Worse than the trade an NBA team never makes is the one it never should have made (or one it made too early).
The Los Angeles Clippers are finding this out the hard way.
Among head coach Doc Rivers' first orders of business upon arriving in Los Angeles was flipping "backup" point guard Eric Bledsoe for a return headlined by Jared Dudley and J.J. Redick. The deal made sense at the time.
Or at least it seemed to make sense. The relative absence of brutal reviews and public probing last July remains mystifying, mostly because the Clippers appeared to have good reasons for their actions.
Bledsoe, while a promising prospect, is a point guard. The Clippers already have a point guard—the league's best point guard—in Chris Paul.
What was the point of keeping both when Bledsoe could be traded to fill needs on the wing and bring in a deadly shooter? And if there was a point, was there cause enough to pay Bledsoe—now a restricted free agent—to stick around? Or even reason enough to keep him for another year?
Of course not...right?
Oh, the On-Court Possibilities
Simplifying decisions like these is impossible.
There are so many layers to Los Angeles' thinking and its ultimate decision. And yet one undeniable fact remains: The Clippers lost a star-caliber talent in Bledsoe for Dudley and Redick.
Injuries tainted Bledsoe's first year with the Phoenix Suns, limiting him to only 43 appearances. But health issues could not ruin his campaign entirely. He finished 2013-14 averaging 17.7 points, 4.7 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 1.6 steals per game.
Here's the list of players who reached per-game benchmarks of 17 points, four rebounds, five assists and 1.5 steals while hitting at least 45 percent of their shots last season:
Each of the other four players are superstars; Bledsoe put up superstar numbers. And he did so on a supposed tanker that was nearly a playoff team in the viciously competitive Western Conference.
But...but...but he played in only 43 games.
True, but Redick—who averaged 15.2 points, 2.1 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 0.8 steals per contest—appeared in only 35. Dudley, meanwhile, gradually regressed into obscurity.
But...but...but the Clippers still already had a star point guard.
Again, true, yet so did the Suns.
Goran Dragic complemented Bledsoe nicely last season. So nicely that Bledsoe averaged more minutes (23.3) per game alongside Dragic than he did with him on the bench (12.4), according to NBA.com. So well that Bledsoe's offensive rating increased by 7.7 points per 100 possessions with Dragic on the floor.
So nicely that the Suns outscored opponents by 11 points per 100 possessions when both point guards were on the floor, the third-best differential of any of Phoenix's two-man combinations appearing in at least 20 games.
So nicely that the Suns decided to sign Isaiah Thomas, thereby ensuring that—assuming Bledsoe's return—they could run dual-point-guard lineups exclusively.
Instead of seeing how well Bledsoe and Paul could coexist in the backcourt together, the Clippers dealt the former and then proceeded to have the latter log almost a third of his minutes beside Darren Collison.
The argument that Bledsoe and Paul could not play together—let alone not even be given the chance to play together—is, quite frankly, utterly insane and borne out of former head coach Vinny Del Negro's refusal to see if this dyad could work.
Running two point guards is only an issue if one or both cannot play off the ball. Though Paul and Bledsoe prefer to operate with the rock in hand, they—like Dragic and Bledsoe inevitably did—can work within systems that demand off- and on-ball movements. They both have the requisite range to succeed together.
Paul converted more than 42 percent of his spot-up treys, while Bledsoe hit on a respectable 43.4 percent of his catch-and-shoot field goals overall last season, per Synergy Sports (subscription).
Los Angeles' offense, which ranked first in efficiency as it was, could have been even better. Its seventh-ranked defense would have, at the very least, remain unchanged. The Clippers forfeited a golden opportunity to pair Bledsoe with Paul for two role players, only one of whom (Redick) made significant contributions.
Now they're left to wonder what could have become of Bledsoe's continued presence.
Not to mention his inevitable departure.
Netting a Bigger Gain
Keeping Bledsoe past last summer may have only prolonged the inevitable.
Truck loads of money are already invested in Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Paul as it is. Paying Bledsoe would have been overkill and likely unrealistic.
Such thoughts are confirmed by the contractual impasse Chris Haynes of CSNNW.com says the Suns and Bledsoe have reached:
According to league sources, an “ominous development” has arisen with sides still “very far apart” in contract negotiations. It has even escalated to the point where the “relationship is on the express lane to being ruined,” a source with knowledge of the situation informed CSNNW.com.
The Suns offered Bledsoe a four-year, $48 million deal with declining salaries each year, two sources said. That proposal was quickly turned down. Bledsoe's camp is putting a max price tag on the player Suns Head Coach Jeff Hornacek called “a Top-10 player in the NBA in coming years”, another source said.
Committing max money to Bledsoe would be tough to justify for the Clippers. It would bilk them of any wiggle room whatsoever, forcing them to move forward with their quasi-Big Four and a bench comprising marginal role players and general question marks.
Sort of like their situation right now.
The production of Spencer Hawes is not guaranteed. Redick is on the wrong side of 30 and coming off an injury-infested 2013-14. Jamal Crawford, 34, cannot score like whoa forever.
At 24, Bledsoe is younger than all those guys. Retaining him and padding his bank account, as opposed to paying Redick and Dudley—and possibly Hawes—wouldn't have made the Clippers any worse.
Not that Redick couldn't be acquired without Bledsoe. Consider what Clips Nation's Steve Perrin discussed while revisiting the deal in January:
Nor was the structure of the deal an impediment to the Clippers doing better. The fact that Phoenix wound up dealing Butler to the Bucks illustrates very clearly that the Clippers could have gotten Redick (the real prize of the summer obviously) without parting with Bledsoe. They could have done Butler and a 2nd rounder for Redick and Smith and Kravtsov; they could have included a second pick, either of their own or one they bought off another team, and given Milwaukee the exact same return. ...
Looked at this way, the Clippers essentially got Dudley and a second round pick in exchange for Bledsoe -- and obviously that's not good value.
Yessireebob, this is awkward.
Holding onto Bledsoe long-term and fleecing themselves of financial flexibility would have made more sense if it still allowed the Clippers to snatch Redick anyway. And if they were vehemently against paying Mini LeBron, the Clippers would always have the option of signing and trading Bledsoe.
That, truthfully, is where his departure hurts most. The Clippers missed out on one helluva future trade asset.
Receiving adequate value in return was impossible last summer with Bledsoe earning slightly over $2.6 million. But if the Clippers kept him and played him, they could have used him to headline a package for an incredible return.
Earning a pay raise is the key. With Bledsoe making more on his new deal, he could be traded for a more expensive player or assembly of talents.
Could the Clippers have entered the Kevin Love sweepstakes? Could Bledsoe have been the crux of a sign-and-trade proposal involving the New York Knicks—tax-situation permitting—and Carmelo Anthony?
Could they have turned Bledsoe into a single star or stable of talent that put Dudley to shame (spoiler: yes)?
They'll never know, though they could have.
In revoking that right, the Clippers, as they attempt to keep pace with the Western Conference—specifically the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder and division rival Golden State Warriors—put themselves at a distinct disadvantage, if only because their already promising title hopes could be that much more promising.
“I’ve said it all season long, I’m enjoying playing with him right now because there’s no way he can be here next year because we probably won’t have enough money to pay him," Paul said of Bledsoe last April, per NBA.com's Jeff Caplan. "He should be a starting point guard.”
Maybe so. Maybe the Clippers wouldn't have been able to afford Bledsoe in the long run. But they also couldn't afford to render his departure something they regret and wish they delayed.
Which is—unequivocally, undeniably and unmistakably—exactly what they did.