Goran Dragic is having an MVP-caliber season. He’s shattered his career high in PER, posting a 21.78 rating as of today; he has a 61% true shooting percentage, tops in the league amongst starting point guards; he has the 8th best offensive Real Plus-Minus in the NBA (+4.50), ranking him slightly behind Damian Lillard and ahead of Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Love; the Suns’ offense scores 110.6 points per possession with Dragic on the floor (a tick above Miami’s league leading offense) and just 100.1 points per 100 possessions with him on the bench (a mark that would rank 6th worst in the league); and most impressively, he’s carried the Suns into the playoff picture despite pre-season forecasts that put in the Suns in contention for the number one overall pick and a two month absence from Eric Bledsoe.
What’s more, he may not even be the best player on his own team.
There’s no denying that Dragic has been the Suns’ leader this season, but in the long run, it‘s likely that Bledsoe will be Phoenix’s max player. It’s not a him-or-me situation with these two natural point guards, though. In the 36 games they’ve played together this season, Dragic and Bledsoe have shared the floor for 821 minutes, during which the Suns have played excellent basketball. With Dragic and Bledsoe on the floor, the Suns are scoring 108.8 points per 100 possessions, which would rank fourth in the league over the course of a full season, while surrendering just 97.7 points per 100 possession on the other end, ranking them near Chicago’s defense this season (2nd overall).
Bledsoe and Dragic are both aggressive players and effective scorers, but because Dragic has developed into a great spot-up shooter (he leads the team in catch and shoot eFG% at 64.3%), he’s been able to seamlessly shift into an off guard that gives the Suns’ tremendous spacing whilst having the ability to run secondary pick-and-rolls against bent defenses. And though Dragic is a bit undersized for a two guard, the Suns have more than survived in spite of any mismatches on both ends of the floor.
Phoenix did not expect to be in the position they are in right now — locked in a three-team race for the final two playoff spots with a week left in the season — but as a small consolation prize for the top-five pick they lost out on once Jeff Hornacek’s group decided they were going to go all out for a post-season spot, the Suns have learned a lot about their team this season, thanks in large part to Hornacek’s free flowing spread offense that induces flashbacks to the Nash and D’Antoni days in the Valley of the Suns.
The Morris twins have both made strides as players, with Markieff having a legitimate case for the 6th Man of the Year Award; Gerald Green may be the league’s most improved player, growing into a legitimate rotation player with an NBA Jam-like ability to get hot from deep; P.J. Tucker has developed an accurate three-point shot from the corners, helping him become a more well-rounded player. And, most importantly, the symbiotic relationship that Bledsoe and Dragic have developed has helped Phoenix solidify their core.
And with three first round draft picks (their own as well as Washington and Indiana’s first round selections) and some cap space to work with once they extend Bledsoe this off-season, the Suns are looking at a bright future.
Eric Bledsoe may have the best nickname in the league. It’s not exactly clever and it doesn’t roll off of the tongue, but in terms of what the nickname actually means, you can do worse than “mini-LeBron.” Bledsoe’s former teammate Jamal Crawford gave him the moniker back in 2012, and before you brush it off as an exaggeration, know that LeBron himself embraced the nickname, referring to Bledsoe as “Baby LeBron” as they chatted after a Clippers-Heat game that season. Though they were friends far before Crawford made the comparison, who knows if Bledsoe would have found himself in one of LeBron’s Samsung commercials if we were calling him “EB” instead.
While putting “mini” in front of something may generally have a negative connotation, the only implication it has here has to do with Bledsoe’s size, not his production or skill level. And it’s true: Bledsoe is a chiseled box score stuffer with out of this world athletic talent, or what LeBron would be were he compressed to fit a point guard’s paradigm. Bledsoe’s even experiencing the same growing pains that LeBron did during his first years in the league, having to adjust to defenses that compensate for their inability to contain his speed and strength by playing off of him and forcing him to shoot jumpshots. To Bledsoe’s credit, he has been an improved and more comfortable shooter this season, knocking down 40% of his mid-range shots and 34% of his threes (on 3.3 attempts per game).
Those aren’t great numbers, but they culminate in a career high 57.1% true shooting percentage (up from 51.3% last season) for Bledsoe, good for sixth in the league amongst starting point guards. Given that true shooting percentage gives more weight to three-point shots and free throws, two areas where Bledsoe is below average amongst his peers, it’s impressive that he ranks as highly as he does. He evades those parameters by being so efficient at the rim. Even as teams scheme to prevent him from getting penetration, Bledsoe is still very good at getting into the lane, and he’s even better at finishing. He’s shooting 63.4% in the restricted area this season, the third best figure in the league amongst point guards with at least 150 field goal attempts at the rim behind Dragic (1st at a ridiculous 67.8%) and John Wall.
Bledsoe did a great job picking Chris Paul’s brain during his time with the Clippers, and he’s implemented some of those nifty hesitation fakes that make Paul a terror to deal with into his own game. And while CP3 is a tough son of a gun, he isn’t the physical or athletic freak that Bledsoe is, and the combination of speed and strength that Bledsoe unleashes on his treks to the rim make it extremely tough for defenses to stop him. Bledsoe also has a great touch off the backboard with his lay-ups, a fundamental skill that even some of the game’s most graceful athletes like Paul George or Damian Lillard don’t always master. According to SportVu data hosted on NBA.com, the Suns are scoring 8.8 points per game on Eric Bledsoe drives, or just a bit less than Miami scores per game on LeBron drives and a bit more than the Rockets score per game when James Harden goes to the basket.
As he’s been given his biggest role to date, Bledsoe is having a career year, posting a career high PER of 19.22 to go along with his career high usage rate. For a player that struggles with his outside shot, it’s a great sign than his increased usage didn’t lead to a dip in efficiency, similar to how players like Monta Ellis (or at least the old Monta Ellis) and Brandon Jennings saw their effectiveness drop when they were put in charge of more possessions. The only thing that Bledsoe lacks when being compared to the elite point guards in the game is a huge assist ratio. Bledsoe isn’t in the top 50 amongst point guards in assist rate this season and even his career best mark in his rookie year was just slightly above average. I don’t see this as an issue, though, because if you view both Bledsoe and Dragic as combo guards that can function as scorers and point guards at any time, and often on the same possession, then neither one of them has to assist on the same percentage of baskets that Chris Paul does. And even with his mediocre assist rate, Bledsoe still ranks higher than noted score-first point guards like Russell Westbrook or Damian Lillard.
While there is always potential for Bledsoe’s numbers to regress next season when his stats will reflect a full 82 game sample, nothing Bledsoe has done in his 39 games this year has seemed fluky or out of the ordinary. If anything, another off-season to work on his game is likely to lead to more improvement for Bledsoe. And that’s scary for the rest of the league. Because at 24, Bledsoe has put per game stats of 18 points, six assists and five rebounds, attacked the rim ferociously and with excellent efficiency and taken the first steps towards an improved jumpshot.
And I haven’t even touched on the most valuable part of his game.
Bledsoe’s physical archetype defies convention. At a stout 6’1″, Bledsoe not only possesses instinctive footwork, supple speed and a celestial vertical, he has disproportionately long arms that bolt onto his broad shoulders, giving him the reach of a swingman. It’d be hard to sculpt a better prototype for a new age NBA point guard. While Bledsoe’s athleticism allows him to do some very valuable things offensively, his defensive prowess as a guard is unparalleled throughout the league.
During a golden age of point guard play, the tangible effects that a point guard can have defensively have been neutered by their supremely talented offensive counterparts. Only a select few lead guards — Chris Paul, Ricky Rubio, Patrick Beverley and Mike Conley — can claim to be above average defenders. The NBA is a pick-and-roll league filled with a plethora of dynamic point guards, so often forcing guard defenders out of the picture and putting the emphasis on the lumbering bigs.
But Bledsoe flips the script. He forces the emphasis on himself, applying pressure to his man at every opportunity, even as he lurks in the passing lanes, praying for the ball to swing his way.
I’ll never forget watching Bledsoe defend Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili during the 2012 Playoffs. The Clippers were totally overmatched in that series in every way, but during the stints when Bledsoe was on the floor, he completely changed the complexion of the game. On one possession he would corral Parker’s dribble with his long arms and impossibly quick feet, the next he would stick with Ginobili throughout all of his quirky dribbles and fakes and force him to fire a fadeaway jumper. And, based on the numbers, he was even better in the Memphis series that season, with the Clippers possessing a stunning +29.2 net rating with Bledsoe on the floor (and a +14.8 net defensive rating).
ESPN’s newly released Real Plus-Minus stat also portrays how valuable Bledsoe is defensively. Bledsoe has a +3.64 DRPM (defined as a player’s estimated on-court impact on team defensive performance, measured in points allowed per 100 defensive possessions), the best mark of any point guard in the league by a big margin. The results don’t change when going by NBA.com’s on-off court data: With Bledsoe on the floor, the Suns give up 100.4 points per 100 possessions compared to a 105.5 defensive rating when sits, making for a +5.1 net defensive rating for Bledsoe.
Bledsoe uses his brawny upper body to ward off dribble penetration, his quick hands to incessantly poke at the ball like a woodpecker on a tree. He uses his quick feet to stick with his man’s each and every dribble, like a drummer that’s in perfect unison with his lead singer. And when opponents try to get a shot off, Bledsoe shoves his Inspector Gadget arms into the air, an overwhelming resistance for just about every point guard in the league, deterring their shot like he’s Serge Ibaka protecting the rim. Bledsoe owns the game’s most terrifying defensive skillset for a point guard since Gary Payton. A few players have been said to have the tools that could one day make them a stopper like Payton — John Wall is a name that comes to mind — but Bledsoe is a first to put those supernatural physical assets and innate defensive instincts to good use.
Even if his offensive growth stalled out, an unlikely occurrence for a 24-year old, Bledsoe would still be a major asset for the way he’s able to hassle opposing guards. Bledsoe is about as big of a difference maker on the defensive end as you’ll find for someone that doesn’t patrol the paint, and it’s hard for me to imagine Bledoe not supplanting his former tutor on the All-Defensive First Team once his reputation catches up to his game.
With four games left in the season, Hollinger’s NBA Playoff Odds give the Suns a 57.1% chance of making the post-season, and it is all likely to come down to the head-to-head matchups that Phoenix has with both the Mavericks and the Grizzlies over the next few days (the Mavericks play the Grizzlies as well). The Suns currently sit in the seventh seed, but their post-season odds are the lowest of the triad because they’ve already lost the season series (and thus the first tiebreaker) to the Grizzlies.
Should Phoenix make the post-season, it will be one of the most remarkable finishes in league history. The Suns will have gone from a team projected to tank for a top pick to a playoff team that’s likely going to make the Spurs fight their way out of the first round (and, based on their regular season meetings, a 2/7 matchup with Thunder would be thrilling television).
But whether or not the Suns make the playoffs this season will wind up being just a footnote in the grand scheme of things. That’s because the sun isn’t set to rise in Phoenix for another couple of years. But when it does, it’ll likely be lifted up on the vast, yet compact, shoulders of Eric Bledsoe.