The Extra Pass: The Eric Bledsoe Predicament

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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.

Timberwolves win first road game in 52 days, top Heat (video)

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MIAMI — Jordan McLaughlin’s layup with just under nine seconds left put Minnesota ahead for good, D’Angelo Russell led all scorers with 27 points and the Timberwolves added to Miami’s late-season stagger by beating the Heat 129-126 on Wednesday night.

Malik Beasley scored 21 points, Juancho Hernangomez tied a season-high with 17 and McLaughlin added 13 for Minnesota. The Timberwolves were down by 12 with 3:59 left, then closed on a 20-5 run to get just their second victory in 20 games.

Jimmy Butler’s two free throws with 13.8 seconds left put Miami up 126-125, but McLaughlin’s layup on the next Minnesota possession put the Timberwolves on top to stay. Butler’s layup with 3.2 seconds left got blocked by Russell, and the Wolves held on.

Minnesota snapped a nine-game road losing streak, getting its first road victory since beat the Cleveland Cavaliers on Jan. 5.

Kendrick Nunn led Miami with 24 points. Bam Adebayo had 22 points and 10 rebounds and Butler — back after a two-game absence for personal reasons — had 18 for Miami. The Heat fell to 23-4 at home and have dropped seven of their last nine overall.

The Heat stayed a half-game ahead of Philadelphia in the race for the No. 4 spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Philadelphia lost in Cleveland earlier Wednesday, a game where 76ers star Joel Embiid departed early because of a shoulder injury.

The Heat have had major trouble closing games of late — a 22-point lead late in the third quarter against Cleveland on Monday was frittered away in what probably was the worst loss of the season, until now anyway — and a long film session and meeting on Tuesday clearly didn’t solve the issue.

They were up 121-109 with 3:59 left, and 123-112 after a layup by Butler 24 seconds later.

And Minnesota — a team that came into the night with one win in a span of 48 days — still wasn’t finished off. The Timberwolves scored the next 11 points to tie the game, getting five of those points from Beasley and a tying free throw from McLaughlin with 46 seconds left.

TIP-INS

Timberwolves: Minnesota’s 27 attempts from 3-point range in the first two quarters was a first-half franchise record. … The Wolves are 4-0 in road games against Southeast Division teams this season, and 6-19 in all other road contests.

Heat: Adebayo played through a sprained right ankle, pushing his consecutive-game streak to 144 — extending the fourth-longest such streak in team history. … Goran Dragic’s first basket was a 3-pointer, and that pushed him one point past Grant Long (5,473) for 10th on the Heat career scoring list. … Nunn got his third consecutive rookie of the month trophy in a brief halftime ceremony.

JOHNSON RETURNS

Wednesday marked James Johnson’s first game back in Miami since the trade that sent him to Minnesota earlier this month, a move that sent Andre Iguodala, Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill to Miami from Memphis. “I think Minnesota is seeing what kind of versatility he can bring to the game,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.

LOOKING AHEAD

A large contingent of fans from Slovenia were in attendance Wednesday — and more are coming Friday, when the Heat play host to the Dallas Mavericks. At last season’s Dallas-at-Miami game, more than 2,000 Slovenians were in attendance to watch their nation’s two best NBA players, Dragic and Dallas star Luka Doncic, go head-to-head.

UP NEXT

Timberwolves: At Orlando on Friday night.

Heat: Host Dallas on Friday night.

Trae Young blocks 7-foot Mo Bamba at rim (video)

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Trae Young might be the NBA’s worst defender.

He’s small (6-foot-1 with a 6-foot-3 wingspan). His athleticism is far from imposing. He also carries a massive load for the Hawks offensively, leaving little energy for defense.

But he still blocked 7-foot Magic center Mo Bamba at the rim.

Not a great moment for Bamba.

Joel Embiid leaves 76ers game with shoulder injury (video)

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Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons?

The debate has gained attention this season after the 76ers spent years retooling around their stars. The answer clearly isn’t neither. But that’s what Philadelphia now faces.

With Simmons already injured, Embiid got hurt in the 76ers’ game against the Cavaliers tonight.

Serena Winters of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

Losing Embiid for an extended period would be a huge blow to Philadelphia, especially with Simmons already out. The 76ers (fifth place, half a game out of fourth) are right on the edge of getting home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

Embiid had been playing so well lately. This is an especially tough time for a setback.

At least Philadelphia has depth to cope. Al Horford can easily slide from power forward to center. Tobias Harris might be better off at power forward than small forward, anyway. This is where Glenn Robinson III and Alec Burks, acquired just before the trade deadline, come in handy as additional wing options. Kyle O'Quinn can also play behind Horford.

But the loss of talent is the biggest development, and there’s no overcoming that until Embiid and Simmons get healthy.

Zach LaVine: Trash talk directed at Dennis Schroder, not Bulls coach Jim Boylen

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During the Bulls’ loss to the Thunder yesterday, Zach LaVine appeared to say, “I have f—ing 40 points!”

Many assumed LaVine was snapping at Chicago coach Jim Boylen. But LaVine clarified his target was Oklahoma City guard Dennis Schroder.

Eric Woodyard of ESPN:

I take LaVine at his word.

Want to make a case LaVine dislikes Boylen? You’ll just have to point to all the other evidence.