Improving With Nothing

February 13, 2013

By Fred Katz

 

How quickly we forget.

Chris Paul is going to stay in Los Angeles, right? That’s what all the rumblings say. He lives in L.A. His family likes it there. He won’t be able to find a roster better suited for him. That’s all part of the logic going into the conventional wisdom that Paul is all but signed to a long-term deal with the Clippers.

 

It makes sense. All of that information is true. Paul does like Los Angeles. So does his family. And is he really going to find a better running mate than Blake Griffin?

 

But historical patterns are patterns for a reason. They don’t happen just once and decision makers have to learn from the past. So before the Clippers trade away Eric Bledsoe for an offensive-minded small forward or a big man than can create better spacing, let’s remember Elton Brand.

 

Brand was a Clipper for seven years. He was the heartbeat of the franchise, someone who the Clippers were willing to overpay because he was worth it to them. He would team up with Baron Davis and the Clips would be a force in the West.

 

How hilarious does that idea sound now? That was the dream for Clipper fans then, but like most Clipper dreams, it stayed a fantasy.

 

After so much hope (and a reported handshake deal to stay in L.A.), Brand bolted for Philadelphia, leaving the Clippers with a future that included a malcontent Davis and a string of 50-loss seasons.

 

Brand isn’t a bad guy. Neither is Paul. In fact, Paul is the polar opposite of that. He’s a wonderful teammate and one of the smarter players and people in the NBA. But he’s also a human being and human beings change their minds (see: Elton Brand). And because of that, the Clippers absolutely can’t trade away their one safety net: Eric Bledsoe.

 

In the first 54 games of his third NBA season, we’ve seen what Bledsoe can do. He’s powerful and quick on the offensive end and his on-ball perimeter defense is already in the elite category. Bledsoe could bring back a huge pull. We’ve already heard Kevin Garnett rumors. We’ve read Danny Granger’s and Paul Pierce’s names. But until Chris Paul puts pen to paper, it would be foolish to get rid of a guard with a future as bright as Bledsoe’s.

 

It’s not just about using Bledsoe as an insurance policy. That’s only part of it. The Clippers have to think of Bledsoe as an asset, which is one of the most essential terms in today’s NBA.

 

In reality, the only asset the Clippers have is Bledsoe, a sometimes-dominant player still running around on a rookie contract. And since the Clippers are over the cap (and probably don’t want to bleed too far into the luxury tax), their only way of getting better is with roster maneuvering. They would need to make trades.

 

Let’s say Gary Sacks and Vinny Del Negro get together and decide it would be best to trade Bledsoe right now. If they bring back a player the caliber of Garnett or Pierce or Granger, they may actually be better this regular season, if only because all three of those guys would contribute more minutes a night than the 18.5 minutes per game that Bledsoe averages when he comes off the bench. 

 

But what happens if that team gets ousted in the first or second round of the playoffs? The West is rough. Those top six seeds are strong – really strong. How do they then convince Chris Paul that they can improve their team?

 

There’s a reason the aforementioned players are available on the trade market: they’re no longer assets. So how would the Clippers improve in the offseason? Really, they couldn’t. There aren’t anymore desirable contracts on that roster.

 

Bledsoe’s trade value is only greatening. If L.A. can make a Butler and Bledsoe for Garnett swap now, it could surely do it this offseason or next year, when Bledsoe’s trade value is just as high (or higher) and Butler’s contract turns into an expiring $8 million deal.

 

Besides, the Clippers ridding themselves of Bledsoe may not even help them this season, even if the exchange is for a seemingly better player. 

 

Sometimes, the best way to improve is by doing nothing.

 

The Clippers play a system in which their backup point guard might be more important than any other backup point guard in the league. That’s not to say Bledsoe is definitively the best second-string one in the game, but he’s probably the most important. 

 

In some ways, Del Negro coaches more like he’s managing a game of hockey than one of basketball. The Clippers have lines, definitive first-string and second-string lineups that fully play together. Vinny begins with the starters and then moves onto the all-bench lineup.

 

That all-reserves line averages playing about eight minutes a night, a sixth of the game and more than any other all-bench lineup in the NBA. It’s about chemistry for them. It’s the Clippers’ second-most-used lineup and one that averages outscoring the opposition by 11.3 points per 100 possessions when Bledsoe is out there with them.

 

But look at what happened when Paul missed a stretch of games over the Clippers’ recent road trip. Bledsoe had to make the jump to play with the starters and he didn’t struggle. In fact, he had some dominant games. But it’s possible – heck, it’s likely – that the deepest bench in the league missed him more than the starters missed Paul.

 

The replacement all-bench lineup, the one that played while Bledsoe started and the one that would play if the Clippers were to rid themselves of Bledsoe, actually got outscored by 0.5 points per 100 possessions while Paul was out. Compare that to the healthy all-bench lineup and that’s a swing of almost 12 points per 100 possessions, the difference between a comfortable win and an uncomfortable loss.

 

It’s not a coincidence and it’s not a case of small sample size. Bledsoe is what makes the second unit tick. It’s a group that thrives when it’s in transition and fast-break offense is all about defensive stops. 

 

There are different types and styles of great defenders. For this particular unit, Bledsoe is the perfect one because so many of the loose balls he causes become live-ball turnovers. That allows this team to get out on the run. It’s a unit that has an 11.7 percent steal rate and an 11.8 percent block rate, two categories Bledsoe contributes to more than any of his teammates. 

 

But the problem is that Bledsoe can’t always make an impact.

 

If the Clips won’t use him for more than 18 to 20 minutes off the bench every night, maybe it makes sense to trade him. He might command a salary of around $10 million per year when he’s a restricted free agent in 2014. Hypothetically, he could be getting more minutes, playing shooting guard and continuing to learn how to play off the ball. After all, one of his best skills is off-ball cutting and that’s something that wouldn’t go to waste when the rock is in the hands of x-ray visionary Chris Paul.

 

But that doesn’t seem like a strategy that the Clippers are interested in employing. Bledsoe has logged only 138 total minutes on the floor with Chris Paul all year and that two-guard lineup has only been used in 24 of the Clippers’ 54 games.

 

If the Clips won’t use him as a shooting guard and also a backup point guard (similarly to how Oklahoma City used James Harden last season), then it’s logical to trade him. You can’t pay that much money to someone who won’t even be given an opportunity to be worth it.

 

But that doesn’t mean there’s a rush. And it doesn’t mean the Clippers need to trade him this season. And it definitely doesn’t mean that trading Bledsoe – even if he brings back someone who is a better player in a vacuum – will make this current Clippers team better.

 

Fred Katz is a weekly columnist for ProBasketballDraft.com. Find more of his work on ClipperBlog.com and RotoWire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.