Eric Bledsoe has redefined the playbook for disgruntled players looking for a trade to a winning team. The saga that began with his infamous “I Dont wanna be here” tweet and involved one of the more pathetic excuses in sports history (he later told Suns general manager Ryan McDonough that he was tweeting about his intolerance of hair salons) has ended after only 17 days. On Tuesday morning, news broke that he was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks for center Greg Monroe and a pair of 2018 protected draft picks (a first and a second). Will this be enough to vault the Bucks to the top of a strange Eastern Conference?
Don’t be so quick to proclaim Bledsoe, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton the NBA’s newest Big Three. While the presence of Bledsoe will lessen the tremendous load on Antetokounmpo, who has the third-highest usage rate in the league, he will still need to prove that he can hit threes at a decent rate to preserve the Bucks’ spacing. Both players are below-average shooters from long distance, and it will take some time for them to learn how to play around this issue.
The Bucks have been tinkering with the starting center spot, which was Thon Maker’s for the first seven games of the season and John Henson’s the last three. Regardless of who Jason Kidd ends up sticking with, a lineup of Bledsoe, Tony Snell, Middleton, Antetokounmpo and Maker/Henson feels like it could be devastating. Although we didn’t see much defensive effort from him in Phoenix (which is hard to blame him for, considering the Suns demonstrated no interest in winning), if he can show that he is still an elite point guard defender and if either Maker or Henson can develop into a quality rim protector, the Bucks could have a first-class defense, come playoffs.
Their bench also stays more or less intact after the trade. They were able to obtain Bledsoe without giving up last year’s Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon (who the Suns should have demanded). Beyond that, the combination of Maker, Henson, Mirza Teletovic and the hopefully smooth return of silky-scoring forward Jabari Parker should be able to make up for Monroe’s lost minutes.
The Bledsoe acquisition does not change the fact that the Cleveland Cavaliers remain the No. 1 team in the East, even if they are playing like a struggling lottery team right now. With losses to the Nets, Pelicans, Knicks, Pacers and Hawks and wins against both the Wizards and the Bucks in their last seven games, it is clear that they are having trouble finding motivation to compete in most of their games after three consecutive finals. Let’s give LeBron James the benefit of the doubt and accept that they will be the favorites in the Eastern Conference finals no matter who they face. This team will also look radically different towards the end of the season, as they are waiting on the January return of All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas after having the whole year to tinker with their lineups. But if Antetokounmpo sustains this MVP-level of play and Bledsoe contributes in the way that he should, then by no means would a Bucks playoff defeat against the Cavs be a foregone conclusion.
In the wake of losing All-Star forward Gordon Hayward for the year in their first game, the Boston Celtics are defying all expectations, sitting at 9-2 atop the East. Kyrie Irving is excelling as “the man” in Brad Stevens’ system and learning to be less of a ball-stopper, averaging less than five seconds per touch so far. They are the sixth-youngest team in the league, with both sophomore Jaylen Brown and rookie Jason Tatum starting and featuring heavily in the offense. Despite all this youth, inexperience and a lack of proven big men (only Al Horford and Aron Baynes), they have had the NBA’s best defense rating (95.6) through 11 games.
The Bucks with Bledsoe will have roughly the same amount of talent as the Celtics with one condition: If Parker can come back from injury and reliably anchor their second-unit. Bledsoe will give the Bucks’ point guard position a physicality that they did not have with Brogdon and Matthew Dellavedova — which will help when trying to contain Irving in the playoffs. If a couple things go right for Milwaukee, they could reasonably stay even with Boston in terms of playoff strength, if not surpass them.
Although the Washington Wizards have had an uninspiring 5-5 start to the season, they still are an upper-class team in the Eastern Conference that the Bucks will be challenged by. Other than Bradley Beal’s hot start (25.7 points per game), the most positive takeaway for the Wizards so far is the much improved play of Kelly Oubre Jr. His 49 percent shooting from 3 will certainly regress to the mean, but if he can stay an above-average shooter, Washington will finally have at least one positive player coming off the bench who they can rely on in the playoffs to complement their fantastic starting lineup.
Although the Bucks have more talent than the Wizards because of their solid depth (one of Henson/Maker, Dellavedova, Teletovic, Parker, Brogdon), the Wizards have more star power in Beal and John Wall. Even so, history has shown us that the Wizards have not yet figured out how to win with a poor bench. I expect the addition of the Bledsoe to make Milwaukee a slightly stronger playoff team than the Wizards.
Bledsoe makes the Milwaukee a legitimate contender in the East. With Cleveland struggling and Boston without arguably their best player, anything could happen for these young Bucks.
Dev Navani writes for Bear Bytes, the Daily Californian’s sports blog. Contact him at [email protected].