Los Angeles Clippers guard Eric Bledsoe is one great big problem.
He’s a problem for opponents who have to bring the ball up against him. He’s a problem for big men that think they’ll safely collect rebounds. He’s a problem for the backpedaling guard in transition that has to stay in front of him.
He’s a problem for his coach. He’s better suited to play shooting guard, but he’s 6-foot-1 and shoots a set-shot. So he’s a point guard, but not really. But he’s fast. Too fast.
Bledsoe is such a problem that now he’s a problem for the entire organization. The secret is out, and other teams want Bledsoe to be their problem.
And here’s where it gets tricky for the Clippers. Head coach Vinny Del Negro views Eric Bledsoe as a point guard, and playing behind the league’s best point guard, he is a backup and little more. To wit, Bledsoe and Paul have played a measly 138 minutes together on the season. For comparison sake, Paul has played 588 minutes next to uninspiring wingman Willie Green.
That’s a problem. The Clippers aren’t maximizing Bledsoe’s value — they’re just using him as one heck of an insurance policy. With Chris Paul in a suit on the sidelines, that looks smart. With Chris Paul being an unrestricted free agent this offseason and not committed long-term, it looks even smarter. Sure, Paul has every reason to stay — more money, winning team, big market — but until it’s on paper, the Clippers can’t build off assumptions.
That’s really the heart of the issue surrounding the trade rumors for Bledsoe. He’s worth more as a player to other teams, but he’s worth more as an asset to the Clippers. Bledsoe is simultaneously the backup plan and the future in that he’s the most desirable, cheapest and realistic trade asset on the team by a large margin.
Pushing all-in for a Kevin Garnett is enticing, but KG isn’t a more valuable asset to the Clippers than Bledsoe is. Don’t get that confused. Garnett is the better player even at 36-years-old, and I’m incredibly comfortable saying a deal involving Butler and Bledsoe for Garnett would make the Clippers better, maybe even so much so that it would vault them to a championship. But moving Bledsoe for a guy on the other side of the hill could also shorten the window to win that championship dramatically and perhaps unnecessarily.
There’s a flip side to that, though. Paul is desperate for a championship and wants to win now more than anything else, and Del Negro is on a one-year deal and hunting for a long-term contract. Chris Paul barely plays with Bledsoe — you don’t think he’d rather have a big man setting the world’s dirtiest screens to free him up instead? You don’t think Del Negro would feel more confident with his coaching career in the hands of one of the greatest defensive players and floor spacers the game has ever seen rather than Lamar Odom and DeAndre Jordan? Moving Bledsoe doesn’t seem so bad if your length of vision matches the length of your contract.
Still, trading Bledsoe for another veteran assumes an awful lot of risk moving forward outside of Paul’s impending decision. Chauncey Billups, Grant Hill, Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Matt Barnes — spring chickens they are not. At some point, you have to look at the roster Paul would be coming back to and make sure it’s one that can succeed long-term. Bledsoe is essentially acting as money in the Clippers’ saving account. He’s there for an emergency, but he’s also there to buy a bigger future asset the Clippers would have limited means to acquire otherwise.
This year’s trade deadline doesn’t have to be a boom or bust situation for the Clippers. Bledsoe will still be under contract next year, and it’s hard to imagine he won’t continue to improve. The market for his services is only going to grow.
And really, aren’t the Clippers a legitimate title contender already? This is a team that went an entire month without a loss when they were near full-strength. Adding an aging veteran with title experience that’s already on the roster (Billups) to that group instead of forfeiting current and future contributors for an outside guy is certainly safer, and it’s probably a little smarter, too.