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.

Joel Embiid had a spectacular missed windmill dunk

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Joel Embiid had a brilliant game Monday night, scoring 33 points with 17 boards. He’s a guy whose name deserves to come up when talking about guys playing at an MVP level early this season.

Plus we saw a motivated Embiid Monday going against No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton, who Embiid said would get his a** kicked this year around the NBA. Embiid did his part, basically doubling Ayton in points (33-17) and rebounds (17-9).

But Embiid also had one spectacular fail — this missed windmill dunk.

Ben Simmons is not going to let Embiid forget about that one for a while.

Three Things to Know: Kemba Walker, Hornets latest team to expose problems in Boston

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Each night in the NBA there is a lot of action, a lot to unpack. Which is why every weekday morning during the NBA season we bring you three things you need to know out of the night before, to keep you up on all the big happenings around the NBA.

1) Kemba Walker is destroying everyone, including the Celtics Monday night. But Boston has issues. The Boston Celtics, the team that was the favorite in the East going into the season, the team everyone thought they had to beat, is getting beat. A lot more than we expected at 9-8 to start the season. What started as “don’t freak out they just need to get Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward meshed into what they do” has become legitimate reason for concern because the Celtics can’t get key boards, and that elite defense is not slowing their opponent’s best scorer often enough.

Monday night that opponent was maybe the hottest player in the NBA: Kemba Walker. He certainly is the most entertaining player in the league right now he and dropped 43 on the Celtics and yelling “this is my s***” after a big bucket.

Walker is a fringe MVP candidate right now (the way Damian Lillard jumped into the conversation a year ago) and he should thank new coach James Borego. His new Spursian offense has spaced the floor for the Hornets (not having Dwight Howard in the post and clogging the lane helps, too) and Walker is driving into that space and making plays. And if you play back on him, he will destroy you with off-the-dribble threes.

All of that does not change the fact Boston has issues compared to where we thought they would be right now. We went into the season knowing rebounding would be a concern but it has been worse than expected (like at the end of the Hornets’ game, when Charlotte was getting key offensive boards to keep plays alive). The Celtics have the 27th ranked offense in the NBA this season because the ball stops too much — Terry Rozier has been a problem here — plus the team is just not knocking down jumpers (Boston is third in number of three pointers taken a game but 21st in percentage at 34.5 percent). Brad Stevens can’t find a rotation he likes — Aron Baynes started in place of Gordon Hayward Monday — and Stevens just can’t find the toughness we expected from this team on a nightly basis.

Maybe we will get to March and April and shake our heads thinking “why did we worry about Boston?” They can still put this thing together and get up to be a top two or three seed (they are currently four games back of the Raptors, ground not easy to make up because Toronto is good).

But we are now 17 games in, approaching a quarter of the season, and these issues have not gone away in Boston. It’s time to admit this team is flawed right now and it might not be able to put it all together like we expected.

2) The Wizards are a disaster, they are open to trades… and it’s not going to be that easy. The dumpster fire in our nation’s capital… wait, let me be more specific, there are a lot of dumpster fires in our nation’s capital right now.

The dumpster fire in Washington D.C. that is the Washington Wizards got a little hotter Monday when it was reported that GM Ernie Grunfeld would listen for trade offers for anyone on the team. Including the “not exactly that big three” of John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter. That came just days after a blow up in practice where Beal yelled at Grunfeld and Wall told coach Scott Brooks “f*** you.” That earned Wall an internal fine.

Being open to breaking up its core is something Washington should have been doing last summer (if not earlier) — the chemistry issues around this team are not new. They’re worse right now, but they are not new. Grunfeld and owner Ted Leonsis kept doubling down on the core guys and thought they could fix the chemistry issues by changing coaches or role players (Marcin Gortat was the guy shipped out last summer and was seen as the chemistry problem… the Clippers look really good with him on the roster, by the way, great chemistry there). But the real problem was the core itself.

Grunfeld has come around to that, but now the trade value is down for all of those guys because of the team’s struggles. Talking to sources around the league there is by far the most interest in Beal, who is just 25 and an All-Star player at a position of need around the league. He’s also the one of the three the Wizards least want to trade, so that will take a massive offer (the kind more often seen in July than mid-season).

Second on the list, but well behind, is Otto Porter, a guy playing average basketball this season but on a max contract for two full seasons after this one. There is interest there, with the Pelicans rumored to be kicking the tires on a trade.

Last in interest from teams is Wall. We can talk about how Wall’s contract will make him very difficult to trade — his designated veteran max contract kicks in next season, he has four years at an average of more than $42 million a season left on his deal after this one — but that may not even be the worst part right now. Wall is coasting on the court too much right now, not playing like an elite player at all, and the bigger problem is the best player on the team sets the culture. Stephen Curry set the “fun but work hard” tone in Golden State. LeBron James sets the tone for the Lakers and that tone won titles in Cleveland and Miami. Tim Duncan set the tone for the Spurs for two winning decades and five rings. What culture is Wall setting right now as he jogs through plays and has his hands on his hips? Forget the money, nobody wants to trade for that player, period. (Well, don’t forget the money, but the combo of the money and his attitude make him almost impossible to move right now.)

3) Joel Embiid backs up his trash talk and puts up 33 on Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns. This summer, Joel Embiid said No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton would get his a** kicked this year once the games got real. Embiid lived up to that on Monday night, almost doubling Ayton in points (33-17) and rebounds (17-9). Embiid was making plays on both ends of the floor.

But it was not all perfect for Embiid — this missed dunk is not something Ben Simmons is going to let Embiid forget.

Giannis Antetokounmpo 29 points, 12 rebounds lead Bucks past Nuggets, 104-98

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — The Milwaukee Bucks have been plagued lately by sluggish first-half performances.

They got away with it again Monday night.

The Bucks fell behind by 17 points before rallying to down the Denver Nuggets 104-98. Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 29 points and Eric Bledsoe added 23, including two late 3-pointers.

Antetokounmpo added 12 rebounds for Milwaukee, which came from 22 down in the first half to beat the Chicago Bulls on Friday night. The Bucks also fell behind by double digits in the first quarter in a loss to Memphis on Wednesday.

“We’ve got to do a better job to try to set the tone,” Antetokounmpo said. “I think we did a better job this game, but we can do a lot better. I think our talent saves us. I feel like we are so talented that even when we are down 10, down 15, we can always get back into the game.”

The Bucks swept the two-game season series against the Nuggets for the first time since 2009-10.

Jamal Murray had 17 points, eight rebounds and a season-best nine assists for Denver, which has lost six of its last seven games.

“We still have confidence. We just aren’t winning games,” Murray said.

Nikola Jokic had 20 points, Gary Harris 14 and Malik Beasley chipped in with a season-high 12 points off the bench.

“I was really pleased with the fight and the competitive spirit. We gave ourselves a chance against a very good basketball team on the road,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “But there are no moral victories. We’ve got to start winning these games.”

The Bucks led 78-77 heading to fourth quarter. The teams exchanged leads until Milwaukee went on a late 8-0 run that featured a pair of 3-pointers by Bledsoe.

“I think Eric is in a really good place,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “He is understanding what we need in different moments.”

Denver pulled within two points with less than a minute left on Jokic’s 3 but Khris Middleton, who had been 0 for 7 from deep, answered with a 3-pointer to put the Bucks up 103-98 with 27 seconds left.

After trailing by 10 to start the third quarter, the Bucks grabbed the lead late in the period on a slam dunk by Antetokounmpo.

Denver used a 17-4 to start the second quarter to build a 17-point lead and held a 56-46 advantage at the half. Milwaukee closed the half on a 10-3 run.

The Nuggets led 29-25 after the first quarter, sparked by nine points from Gary Harris.

 

Joel Embiid has 33 points, 17 rebounds as 76ers beat Suns 119-114

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Joel Embiid scored 19 of his 33 points after halftime and added 17 rebounds to help the Philadelphia 76ers beat the Phoenix Suns 119-114 on Monday night.

Ben Simmons added 19 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists for Philadelphia, which won its third straight while improving to 9-0 at home, remaining the only team in the league unbeaten at home. The 76ers play five of their next six in Philadelphia.

Devin Booker had 37 points and eight assists for the Suns, who started a four-game road trip with their sixth loss in seven games. Phoenix, which fell to 3-13 overall and 0-7 on the road, has the worst record in the West and is one of three winless road teams in the NBA.

Strong first-half shooting helped Phoenix to a surprising 62-57 halftime lead. The 76ers took control in the third, going up for good on Embiid’s three-point play 3:45 into the quarter. They ended the period ahead 92-86 and led by as many as 12 early in the fourth on J.J. Redick‘s runner.

The Suns hung around and T.J. Warren‘s 3-pointer with 3:06 remaining cut it to 109-104. But Embiid’s follow layup with 58 seconds left made it 114-106 and was the clincher.

Rookie Deandre Ayton had 17 points and nine rebounds in his first matchup against fellow 7-footer Embiid.

Embiid scoffed at analysts’ comparisons of Ayton to him made on draft day, saying on Twitter: “Don’t compare Ayton to me either.I play DEFENSE.” The boisterous 76ers center then told ESPN in a preseason interview that Ayton was “about to get his (butt) kicked.”

To his credit, the Suns rookie responded to questions about Embiid by saying he would let his game do his talking.

And the 7-footer did just that in the first possession on Monday night, finishing Booker’s pass with an alley-oop dunk for an emphatic start to the game. Then, he forced Embiid into a turnover in the 76ers star’s first touch on offense.

But Embiid got the better from that point.

Four-time All-Star Jimmy Butler, in his fourth game with the 76ers after last week’s trade with Minnesota, had 16 points after hitting a 3-pointer as time expired in overtime to lead Philadelphia to a 122-119 win at Charlotte on Saturday.

Philadelphia native and Villanova product Mikal Bridges had 13 points in 23 minutes for Phoenix. The rookie was drafted 10th by the 76ers before being shipped to the Suns for the No. 16 pick, Zhaire Smith, and a 2021 first-round pick. Smith has yet to play due to a left foot injury and an allergic food reaction that will sideline him at least until January.