The Clippers had a tough road trip and some of their more worrying vulnerabilities were exposed. But this isn’t panic time. They remain well above .500 and all three losses on the trip came against teams playing impressive basketball. However, the Clippers have been known to fall victim to malaise, especially at home against middling competition. If this three game losing streak all of the sudden turns into a five game downturn, I won’t be the only one with an itchy finger near the red phone.
To say the Clippers need to “turn things around” would be dramatic—“righting the ship” is a more appropriately mild explanation. Through the first 10 games of the season, the Clippers were doing what they wanted, unencumbered. The offense was molten and the defense stifling. Just about every elite NBA squad came into Staples and fell to Chris Paul and Co. They have the personnel to beat anyone, anywhere, but whether such success results is a matter of strategically deploying them.
In a pregame conversation about Friday’s battle in Brooklyn, Devin Kharpertian (of The Brooklyn Game) asked our very own Charlie Widdoes why the Clippers starting lineup features the one and only Willie Green. Devin’s thinly veiled gem of a question elicited the Bledsoe-based response we’ve all come to expect from Charlie. He righty bemoaned Green and Bledsoe playing virtually identical minutes when one player is so conspicuously more valuable than the other.
The fact of the matter is that the entirety of Clipper Nation would like to see more minutes out of Bledsoe at Green’s expense. Vinny Del Negro’s choice yielded this opening night text from my mom: “Who’s this Green character?” My moribund explanation prompted a follow up text: “Wait, but what about Bledsoe? I loooooove Bledsoe.”
With the imminent return of Chauncey Billups, the very seniority principle that privileged Green over Bledsoe will turn around and privilege Billups over Green. If locker room politics prevent Bledsoe from starting in place of Green, they certainly wouldn’t accommodate for Bledsoe replacing Billups. On the bright side, there is a plausible basketball argument to be made that Bledsoe’s game is best suited at present for heavy minutes while remaining out of the starting lineup.
Over at Hardwood Paroxysm, Ian Levy wrote a wonderful post where he credits Andrei Kirilenko, “a truly universal cog,” for the Timberwolves surprising early success without the likes of Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio. (Without your two best players, 5-4 is indeed a successful start). Levy implicitly frames the discussion as a coach-based one. While Kirilienko was in Utah, he was asked to be a high-usage offensive centerpiece who was frequently asked to score in the post, isos, and coming off of screens. This season, Rick Adelman has identified the extent to which AK could contribute and limited his usage as such. The result has been a ridiculous efficient Kirilenko with his season averages well above his career numbers across the board while, at the same time, lowering his usage rate.
Bledsoe snugly fits Levy’s description of the truly universal cog:
“There are 1,001 ways to construct an NBA roster, but every successful iteration relies heavily on a productive and conducive mix of complementary role players. I’m talking about the cutters, the screeners and the defensive glass cleaners. The players who find their shots in the flow of the offense and keep the wheels turning at the defensive end. Those various skills are usually found in clusters, but it’s rare to find a truly versatile cog, one who can complement just about any set of offensive or defensive gears.”
When Eric Bledsoe steps onto the court, he brings a transformative energy on both ends of the floor that is unmatched in the NBA. His (relatively) controlled chaos consistently stuns defenses, turning them to ball-watchers. A reasonable question is: might that energy appear differently, maybe more benign, if Bledsoe were to log heavy minutes with the starters, or even as a starter?
The shadow of Chris Paul casts an obtrusive darkness over the Bledose situation. Even in today’s NBA characterized by transcendent play at the point, Bledsoe would be starting on the majority of teams today (that subjective statistic is helped by a number of injuries to stellar point guards, but that’s really splitting hairs). Per 82games.com, Bledsoe is far better when he plays the point than when he gets shifted up to the off-guard position. At point guard, Bledsoe has 58% win share and a net +4 per 48 minutes. When playing the two guard, he has a 45% win share and his net offensive and defensive ratings are identical (both at 109.5).
It’s worth noting, that Bledsoe’s offensive PER is much higher when he’s playing out of position . This is likely because Chris Paul accompanies him on the floor in those situations. Bledsoe’s defensive PER, however, is dramatically worse when he’s forced to defend a position up. The only way to solve the paradox of Bledsoe is through creativity, something that has been sorely lacking on the Clippers sideline for years now. As a truly universal cog, if Bledsoe is in the game, he will contribute—either by getting to the rim, creating turnovers and second chances, or just merely pestering opponents with his agility, speed, and strength. But, under only under the most extreme of circumstances is Bledsoe a preferable alternative to an able Chris Paul. Thus we arrive back at Levy’s analysis.
Kirilenko’s efficiency becomes relevant to the Bledsoe discussion if you’re positioned in a coach-centered perspective. Without the distractive powers of Love and Rubio, Adelman was able to get Kirilenko the ball when and where he could be most effective. When it comes to Eric Bledsoe, Vinny del Negro’s choices seem more focused on avoiding locker room backlash than deploying his unique skill set to grind out wins. With the return of consummate veterans Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill, the choices for Vinny del Negro are only going to get tougher.