Once again, the Milwaukee Bucks enter the offseason with a central piece of their core at the epicenter of their postseason failings. Make no bones about it, Eric Bledsoe likely cost the Bucks a shot at the NBA finals, just as his horrific play in 2018 led to a first round ousting by a plucky Celtics squad. His postseason issues will cloud any and all discussions of his past season and fit within this squad going forward. That is fair; when the goal is championship or bust, the narrative around Milwaukee is fittingly changed to playoff matchups rather than regular season success.
And yet, it remains so hard to square Bledsoe’s runaway regular season success with his complete disappearance in the postseason. His skills are liquid; solid in a stable environment, evaporating when the heat is on. Still, for much of last year I considered him Milwaukee’s second-best player. His defensive ability, probably by virtue of the fact its far harder to quantify and analyze, feels like it’s overlooked. He was first team all-defense! The last Bucks guard to reach those honors was Alvin Robertson in the 1990-91 season. Point guard defense may pale in comparison to the impact of centers, but Bledsoe, repeatedly, set the tone on that side of the ball with his dogged pursuit of players around screens. Lest we forget Milwaukee had the best defense in the league. That doesn’t happen with a sieve falling over at the point of attack. With that extended intro, let’s get into it.
Bledsoe’s Boon: Finishing Ability
It gets lost amidst Giannis’ claim to the throne of King of the Paint, but the Milwaukee Bucks boast arguably the best point guard at finishing at the rim too. Together, their potency gave Milwaukee a consistent scoring threat even when they hit a cold spell from beyond the arc. Bledsoe posted the highest effective field goal percentage of his career, per Cleaning The Glass, despite shooting his worst season from three since the 14-15 campaign. There’s some potential for regression there, but as stated before, it’s really his ability at the rim for a 6’1” player that made this season special.
He hit 68% of his shots at the rim, a mark that would rank in the 96th percentile among all point guards. It also came in a year where he reallocated 10% of his midrange shots to ones at the rim. Having nearly 45% of your shots come at the rim for a point guard is pretty difficult for most guards, but Bud’s five-out system allows the lanes to open for a guy like Bledsoe. Too frequently, we saw those get snuffed out the in playoffs, but Bledsoe also showed a little less aggression (only 36% of his playoff attempts came at the rim despite still hitting 68% of them).
To understand just how dominant that figure is, particularly for a guy at Bledsoe’s diminutive size, here’s a chart of the top ten guards by field goal percentage in the restricted area with at least four attempts there per game.
Top 2018-19 Guards Restricted Area FG%
Giannis is the rim king, but Bledsoe makes one fine prince. Runner-up goes to Bledsoe’s ability to recover around screens and chase down shooters from behind. His commitment on that end in tandem with Lopez’s rim protection is what makes Bud’s zone-drop scheme work.
Bledsoe’s Bane: 3-Point Shooting
It continues to be the most salient point when discussing why he may not be an optimum fit next to Giannis. With the Greek Freak’s jumper still under construction, having another non-shooting threat the defense can ignore on the arc can muck up the beautiful spacing Bud’s offense paints on the court. Instead, guards can help in, disrupt Giannis’ ability to drive and smother him on his way to the basket. As stated above, Bledsoe had one of his worst shooting seasons from deep in recent memory. Brian pointed out this excellent bit this past season, but his biggest drop-off came in catch-and-shoot opportunities this past year.
He ended the season at just 29.3% on catch-and-shoot triples, after hitting 39.5% on that same variety last season for Milwaukee. His previous low was 31.5% in 2014-15, his low water mark for 3-point shooting overall among seasons where he was a primary contributor. Granted, it came on slightly fewer attempts, but the more interesting point to me is the fact Bledsoe attempted fewer catch-and-shoot threes in Bud’s offense than the year prior under Jason Kidd (2.5 vs. 3.0). Sure, he takes some ball handling responsibilities and has plenty of opportunities for pull-ups with opponents going under screens. That wound up being his saving grace from deep this season, nailing 38.4% of his 2.1 pull-up 3-pointers per game. Last year, that figure was 25.2% on 1.6 attempts per game. That all feels a little weird, right?
We’re dealing with small samples though, and few categories have higher variance than 3-point shots. I’m inclined to believe those two categories may revert closer to mean values this next season. Even with last year being his lowest usage percentage since his third season, I wouldn’t be surprised if he backs off the pull-ups a smidge next season in favor of nailing catch-and-shoot triples from Giannis and co. The reality is, those shots will be there for him all season and into the playoffs. One needs to hope he doesn’t find himself in the same abhorrent slump he faced last May.
Does Bledsoe Belong?
This is the 4-year, $70M question. Poll all of Bucks fandom, and I think you’d get wildly different answers. Some would point to his defensive ability, and continue to have faith the playoff jitters can’t be nearly as bad as this past year. Others would say that was all the evidence we needed; He’s an 82-game player, not a 16-game player, as Draymond Green might say.
I stand with the former. Without a doubt, him turning into a rotten pumpkin during the playoffs has been a primary part of why they’ve lost these past two years. Still, I think every benefit of his game is getting relatively washed away in the aftermath of that flood Toronto wrought upon Bledsoe. As a whole, Bledsoe still boasted a +1.7 on/off net rating differential throughout the entire playoffs. Even against Toronto, his worst series by far, he still had a +2.6 differential. It’s nothing compared to some of Milwaukee’s other starters, and their offense essentially scored at Knicksian levels with him out there, but the Bucks still maintained a positive point differential due to a stout defense. Outside of perhaps his equal, Patrick Beverley, I’m not sure there’s a better point-of-attack defender in the league. Offensively, the Raptors got into his head.
I think about Kyle Lowry. A player who went through the ringer, branded as a playoff choke artist as the Raptors flamed out year-after-year. Then this year happened. Yes, he’s a far more competent shooter than Bledsoe. Teams don’t shift what they do as dramatically because of him. But he’s also gone through plenty of cold spells in the past. Small sample sizes are an inherent part of playoff basketball. If I were a betting man, I’d say Bledsoe won’t hit 17.2% of his 3-point attempts in a Conference Finals series, should Milwaukee reach it. I’m not above shipping Bledsoe out come September when he’s trade eligible for the right piece, but after the gaudy point guard deals doled out this summer, I’d say he’s a relative bargain.
Eventually, you may need a headstone for my grave atop Bledsoe Bluff. For now, I still feel comfortable setting up camp there.