Winners, Losers and Takeaways from Bucks-Suns Trade for Eric Bledsoe
Our Eric Bledsoe nightmare is over.
The Phoenix Suns have agreed to trade their banished point guard to the Milwaukee Bucks for Greg Monroe, a protected first-round pick and a protected second-round selection (both in 2018), according to ESPN.com's Zach Lowe and Adrian Wojnarowski.
The move, while not a surprise for either side, sees both parties doubling down on their current directions. Phoenix is cannonballing deeper into its rebuild, while Milwaukee has acknowledged it needs to capitalize on employing the NBA's new overlord, Giannis Antetokounmpo, sooner rather than later.
Other important layers exist, too—loads of them, actually.
Let's parse the chain of consequences for the NBA's latest blockbuster.
Eric Bledsoe (Duh)
Eric Bledsoe gets to play basketball again! And he's not in Phoenix! He calls Giannis Antetokounmpo a teammate! And he's not in Phoenix! He'll have a chance to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2012-13! And he's not in Phoenix!
Did I mention he's not in Phoenix?
We'll have more on Antetokounmpo in a bit, because he's awesome. For now, just know that he, a top-five player, gets to play alongside a fringe-star point guard for the first time in his career.
Rule for Being a Smart NBA Team, No. 3,625,081: If you can acquire a really good point guard without giving up a top-tier first-round pick while further distancing yourself from this season's luxury tax, you absolutely have to do it.
Bledsoe graded out as a top-10 point guard entering the regular season, and the Bucks just picked him up for a player they weren't going to keep this summer, a lottery-protected first-round pick and a second-rounder. They're now close to $6 million below the luxury-tax line, giving them the breathing room to make other moves ahead of the trade deadline if they're confident in their ability to continue ducking the penalty over the summer.
Fewer of Khris Middleton's made buckets are coming off assists this season (48.4) compared to 2016-17 (62.0) and 2015-16 (55.0). Playing next to both Antetokounmpo and Bledsoe allows him to slide back into a more complementary capacity and, hopefully, start sticking way more than 26.7 percent of his three-pointers.
"The Phoenix Suns got a couple of protected picks, some chewed bubble gum and daps for Isaiah Thomas, Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe," HOOP Mag's Josh Eberley wrote.
Yep, that about sums this up. The Suns should be thankful to rid themselves of the drama attached to Bledsoe's absence, and they did get a (low-end) first-round pick out of the deal. But, as Eberley also noted, they most likely gave up more for Brandon Knight than they received in return for Bledsoe, Dragic and Thomas.
And remember: Phoenix, it seems, had the opportunity to acquire Emmanuel Mudiay, a top-seven prospect, and a lottery pick from the Denver Nuggets prior to last June's draft, according to ESPN.com's Chris Haynes. Accepting what (probably) won't be a lottery choice and an expiring contract now looks buh-ad.
Here's hoping Greg Monroe brokers a buyout with the Suns. Otherwise, he'll have to play or assume sideline duty for one of the NBA's worst teams upon his return from a calf injury.
Unless head coach Jason Kidd plans to flat-out run Giannis Antetokounmpo at center, Malcolm Brogdon is out of a starting gig.
It may not be right away. The Bucks could look to integrate Bledsoe by bringing him off the bench, and Brogdon will get plenty of burn off the pine in second units and starter-heavy all-wing lineups. Still, now he'll have to begin games on the bench, making small talk with Matthew Dellavedova.
Speaking of Dellavedova, will he even play 10 minutes per game? His minutes were hardly guaranteed before the trade, and Bledsoe is a better defender than him.
Maybe Kidd plays him out of stubbornness. Or perhaps the Bucks think they can showcase him enough to make the remaining three years, including this one, and $28.8 million on his contract a little more tradeable.
Either way, he no longer factors into the long-term makeup of this team. Milwaukee has officially outgrown him.
Snagging a top-four playoff seed just got a whole lot harder for the Toronto Raptors.
The Bucks will be better; the Boston Celtics are thriving; the Cleveland Cavaliers have LeBron James; the Washington Wizards have long been pegged to usurp Toronto; and one or more of the Eastern Conference's early-season breakouts, like the Detroit Pistons and Orlando Magic, could factor into the equation as well.
Kyle Lowry needs to start hitting more of his shots—and fast.
What It Means for the Bucks' Playoff Contention This Year
BREAKING: The Bucks are now guaranteed to make the playoffs this year.
Laugh at the notion if you must, but things weren't close to peachy keen before now—particularly on the defensive side. The Bucks are 26th in points allowed per 100 possessions and getting burned by the hyper-aggressive approach installed by Jason Kidd a few seasons ago.
Opponents have spruced up their responses to their serial trapping and frenetic closeouts. They know how to identity where the help is coming from and have the players who get left behind scamper toward the basket or the nearest corner.
No team is forfeiting more looks at the rim than the Bucks as a result, and only four give up more corner three-point attempts, according to Cleaning the Glass. They're also not forcing nearly as many mistakes in light of these quick-twitch reactions to their "We have limbs!" scheme. They're 16th in opponent turnover rate, down from fifth last year.
Even the offense, which places 10th in points scored per 100 possessions, feels flimsy. The Bucks don't run especially fast or shoot many threes. They still look to sprint up the court off defensive rebounds, but their efficiency on those sets has fallen from ninth in 2016-17 to 14th now, according to Inpredictable.
Bledsoe should help address everything that ails them.
He will be a more lethal off-ball threat catching passes from Giannis Antetokounmpo, Malcolm Brogdon and Khris Middleton and gives Milwaukee another solid decision-maker on the break after opponents miss. His defensive effort has always been put under the microscope, but he's above average for his position even at half-speed. He'll stymie off-ball slashers who have killed Milwaukee thus far and offer additional help on closeouts.
Leaving the Suns is a boon for defensive stock. The Bucks can be just as foul-happy, but they're neither woefully inexperienced nor hopelessly incapable.
Acquiring someone who could earn All-Star dap in the star-starved East is huge. The Bucks are better equipped to hang with tippy-top formalities like the Raptors and Wizards while warding off up-and-comers like the Magic, Pistons and Philadelphia 76ers—so long as they're able to strike a balance between Antetokounmpo and Bledsoe.
What It Means for Giannis
Giannis Antetokounmpo should be ecstatic for the opportunity to join forces with Eric Bledsoe.
He should also be ready to work his butt off during the unavoidable learning curve that follows.
Only three to five players could arrive in Milwaukee threatening to steal Antetokounmpo's touches. Bledsoe isn't one of them. He'll be tasked with undergoing the more noticeable off-ball facelift. But Antetokounmpo will have to do something of the same. And the Bucks need to figure out what that means.
Bledsoe finished ninth in drives per game last year, but Milwaukee doesn't have the option of leashing Antetokounmpo to the corner around his downhill assaults. Kidd will try it, because he has to try it. But Antetokounmpo, even with his elevated three-point clip, is hitting under 30 percent of his catch-and-shoot looks. It was the same story last season. He barely drained 30 percent of his receive-and-fire attempts in 2015-16.
Using Antetokounmpo as a pick-and-roll diver in the two-man game with Bledsoe is a more palatable option. Though Milwaukee doesn't lean on these sets often, Antetokounmpo finishes a team-leading 1.8 possessions per game as the roll man. And he's shooting 76.9 percent in these situations—the second-highest mark in the league among 54 players to cycle through 15 or more such touches.
Adding volume to that resume could adversely impact Antetokounmpo's efficiency, and the Bucks won't want to send his spindly frame barreling through the heart of defenses any more than they have to. Then again, he's already accustomed to speedballing his way through traffic.
Only two players have jacked more shots this season with defenders inside two feet of their person. Antetokounmpo is putting down almost 80 percent of these attempts. Upping his roll-man responsibilities beside a quality ball-handler like Bledsoe is patently unfair to opposing defenses.
Identical logic applies to off-ball screens. The Bucks haven't been getting Antetokounmpo as many open lanes as a cutter, in large part because they didn't have the ancillary playmaking to let him work away from the action.
Well, they do now, and Antetokounmpo is shooting close to 85 percent as the off-rock slasher. He and Bledsoe will make sweet, easy-buckets music together once the feeling-out process has reached its conclusion.
What It Means for the Suns Moving Forward
Welcome to the official start of the Mike James #NBAVote Era in Phoenix.
Nothing really changes beyond this for the Suns. Bledsoe hasn't been with the team since he subtweeted his feelz. They have moved on. This has been Devin Booker's team since they shut down Bledsoe to end last year. They've been steering into the youthful skid for some time. Bledsoe's long-awaited exit is merely the next step in a pre-established process—albeit one that comes under unforeseen circumstances.
Rookie Mike James, 27, has the inside track on the point Guard of the future title—and rightfully so.
Phoenix is scoring like a top-10 offense when he's directing the show, and he's a nice complement to Booker. His work out of the pick-and-roll isn't great, but that's a scheduled criticism for every one of the Suns' ball-handlers. They need to beef up the spacing around him, and all their other playmakers, to help the cause.
In the meantime, James will let his nasty combination of patience and uninhibited confidence do the talking.
He does a nice job maintaining his dribble while waiting out his diving bigs. Defenses still haven't figured out how to nail down his pull-up jumper. He rises and fires just as he gets around screens, leaving no time for contests from players who go under or over those picks. And his efficiency surges from deep when shooting off the catch, which bodes well for his future with Booker.
Tyler Ulis, the No. 2 point guard for now, could factor into the discussion if James falls off, but the Suns can get away with tabbing him as the primary backup. Things get interesting looking head to next season, when Brandon Knight presumably returns from his ACL injury.
Locking up James long term is a no-brainer for the Suns, but Knight has two years and $30.3 million left on his deal after this one. He'll be immovable without attaching a first-round sweetener until he plays again. He's also just 25, going on 26. Phoenix must decide whether to showcase him for trades next year or test him out as part of the big-picture backcourt rotation.
Watch out for what happens to the team's elder statesmen after digesting the point guard situation. Jared Dudley seems genuinely excited to stay in Dad Mode, but the Suns were trying to move Tyson Chandler as part of any Bledsoe trade, according to the New York Times' Marc Stein.
Suitors aren't foaming at the mouth to acquire 35-year-old non-shooting bigs, and Chandler is owed $26.6 million through this season and 2018-19. But the Suns could use him to match the value of a longer-term contract that comes with first-round goodies. They can also eat an empty cap hit next season by looking to broker at buyout that shaves some money off his remaining salary.
What It Means for Bledsoe
Get ready for more off-ball work, Mr. Eric Bledsoe.
Coexisting with a bundle of other off-the-bounce playmakers will be a relatively foreign concept for Milwaukee's new floor general. He hasn't needed to cede touches or status since leaving the Los Angeles Clippers a half-decade ago.
Just over 11 percent of his possessions came as a spot-up shooter last season. That share was only slightly higher in 2015-16 (12.2 percent). He converted under 37 percent of his attempts in both instances.
Even when he was part of Phoenix's multi-point-guard-gone-wrong monster, Bledsoe seldom relinquished control. Barely 28 percent of his baskets were assisted on in 2014-15. Fewer than 20 percent of his made buckets came off helping hands in 2013-14.
That will have to change on the Bucks...in a big way.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is a top-five player. Bledsoe now exists, first and foremost, to make his life easier. That will entail setting him up on more than a few occasions, but close to half of Antetokounmpo's conversions come via passes now. His reliance on others won't increase that much.
The Bucks can use Bledsoe as a cutter when he's not initiating pick-and-rolls with Antetokounmpo. He's only 6'1", but he's an explosive 6'1". Give him enough room to work up bursts of speed off screens, and he'll catch and finish at the rim in one motion. He shot at least 70 percent on cuts in 2015-16 and 2016-17.
Boosting his spot-up numbers from beyond the arc will be the key to this marriage. Bledsoe was touch-and-go in those situations with Phoenix. He banged in 37 percent percent of his standstill triples last year, but failed to drill 34 percent of his wide-open gimmes. He checked in at 35.8 percent and 41.9 percent, respectively, on those same shots in 2015-16—good, but not spectacular.
Playing next to Antetokounmpo, along with Malcolm Brogdon and Khris Middleton, will improve the quality of Bledsoe's off-ball looks. And while that's typically conducive to better returns, the increased displacement from the ball could throw him off-kilter.
What It Means for the Bucks' Future
Say goodbye to any chance of creating cap space this summer, Milwaukee.
And good luck avoiding the luxury tax.
Landing Eric Bledsoe saves the Bucks almost $3.5 million this season, but they'll have more than $125 million allocated to next year's books when factoring in Jabari Parker's restricted free-agent hold. That puts them well above the projected $101 million salary cap. And that's fine.
The Bucks were never going to enjoy meaningful spending power this summer, even with Greg Monroe's deal coming off the ledger. They would have needed to move at least two of Matthew Dellavedova, John Henson and Mirza Teletovic while hoping Parker costs peanuts.
Their focus now shifts to ducking next year's luxury tax—which, truthfully, shouldn't be too big of an issue.
Parker's hold sits overs $20 million until he signs a new deal. He will view himself as a max player, but if he's costing the Bucks that much annually in a longer-term deal after suffering to two ACL injuries, something's wrong. (Also worth watching: How will the offense work when, eventually Bledsoe, Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo share the court at the same time?)
In the event they pony up beaucoup bucks (sorry) for Parker, they can look to stretch or move Teletovic's then-expiring deal or try offloading Henson's contract.
So, no, the Bucks won't be very flexible this summer. But the alternative wasn't much better. They did well to hamstring themselves a little bit more through next season for someone, in Bledsoe, who positions them to make serious noise in the East.