Eric Bledsoe is better than you think

Stephen Dunn

The Clippers' Eric Bledsoe is in elite company this season in terms of productivity even if he's not a household name.

A little more than a quarter of the way through the season, there are seven players in the NBA with a PER (Player Efficiency Rating) over 24. For the uninitiated, PER is a statistical metric that attempts to distill the full impact of a player taking into account all of their contributions (points, rebounds, assists, and so on) and their mistakes (turnovers, missed shots and so on) on a per minute basis. That is, it doesn't penalize a player simply because they weren't in the game and therefore had no opportunity to contribute the way per game statistics do. PER was developed by John Hollinger, who has written for ESPN for years, until he was hired this week to work in the front office of the Memphis Grizzlies. PER is certainly not a holy grail of NBA statistics and it has some shortcomings (for instance it tends to reward players who have the ball a lot and it can't say much about value on the defensive end), but it is among the more complete measures of total value in basketball, and we can safely assume that at least the Grizzlies if not other teams think that Hollinger is onto something here.

Back to those seven players with a PER above 24. Hollinger normalizes his PER scale to assume that an average NBA player has a PER of 15. A player with a PER below 15 is a below average player, above 15 is an above average player. There's no absolute scale of course, but generally players with PERs above 20 are at least in the conversation for All Star selection, and PERs in the 25 range are reserved for mega-stars.

There are three players from Los Angeles on the list of names currently over 24. One of them is Kobe Bryant, who is having one of his best statistical seasons and has a stellar PER of 25.8 to show for it. Another is Chris Paul, who has always been a darling of the PER metric and currently sports a 25.6 PER through 22 games.

So who is the third Laker and/or Clipper with a PER in the stratosphere? Is it another one of the players currently in position to be voted in as a Western Conference starter in the All Star Game? No. Blake Griffin of the Clippers, the West's likely starting power forward, has a terrific PER of 21.9 while Dwight Howard of the Lakers, the West's de facto starter at center, is at 20.8. And it's not Pau Gasol or Chauncey Billups or any of the other huge names on these high-powered rosters. As you may have guessed from the headline or the picture, Eric Bledsoe, the 23 year old third year guard from the Clippers, has the seventh highest PER in the NBA at 24.4.

Rk

Player

Tm

ORB

DRB

TRB

AST

STL

BLK

TOV

PTS

FG%

3P%

FT%

PER

1

LeBron James

MIA

1.4

6.7

8.1

6.4

1.3

0.7

2.5

24.2

.542

.444

.678

28.8

2

Kevin Durant

OKC

0.6

7.2

7.8

3.9

1.3

1.2

2.9

24.8

.508

.430

.893

28.0

3

Carmelo Anthony

NYK

1.9

4.6

6.5

2.0

0.9

0.6

2.7

28.2

.473

.455

.808

26.1

4

Tim
Duncan

SAS

2.2

9.9

12.1

2.9

1.0

3.0

1.9

21.1

.513

.500

.792

25.9

5

Kobe Bryant

LAL

0.7

4.2

4.9

4.6

1.5

0.2

3.7

27.9

.484

.398

.865

25.8

6

Chris
Paul

LAC

0.6

3.2

3.8

9.8

2.8

0.0

2.4

17.6

.475

.328

.883

25.6

7

Eric Bledsoe

LAC

2.4

3.2

5.6

5.6

3.0

1.4

3.2

19.4

.500

.381

.791

24.4

Note: all statistics are per 36 minutes played.

Let's take a moment to look at that list and let it sink in. As I mentioned, PER is not the be all end all, but it seems to match pretty well with the conventional wisdom on those first six names. Any NBA observer, from the most expert insider to the casual fan, would likely include LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Tim Duncan, Bryant and Paul on their short list of the best players in the game. If this were Sesame Street and Big Bird were asking us which of these things is not like the other, I bet we'd all say Bledsoe.

The other six names on that list have all made multiple All Star teams and multiple All NBA teams. I was going to add up all of the All Star selections for the first six names, but I decided that the math was just too hard. It's a big number. Five of the first six names make at least $17M per season, the exception being Duncan who made $21M last season but re-signed at a reduced rate with the Spurs at the age of 36 in what will no doubt be the final contract of his Hall of Fame career.

Bledsoe is on his rookie contract, making literally one tenth of what the others are making (he's being paid $1.7M this year). He doesn't even start. In fact, he has the misfortune from a playing time standpoint of being the backup to the name just above him on the list. As such, he is currently being limited to 18.5 minutes per game, and that number would be lower had the Clippers' Bledsoe-led second unit not essentially forced coach Vinny Del Negro to leave them on the floor several times this season by putting teams away in the fourth quarter.

It is not a given that a player who is productive in limited minutes would be just as productive in more minutes. Anyone who has watched Bledsoe play knows that his frenetic pace and energy are part of what makes him so special, and it certainly could be that he would find it difficult or impossible to maintain the same level of intensity over 36 minutes per game that he exerts in 18.

Then again, there are many cases of players who demonstrated with their productivity in limited minutes that what they really needed was more minutes. Kevin Love spent his first two seasons in Minnesota coming off the bench and playing fewer than 30 minutes per game, while putting up great PER numbers both years. When he became a full-time starter in his third season, his PER increased.

It's also worth noting that Bledsoe is not necessarily the type of player that PER would overvalue. If anything PER might tend to undervalue him since it has a blind spot on the defensive end, which is where Bledsoe shines the brightest.

It's difficult to express just how unique a player Bledsoe is. At just over 6 feet tall, he averages over five and a half rebounds per 36 minutes second best in the league among point guards. Almost two and a half of those rebounds are on the offensive glass, which is astounding. His offensive rebounding rate (the percentage of offensive rebounds he gets while he's on the floor) would be pretty good for a power forward -- he's a point guard. Look at the table above again. Bledsoe gets more offensive rebounds per 36 minutes than anyone else on the list, including Duncan.

He leads the entire league in steals per minute. He blocks more shots per minute than any player in the league under 6'7 -- he's a 6'1 point guard! Because PER measures total contribution, and because Bledsoe makes significant contributions absolutely everywhere (points, assists, rebounds, steals, blocked shots) it takes a combined metric like PER to really get his value.

But you can see it with your eyes as well. Bledsoe is simply put an athletic freak and at least once a game he does something that will make your jaw drop. For many years Dwyane Wade has been far and away the best shot blocking guard in the NBA -- Bledsoe took the title away from him in the most disrespectful way imaginable earlier this season with a block at the rim.

Should Eric Bledsoe be playing more minutes with the Clippers? In a word, yes. While Chauncey Billups has been out of the lineup Del Negro has been starting Willie Green in order to keep his second unit in tact. But playing Green, who is a nice enough player, 17.6 minutes per game while playing Bledsoe just 18.5 is a waste of resources bordering on the criminal. It's no wonder the Clippers have started slowly so frequently this season only to have their second unit pick up the slack -- that's what happens when you don't start the game with your best players.

Currently Bledsoe is being limited mostly to the backup point guard role, rarely playing at the same time as Paul, which necessarily keeps his playing time down. However, there's nothing precluding Del Negro from playing Paul and Bledsoe together; Bledsoe may not be tall, but his long arms, uncanny strength and defensive prowess allow him to defend the majority of the shooting guards in the league. He's certainly better equipped to defend shooting guards than Green.

Unfortunately the playing time crunch becomes very real when Billups gets back. While it's ludicrous to suggest that Green should ever keep Bledsoe on the bench the same can not be said for Billups. With a healthy Billups, Del Negro will be distributing backcourt minutes to Paul, Billups, Jamal Crawford and Bledsoe -- that's a lot of mouths to feed.

Nonetheless, Bledsoe's minutes will almost certainly increase as the season wears on. Del Negro may get nervous about the chaos Bledsoe creates, but coaches like to win, and slowly but surely Del Negro will recognize that Bledsoe's particular brand of chaos is winning games. After all, how can you keep the seventh best player in the league off the floor?

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