Los Angeles Clippers guard Eric Bledsoe is an offensively potent, ever-improving defensive wunderkind. The 6-foot-3 hybrid guard caused major havoc during last year’s Clippers playoff series with the Memphis Grizzlies, he’s dominated Grizzlies guard Mike Conley through each of their regular-season showings, and he was masterful in the fourth quarter of Los Angeles’ Game 1 win on Saturday — scoring 13 points on 6 for 6 shooting, with six rebounds and four assists to zero turnovers during the quarter. Conley played fewer than four minutes in that quarter as Los Angeles romped.
To hear Clipper All-Star point guard Chris Paul tell it, performances like these are why Bledsoe won’t be long for Los Angeles. Paul said as much on Sunday while hinting toward his own status as a future Clipper, in an interview with Arash Markazi of ESPN Los Angeles:
"Bled is one of the best guards in our league," Paul said after practice Sunday. "I've said it all season long. I'm enjoying playing with him right now because there's no way he can be here next year because we probably won't have enough money to pay him. He should be a starting point guard in this league next year."
Bledsoe is actually under contract for next season at $2.6 million, but Paul's words may be the clearest indication yet that he fully intends to sign the five-year, $108 million contract extension the Clippers plan to offer him in the offseason. He knows as long as he is the Clippers' point guard, there simply is no room for Bledsoe.
I like Arash quite a bit, and certainly understand that Paul’s basketball know-how far exceeds mine. With that in place … how is there no room for Bledsoe on a Clippers team already featuring Paul?
In basketball terms, Bledsoe is not an obvious replacement for Paul. Though he’s certainly a starting-caliber guard and one that can be counted on to mix his scoring and playmaking instincts, Bledsoe is often at his best cutting away from the ball and looking to score. This was on brilliant display against the Grizzlies on Saturday, as Bledsoe basically turned a close game into a blowout just because of his activity. While paired with fellow point men Paul and Chauncey Billups, no less.
Markazi points out that the Clippers could be stacked once again in the backcourt in 2013-14, with Bledsoe sharing minutes with Jamal Crawford, Billups (who wants to return for a full, healthy season) and potentially Willie Green. Paul, for one, likes the chemistry the crew has with one another:
"It gives you almost like a three-headed monster," Paul said. "It almost took me back to my college days [at Wake Forest] when I was with Justin Gray and Taron Downey. Bled's that blur. He probably runs faster than me and Chauncey put together. And me and Chauncey are a little more crafty and things like that. ... I think it gave us a little more versatility. They didn't know who to guard."
The problem with all of this is that, as Markazi mentions, nobody should be talking about 2013-14. The crew is all coming back for that season, and Bledsoe is under contract. Though the Clippers have entertained trade offers for Bledsoe in the past, they’d be making a massive mistake in dealing their versatile young guard for fears that he’ll walk as a restricted free agent in 2014.
And not just because Paul might leave as a free agent this summer. In discussing his future with a Bledsoe-less Clipper team on Sunday, Paul just about confirmed what we have long assumed. He can make more money with the Clippers as a free agent this summer than any other team, and the Clippers have a promising future ahead of them with Paul at the wheel — so Paul will more than likely stay in Los Angeles. This is also probably the case for Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard, as what could be one of the more star-studded free-agent classes of all time could be reduced to a sub-standard one with Paul and Howard sticking around.
Because of that, teams will overpay to lure players away from their incumbent teams, which is probably what crossed Paul’s mind when he misspoke about the Clippers not being able to pay Bledsoe a fair deal for “next year.”
Good thing it’s not “next year.” The first year of any new Bledsoe contract will take place in 2014-15, as Eric is a restricted free agent in 2014. The Clippers have placed themselves in an enviable position during that offseason, even with DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin’s contracts taking up $26 million that season. If Paul signs the reported five-year, $108 million deal he’s been offered, then the Clippers will have plenty of wiggle room under the luxury tax to deal for players at the 2014 trade deadline, while saying goodbye to current contributors that will be aging and getting on in years by 2014: Crawford, Billups, Caron Butler and Lamar Odom, to name a few.
There’s room to work, here, even if the Clippers have to match yet another eight-figure contract for Bledsoe’s services. And after nearly 20 years of skirting the minimum salary line and relying on rookie contracts prior to 2004, Clippers owner Donald Sterling should have plenty of reasons to spend that sort of cash for a team that will be earning heaps of playoff game revenue on top of that sweetheart deal Sterling has with the Staples Center.
The only thing getting in the way would be Bledsoe’s distaste for coming off the bench, which would be totally understandable. It’s true that a Clippers team under Paul’s guidance has championship potential, and that Bledsoe will get plenty of time to shine when Chris misses his usual five to 10 games a year, but it’s completely within the realm of reason that Bledsoe would want to head elsewhere to try leading a team on his own for about the same price the Clippers would pay him. And if you think that’s selfish, look at your own job status and wonder if you would do the same in order to be The Guy.
The Clippers can be His Team, though, if they follow through and make smart moves leading up to his turn as a restricted free agent in 2014. Cherish your time working with Eric Bledsoe, Chris Paul, but not for the reasons you listed on Sunday. The Clippers have the means to bring Bledsoe back.