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Tuesday, July 2, 2013
Setting Eric Bledsoe free

By Kevin Arnovitz

After three seasons of healthy debate about Eric Bledsoe’s potential, the NBA marketplace has now given us an appraisal of the electric 23-year-old guard. In exchange for Bledsoe and a second-round draft pick, the Clippers fill both of their wing positions (with J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley) and unload a weighty contract (Caron Butler’s $8 million salary).

The Clippers scored, but for a segment of their fans, Bledsoe’s departure to Phoenix comes with a tinge of sadness. Bledsoe was a cult hero in Los Angeles and for hoop junkies everywhere. He elevated risk to an art form and was the most entertaining sideshow at Staples Center. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin will always provide thrills, but we come to expect transcendence from superstars.

Bledsoe was another thing entirely -- a sinewy bundle of chaos whose whole game was predicated on the element of surprise. Already, Bledsoe is a top five on-ball perimeter defender, a one-man press who can slice a 24-second possession in half. He’s the most dangerous shot-blocking guard since Dwyane Wade, and with a few more reps could become one of the fastest end-to-end guards in the league with the ball.

Bledsoe isn’t without imperfections. Although he improved both his 3-point shot and turnover rates considerably last season, he’s still not a player you want to see rise and shoot off the bounce -- or even the catch most nights -- nor is he a born distributor. The ball pressure is nasty, but Bledsoe’s aggression can occasionally cost him defensively off the ball.

For Bledsoe’s cultists, these shortcomings were merely a byproduct of Bledsoe’s unruly style, collateral damage that could be easily tolerated. His trajectory was too promising, his game too infectious to be bothered all that much. Teammates named him “Mini LeBron,” and Chris Paul’s dad called him “Little Hercules.” He’s one of those head-and-heart players who appeals to both stat geeks and the aesthetes.

Bledsoe’s skill set has never conformed to classic standards, and he could never earn the complete trust of Vinny Del Negro, a coach with conventional definitions of what it means to be an NBA shooting guard. Bledsoe doesn’t space like a traditional 2, but he and Paul were wildly successful as a tandem last season, scoring 115.9 points per 100 possessions while giving up 104.7.

This is why there remains a segment of Bledsoe devotees who believe that the team’s shooting-guard-of-the-future has been wearing a Clippers jersey since he was drafted No. 18 overall in the 2010 draft.

In the end, Bledsoe was set free. This is what he’s wanted for the past nine months and it's easy to understand why. When the Clippers and Paul consummated their future plans on Monday, it signaled Bledsoe’s inevitable goodbye.

By liberating Bledsoe, the Clippers land their starting shooting guard and small forward in one stroke. The Clippers ranked fourth in offensive efficiency in 2012-13, so it’s easy to overstate the problems, but spacing in the half court remained an issue. Center DeAndre Jordan has no range away from the hoop, while Griffin works best as an attacker, even as he has improved his midrange shot.

With Redick and Dudley, Paul has two proficient targets on a drive-and-kick. By extending the floor, Redick and Dudley give Griffin more room to operate down low and make life tougher for defenses that want to slough off Jordan. Dudley and Redick are solid system defenders and two players who invite accountability. Both want their minutes, but those calls aren't disruptive demands so much as expressions of confidence. Shooters can be like that.

The renovation isn’t cheap for the Clippers. The move places them up against a hard cap, with only a midlevel exception, a $1.6 million trade exception and minimum offers remaining in their quiver. But that’s the price of contention, and the Clippers are clearly serious.

For the Benevolent Order of Bledsoe in Los Angeles, the price is more psychic: They’ll never experience the magic of a full-time Paul-Bledsoe backcourt.