goodbye. Griffin is gone but Matt Barnes still remains. There isn't that much space and a shot needs to get off.
Bledsoe uses that step move from earlier to create the space here on Barnes. P.J. Tucker is wide open, but the shot clock is the main problem. Instead of cutting in here, Bledsoe gets off a floater from just inside the elbow and it falls.
Same sort of shot and scenario here. Bledsoe gets the ball during a broken possession and sees the space that Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon will leave in the middle of the floor.
There are open players here, but Bledsoe has decided on the floater. Some might have a problem with him passing up an open teammate here, but as long as he gets a good look off and it goes down there's no problem. Bledsoe continues to the rim.
Bledsoe hits that floater once more. Again, he's taking good shots and they are going in so it's hard to get mad about him passing up assist opportunities. Take it as you will.
This is probably my favorite thing that Bledsoe does. I am guessing he picked this up from CP3 since I've seen him do it countless times. Bledsoe likes to attack the basket obviously, but one thing he learned is that if the rim protector is at the rim or it's not a great shot opportunity, keep your dribble active and isolate the big. Here comes the ball screen.
Bad screenshot here as it looks like Bledsoe is getting trapped, but it's basically a denial of his lane to the basket and a pass to Plumlee. He decides to keep his dribble here and amongst the crowd Barnes picks up Bledsoe. Bledsoe recognizes this and takes Barnes out to the wing.
We have arrived at the wing. Barnes is screwed.
A handful of hesitation dribbles later, Bledsoe makes one dribble to the left and crosses over very quickly to the right along with one giant step. This combination of agility and a seal denies Barnes any sort of defensive opportunities. Like I said, screwed.
It's a pretty awful job by Tucker and Plumlee to leave their defenders in the key, but Bledsoe finishes anyway over CP3. Remember this move, as he's going to do it a few more times in these examples.
Our last example here is the turbo button I talked about earlier. Bledsoe looks like he's just strolling through the game at times when he's just using it to set up his blow by dribble. Here he is in transition. He looks up and sees the space to the lane and Jae Crowder defending him.
Here is where he turns on the speed. Crowder is backpedaling so fast that I'm scared he might hurt something. Bledsoe is about to reach peak speed in about two steps. It's that fast. Vince Carter is trying to do some sort of step into the lane to persuade Bledsoe not to do it, but it's far too late.
By far my favorite screenshot moment so far is Shane Larkin looking at Gerald Green in screenshots 1 and 2 and then turning around to see Bledsoe about to finish at the rim here. Stay hot rook! One duck and step later and there goes Crowder. Bledsoe would finish with an easy layup that came off of some nice floor recognition and use of his speed.
Bledsoe has surprisingly become an average three-point shooter this early in his career at 36% on three attempts a game last season. That might not sound like a big deal, but it is. Point guards evolve as shooters over time and the fact that Bledsoe has already become an average shooter from deep at only 24 is a huge plus. He's proven that it's something that defenders need to respect and for a guy that is an absolute monster at attacking the basket it's an even bigger plus.
He appears to like getting his rhythm from his jumper off the dribble, as he shot only 33% on catch and shoot threes last year. That's the 14th worst percentage in the NBA for guys who took at least two of those shots a game. On pull-ups however, Bledsoe was much better. He shot 38% on pull up threes, which was ninth among all NBA players who attempted at least 1.5 of them a game. On regular pull up jumpers, Bledsoe shot 39.6%, an above average league number. What you should take from those stats is that Bledsoe has become a legit pull up shooter and although he's still working on the catch and shoot, his three-point shot will continue to improve.
That floor recognition we highlighted in the last section continues into Bledsoe's pull up jumper. Instead of using this in iso situations like the last person I covered, Bledsoe uses it when it is available. He continues to read the floor well and uses that jumper as yet another weapon in his offensive arsenal.
Here the Mavericks are completely out of sorts. This is also known as Monta Ellis playing defense. Bledsoe's jogging makes Monta think he can jog as well. That is not a valid statement.
Bledsoe notices this and brings Monta all the way to the elbow for an easy pull up jumper.
Remember all of those tricks I talked about Bledsoe using? This is all of them put in one. Bledsoe has drove in here off of a ball screen. Brandan Wright is underneath the rim and is a good shot blocker, so Bledsoe rightfully does not attack the basket and instead holds onto his dribble.
Bledsoe brings it to the three-point line and notices how much space Wright is giving him, so he wants to give himself some sort of advantage instead. He started dribbling towards Wright, noticed this, and changed his tactics.
Here is the ultra space we saw on the second drive. Once again, Bledsoe has shown all year that he loves to turn on his speed when he has this sort of room just like he did in that second drive. Here it comes right?
Yup. That's the low center of gravity and ducking action we see from Bledsoe when he's getting ready to go right by his initial defender. Here he comes to the rim.
Whoops. Wright is at the free-throw line when Bledsoe pulls up for three and nails it. It's a beautiful thing when he puts all of these little sets of his game together.
Remember the earlier transition bucket against the Mavs? Bledsoe is in a similar situation here, but he reads the floor. Brandan Wright does a good job of cutting off the lane and there's a stronger chance of rim protection underneath.
Bledsoe readjusts to the coverage here and goes for an isolation on Shawn Marion instead. Here are the hesitation dribbles and head fakes. It's important to note that Bledsoe usually uses these moves on bigger defenders, which is when it's the most relevant to use them.
Wright has done his job and cut off the penetration. He backs up a little bit and that extra space that Bledsoe now has gives him enough room to get off that low release jumper. It's important to see the angle Marion was taking on this shot contest. He was not balanced, moving backward, and assumed the drive was coming. Bledsoe reads it and buries it.
I feel the need to only show the end result here because you saw this same situation in Example 2. Once again, this is a combination of Bledsoe's tricks. He gets the switch on DeJuan Blair here and makes the correct decision of dragging him out. Once again, Bledsoe takes those couple of steps back and starts to run at full pace towards Blair. A big and immobile defender like Blair has no choice but to back off and try to prevent the assumed penetration on the way. Once again though, Bledsoe creates a lot of space for himself and nails the open pull up.
There's only two types of examples I showed, but Bledsoe has a lot of success in his shooting. He takes the space he is given and can also create it with those hesitation dribbles and head fakes. It's a good part of his game and it's going to continue to get better.
While watching film on Bledsoe's assists you can see a lot of his numbers come from having shooters around him. Channing Frye and Gerald Green help him out a lot in that regard, but he also has a lot of basics down when it comes to playmaking. He always takes the space when he is transition and always gets to at least the free-throw line. With this he makes the defense at least recognize a threat and he can find the shooters open if it's there. He doesn't really remind me of a signature passing point guard and that's fine. He is aware of when his teammates are open and also knows how to create space for his passes.
Bledsoe rarely makes any amazing passes or dimes, but he has some very underrated court vision of finding shooters when they are open or recognizing a mismatch. Those are too basic to show you, but there are more advanced ways he makes those assists possible and that's what you will see.
This is off of a ball screen from Frye. Like 95% of defenders in the NBA, the ball screen is too much for Tony Parker and Bledsoe blows by to get space. Marco Belinelli is still doing a good enough job of denying the corner three and Miles Plumlee is not a threat from where he is calling for the ball.
With that in mind, instead of making the pass once he got in the key or when he got Splitter to fully commit, Bledsoe bumps into Splitter while hanging in the air and finds Tucker in the corner for a three. I always love when players use their athleticism to make passes and this is what Bledsoe did here. The Spurs solid defense here forced Bledsoe to make a really good play and he did so.
This is a simple pick and roll. Plumlee comes up for the ball screen.
I love this screencap because it shows the patience of Bledsoe. He has the defense fully committed. The benefit of having a stretch four is on full display here, as Austin Daye can only flash the paint for a second without leaving Frye open on the wing. Bledsoe knows he has to wait for that second to pass up and for Plumlee to be within a jump of a dunk or a layup because of how close Jeff Ayres still is to the play.
There's the pass. Ayres has played the possession very well and does his job to slide over on Plumlee. It's too much space for an athlete like Plumlee though and he rises up here to lay it in with his left hand. Really great work from Bledsoe.
This is another beautiful recognition of Bledsoe not only being able to see the mismatch, but knowing how to move around to make it happen. Kawhi Leonard is guarding Frye in the post and it's difficult for Bledsoe to get him the ball because I don't know if you've heard but that Kawhi guy is pretty good at defense.
To counter that they run an odd ball screen off of a post up that gets the switch that we've seen Bledsoe want in the past. The overcommit from Patty Mills under the basket is the strong and correct defensive play to make. That Diaw/Mills wall denies a pass to the corner. Bledsoe usually runs this switch to get a bucket for himself. However, this time he is getting this switch for Frye.
Frye is now guarded by Danny Green and Bledsoe brings the ball all the way out to the wing to give Frye space. Leonard has no choice but to stay on Bledsoe because of how quick he can get to the basket and can't deny the pass to Frye because of how respectable Bledsoe has become from deep.
Frye gets the ball here and it's just an easy size mismatch floater over Green and the help defender Belinelli.
There's the floater. The movement by Bledsoe makes this entire possession possible.
Take yourself back to Example 2 when Austin Daye flashed the middle on a Bledsoe ball screen. Bledsoe is always aware of what that defender is doing, especially when they are guarding a shooter. Here you can see Serge Ibaka flat out making himself known at the free-throw line. He's not giving Bledsoe credit as a passer and has looked to cut off the lane.
Bledsoe has recognized this 100%. You know why now because he takes one dribble into the screen to draw Ibaka over by just one more step. As soon as the takes that one dribble, he picks it up and fires a pass right to Frye. That extra step Ibaka has to take to get back to Frye is because of the extra dribble Bledsoe took to draw him over just a little more.
As you can see, Ibaka can barely get a contest off and it's an easy three for Frye. Like his shot, Bledsoe will continue to get better at this and he's shown major lines of improvement like this bullet pass to the wing he likes to make.
I have to admit that even I was surprised at how good Bledsoe looked as a passer. His court vision really surprised me with the combination of not making too difficult of a pass while still getting his players where they like the ball. He always pushes it in transition to give shooting weapons like Green, Tucker (corner), Dragic, and Frye extra space because of his penetration and he's starting to understand it more and more. Remember, this is a guy who considered himself a shooting guard in college and was supposed to be one coming out of the draft. He's still learning and a lot of that goes to Chris Paul point guard camp (Jannero Pargo,Darren Collison, Jarrett Jack, and Bledsoe are his career backups) and the progression he continues to make. It's exciting to watch.
No film on turnovers. Most of the mistakes you see from Bledsoe are just him trying to do a little too much playmaking like hanging in the air when it's not necessary or trying to curl a pass around a big to hit someone in the corner. A lot of times it's just very good defensive plays as well and there's nothing you can do about it. Once again, I emphasize how much he is still learning and some of the top turnover guys in the league last year were Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, John Wall, Kevin Durant, and LeBron James. More time with the ball in your hands means more turnovers. The two 7 turnover games late in the season against the Spurs and Mavericks were costly, but not as much as the defensive mistakes I highlighted in one of those games previously and Bledsoe's offensive performance in those games was good enough to eradicate those mistakes anyway. So like I said, it's not something to get up in arms about when he's this good already.
Lost in all of this summer mess is how good of a basketball player Eric Bledsoe is. I find it absolutely insane that some fans are willing to let Bledsoe go because the usual agent vs. team nonsense in restricted free agency that quite honestly has gone as expected. The Suns know how good Bledsoe is and I think there's no way they let him go unless it is an absolutely irreparable situation and until we hear that from a legitimate source lets all relax.
Bledsoe was a fantastic offensive player when he was healthy last year and that combined with a good on-ball defender who keeps learning team defense makes him an extremely valuable player to the Suns. The Suns would potentially be bringing in the best guard duo in the NBA next season and certainly the best trio with new addition Isaiah Thomas. Those who want to keep picking the Suns to finish outside of the playoffs in the West might want to look at a full season of a healthy Dragic/Bledsoe backcourt and reconsider.