When Eric Bledose tweeted out “I don’t wanna be here” to describe his distaste for spending his free time at a hair salon, or for his coach being fired depending on who you want to believe, it set in motion the process for him to be traded. Bledsoe moving on from the Phoenix Suns seemed like something that had been in the works for several mounths though and this was simply the situation reaching its breaking point. Naturally when the writing was on the wall, one of those teams the Suns had previously engaged in trade discussions surrounding Bledsoe, the Denver Nuggets, would be part of the rumors to re-engage talks about making a deal.
Chris Haynes of ESPN originally reported at the 2017 NBA draft that the Nuggets had spoken to the Suns about a deal for Bledsoe centered around Emmanuel Mudiay. When Bledsoe and the Suns made it apparent his time in Phoenix was over last week, Michael Scotto of Basketball Insiders reported the Nuggets were again centering an offer for Bledsoe around Mudiay, and also that the deal would include Kenneth Faried. The problem facing the Nuggets at the moment though is Mudiay has strung together a couple of good games which makes some people question whether or not Bledsoe is really that much of an upgrade over the long term. When you dive deeper into the stats, it seems like a very legitimate question to ask.
Mudiay has looked pretty similar at the start of this season to what he has been the past two seasons: a low efficiency score first point guard with ball security and defense issues. Here’s the problem though, Bledsoe in many ways is no different. Last year and so far in this early season Mudiay is averaging 3.1 turnovers per 36 minutes. At his worst, his rookie season, he averaged 3.8. In Bledsoe’s 4 seasons in Phoenix, all of which he was the starter when he was healthy, he averaged 3.6, 3.5, 3.7 and 3.7 turnovers per 36 minutes. In his brief tenure this season that number jumped to 4.3 so any idea that Bledsoe will somehow curb the ball security issues the Nuggets have with Mudiay is simply not true.
Where Bledsoe does make a marked improvement from Mudiay is in scoring. While in Phoenix he has been largely relied on as the number one option in their offense, at least until Devin Booker became a legit scoring option. In general terms, you can count on Bledsoe to get you an extra 5 or so points per 36 minutes than you can with Mudiay. The differences are similar when comparing Bledsoe to Jamal Murray as well. However the problem is that Bledsoe has made hay being the primary ball handler and initiator on an otherwise fairly depleted Suns roster, at least in terms of offensive fire power. In Denver its probably unlikely that he will get 84.2% of his shots from either pull ups off the dribble or drives to the lane like he did last season. While he’s on okay catch and shoot player, Bledsoe by far operates more on ball, evidenced by the fact that over 70% of his attempts last season came after a minimum of two dribbles. It’s a fairly reasonable assertion to make that in a less point guard dominated offense and when equalized for minutes, Bledsoe actually wouldn’t contribute any more to the offense than what Denver already gets out of Murray and Mudiay.
However, on the defensive end is where Bledsoe in theory would make a much bigger impact. When he came to Phoenix he was known primarily for his ability to defend opposing point guards, using his strength and quickness to relentlessly hound the man across from him. Unfortunately, since being in Phoenix, Bledsoe’s effectiveness on defense has been much more limited. While catch all defensive stats are flawed, there’s still something illuminating in the fact that Bledsoe’s defensive RPM has fallen every year in Phoenix. In Bledsoe’s first year with the Suns he recorded a defensive RPM of 3.47, good for best in the league at the one. Last season? -0.64, which put him 37th among point guards. It should be noted this is still far and away better than where Mudiay ended up, but Bledsoe hasn’t been the defensive player he was in the past.
For Denver, the question has to be whether or not Bledsoe would get back to being a great defender and less turnover prone if he wasn’t relied on as much to be the primary creator on offense. One has to imagine his efficiency will see a bump if he plays next to Nikola Jokic and he’d be able to expend much less energy on that end which would allow him to renew his focus on defense. However, for a player who so publicly has asked to be dealt, one also has to wonder if the hopes that he will lock in as a team first guy once he’s moved could be just that, hopes. After all, next season he’s going to be in a contract year, how willing will he be to forego touches in the name of “team basketball?”
Perhaps though the most important question is will a slight bump in play now be worth potentially damaging the long term success of Mudiay and/or Murray. A deal for Bledsoe would virtually guarantee Mudiay being part of the package and also would virtually guarantee Murray going back to the bench. After last night’s 26 point explosion, it seems awfully risky to relegate a guy like Murray back to the bench, even if he’s been underwhelming before last night. Jamal may end up being nothing more than a 6th man, scoring off the bench type, but it would be foolish to think he doesn’t have a ceiling that exceeds Bledsoe’s. At the same time, players are far less likely to ascend to that type of level once they’ve been in the league for four years so taking on Bledsoe and the two years remaining on his deal could severely cap Jamal’s ceiling.
Ultimately the decision will come down to this: how desperate are the Nuggets to make the playoffs this season? While most assume their current roster will get it done, its anything but a sure bet and if the first week of the season is any indication, it’ll be the point guard play that will cause them to come up short if they do. Make no mistake, right here, right now, Bledsoe is better than either Mudiay or Murray and represents an immediate upgrade. However, that upgrade may only last a season or two. So, for the Nuggets they have to decide if the near future outweighs the long term future. I’m not so sure that answer is yes.