Is Eric Bledsoe Already Haunting Los Angeles Clippers?

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Is Eric Bledsoe Already Haunting Los Angeles Clippers?
USA Today

The Los Angeles Clippers didn't really have a choice in the matter; they had to trade Eric Bledsoe.

With Chris Paul agreeing to a max extension on July 1, the Clips knew they couldn't justify paying Bledsoe the kind of money he'd eventually get as a restricted free agent in 2014. So, instead of keeping the backup point guard on the roster for another year and almost certainly losing him for nothing, Los Angeles swapped him out for Jared Dudley and J.J. Redick.

That was a fine return for a player who had only proved himself in a backup role. At the time, there was a decent possibility that Bledsoe would eventually become a star, but with Paul and his $107 million contract on the books, the Clips simply weren't going to match whatever theoretically sizable deal Bledsoe was going to sign in the summer of 2014.

Trading him was a proactive decision—the kind of bold, sometimes painful move smart teams make.

The problem now, though, is that the Clippers might not have agreed to the right Bledsoe trade.

Redick and Dudley give Los Angeles much needed spacing, maturity and even a little defense on the wings. They figured to fit well alongside Paul as shooters who'd force defenders to decide between giving up open threes and collapsing to slow down CP3's deadly pick-and-roll play.

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

The individual numbers wouldn't lead you to believe that L.A.'s two new starters have had major impacts. Redick has shot just 35.9 percent from long distance, while Dudley has hit only 32.1 percent of his triples. But they're both steady, reliable veterans who have posted much better shooting numbers over the course of their careers.

Once Redick returns from a broken hand, he shouldn't take long to return to form. And Dudley, a career 39.9 percent shooter from deep, is bound to shake his slump eventually.

Besides, the mere threat of their presences on the perimeter actually has made it easier for Paul and the big men to operate in a slightly less congested interior. The Clips boast an offensive rating of 105.6 points per 100 possessions, good for fifth in the league, per NBA.com.

Better spacing and more accomplished wings were both things that the Clippers needed. But we're learning now that they needed something else even more: frontcourt depth.

 

The Big(s) Problem

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Blake Griffin is actually posting the worst PER of his career this season, per Basketball-Reference.com, but that's a relative statement. He's still one of the game's best power forwards and a key component of the team's offense. It'd be nice if he defended a bit more consistently and could hit a free throw once in a while, but he's definitely not the problem.

DeAndre Jordan is hauling in 13.3 rebounds per game and dunking pretty much everything he touches, but he's been an abysmal foul shooter for so long that it's no longer reasonable to expect improvement. Worse still, he's made a substantially negative impact on the Clips defense this season. Per NBA.com, Los Angeles allows 103.2 points per 100 possessions with Jordan on the floor, but it holds opponents to just 94.9 when he sits.

That's a massive difference and one that shouldn't be possible given Jordan's size, length and athleticism. It's no fluke, either. The Clippers defense was about 6.3 points per 100 possessions more generous when Jordan was on the court last season.

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Perhaps most troubling, the Clippers allow opponents to make 64.2 percent of their attempts in the restricted area, the fifth-worst mark in the league, per NBA.com. So any argument that Jordan's 2.1 blocks per game actually indicate decent interior defense is pretty much null and void.

Behind Griffin and Jordan is a trio of flawed bigs that includes Ryan Hollins, Antawn Jamison and Byron Mullens. No, seriously. That's who the Clippers have been using in an actual NBA frontcourt rotation.

There's really no way to evaluate any member of that trifecta without sounding mean, so I'll keep the points short.

Jamison is a complete nonentity on defense who has made just 31 percent of his field goals this season. He's 37, by the way.

Hollins somehow rates as a statistical positive on defense this season, but we can chalk that up to a very small sample size. Historically, he's been a foul-prone stiff who doesn't rebound and hasn't ever come remotely close to a league-average PER.

And then there's Mullens, the 7-foot "marksman" who has attempted seven times as many three-point shots as free throws this season. He's hitting just 28.6 percent of his triples and has gifted the Clippers with a comically bad 115.6 defensive rating whenever he's been on the floor, per NBA.com.

Barry Gossage/Getty Images

If you need a moment to compose yourself after enduring the horror that is the Clippers' frontcourt rotation, I understand.

 

What Could Have Been

This brings us all the way back to Bledsoe, who could have brought back much more value to the Clippers if he'd been exchanged for a big man. It wouldn't even have needed to be an above-average big man; any human being taller than 6'9" who could walk upright for 10 minutes at a time would have sufficed.

Look, the Clips got good value in Redick and Dudley. That's not the issue.

The issue is that Marcin Gortat was sitting right there on the Phoenix Suns roster when the Clippers were negotiating a deal. And we know that the Suns were eager to ship him out because they did just that a few weeks later, sending the Polish Hammer to the Washington Wizards for next to nothing.

Plus, there were rumors that the Clippers were talking with the Orlando Magic about Arron Afflalo and Andrew Nicholson. The fact that Afflalo has been performing like an All-Star has to make the failure to consummate that deal sting a bit. But Nicholson would easily be the Clips' best backup big, and you could even make the case that he's a better player than Jordan.

At the very least, his 84 percent free-throw shooting and ability to knock down threes as either a power forward or undersized center has to look pretty appealing to L.A. right now.

At one point, even Bledsoe thought a deal with the Magic was a possibility.

Per Lisa Dillman of the Los Angeles Times, Bledsoe said: "I thought I was going to end up on the other side of the world. I thought I was going to Boston or Orlando." 

The depth of the Clippers' frontcourt problem is perhaps most evident in their recent attraction to Lamar Odom. Recently rehabilitated from an alleged drug problem, still struggling in the slimy Kardashian tentacles and three years removed from his last decent season, he's the longest of long shots.

Clearly, the Clippers are desperate for bigs.

Los Angeles fancies itself a championship contender, and some of the elements—efficient offense, elite point guard play, battle-tested coaching—are there. But frontcourt defense and depth behind the starting bigs is a glaring weakness.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

As Bledsoe continues to blossom into a star, the Clippers are going to kick themselves. Not because they ever could have held onto him, but because they simply didn't get what they needed most when they traded him.

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