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Does Eric Bledsoe Complete the Bucks’ Puzzle?

Milwaukee is struggling, and the disgruntled Suns guard could be the shot of adrenaline the team needs to reemerge as an Eastern elite

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Eric Bledsoe and the Bucks need each other. Milwaukee traded for the disgruntled point guard on Tuesday, giving up Greg Monroe, a 2018 first-round pick, and a 2018 second-round pick, both protected. Bledsoe needs a fresh start after a messy exit from Phoenix. The Bucks need more talent around Giannis Antetokounmpo. It’s a perfect marriage on paper. A healthy and motivated Bledsoe will instantly improve his new team, and after missing the playoffs during four seasons with the Suns, this is his first opportunity in his eight-year NBA career to play a big role on a contender. Both sides have a lot to prove. If this doesn’t work, more change could be coming in Milwaukee.

Bledsoe played in only three games for the Suns this season before being sent away from the team because he tweeted that he wanted to leave. He’s still a very effective player: He averaged 21.1 points, 6.3 assists, and 4.8 rebounds per game on 43.4 percent shooting last season. Bledsoe gives the Bucks another perimeter player who can create his own shot and be the focal point of the offense. He’s the best guard Giannis has ever played with. He can penetrate, draw fouls, finish at the rim, and kick the ball out when the defense collapses on him. Bledsoe and Antetokounmpo could form an intriguing pick-and-roll combination, especially given how much 3-point shooting the Bucks can put around them.

How will Bledsoe adjust to a smaller role in the Bucks offense, where he won't be able to dominate the ball? That's the central question the Bucks will have to answer. Giannis is the point guard in Milwaukee, and he's averaging 31 points per game on 58.3 percent shooting; it doesn't make sense to take the ball out of his hands. Most of the players who surround Antetokounmpo on any given possession are good 3-point shooters who threaten defenses off the ball. Bledsoe hasn't shown the ability to do either consistently. Bledsoe learned at the feet of Chris Paul, but he’s not going to be able to survey the floor and pound the ball into the ground next to Giannis. Coach Jason Kidd will have to figure out how to use Bledsoe as a cutter and add more off-ball action into his offense to keep him involved.

Bledsoe could make their starting lineup less effective. The Bucks are third in the NBA in 3-point percentage this season in large part because they put three or four good shooters around Giannis. Bledsoe will replace either Malcolm Brogdon, who has taken another big step forward in his second season, or Tony Snell, who has embraced his role as a 3-and-D wing. Kidd recently benched Thon Maker for John Henson, and a lineup with Bledsoe, Giannis, and Henson could struggle to space the floor. Maker is Milwaukee’s only big man who can shoot 3s and defend, and if the 20-year-old isn’t ready for a bigger role, Kidd may need to think outside the box. One fascinating lineup he could close games with is Giannis at the 5 next to Khris Middleton, Snell, Brogdon, and Bledsoe.

The real benefit of adding Bledsoe will come from the resulting domino effect. The absence of Monroe, who has been both injured and ineffective this season, and Jabari Parker, who is out until at least the All-Star break with a torn ACL, has exposed Milwaukee’s lack of depth. The Bucks have a net rating of plus-11 in the 239 minutes that Giannis and Middleton have played together. The 26.6 minutes per game that Antetokounmpo and Middleton spend on the floor together isn't significantly less than the 26.9 minutes that Steph Curry and Kevin Durant spend together, but there is a distinct difference between the Bucks and the Warriors. Golden State is much deeper than Milwaukee, so coach Steve Kerr doesn’t need to stagger the minutes of his stars so that one is always in. Kidd doesn’t have that luxury. The team has been horrible when either Giannis or Middleton is out. It has a net rating of minus-22.2 in the 105 minutes that Middleton has sat, and a net rating of minus-15.8 in 100 minutes without Giannis.

Bledsoe could also improve the Bucks on defense. Despite having as much length and athleticism as any team in the NBA, they have the 25th-rated defense. The issue is not their starters. They have defended well in lineups with either Maker (defensive rating of 102.7 in 82 minutes) or Henson (101.9 in 69 minutes) at the 5. Things get ugly as soon as Kidd goes to his bench. Matthew Dellavedova hasn’t been the same since leaving LeBron James. Rashad Vaughn has had a net rating of at least minus-6.7 in his three seasons in Milwaukee. Mirza Teletovic is one of the slowest players in the league.

How much Bledsoe will help, though, depends on what version of him the Bucks are getting. He was one of the best defensive players in the league when he was backing up Paul in his first few seasons with the Clippers. However, in five years in Phoenix, his defense slipped while his offensive role increased, and a series of knee injuries have sapped some of his explosiveness. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, Bledsoe was in the 13th percentile of NBA players in defending the ball handler in the pick-and-roll last season, the 46th percentile as an isolation defender, and the 25th percentile in defending players as they come off screens.

It’s hard for veterans on rebuilding teams to play good defense. Even if Bledsoe had been totally locked in on that side of the ball, he was playing with a bunch of young guys who were learning their assignments and couldn’t help him when his man beat him. There’s only so much a guard can accomplish on defense if three of the guys behind him don’t know what they are doing. It was easier for Bledsoe to save his energy for the offensive side of the floor, maintain his individual numbers, and wait for the chance to play for a better team. He has finally gotten that chance, and he should be motivated to show what he can do now that he is playing big minutes on a playoff contender.

Either way, Bledsoe can’t fix all of Milwaukee’s defensive problems. The rest of the NBA has figured out Kidd’s hyperaggressive scheme. After finishing with the no. 2 rated defense in the NBA in his first season as head coach, the Bucks slipped to 22nd the following season and were 19th last season. Under Kidd, the Bucks have consistently allowed the shot that most defenses try to take away: the corner 3. In each of the last three seasons, they have been in the bottom two in the league in terms of percentage of corner 3s given up. Part of the problem are reserves who can’t move fast enough to prevent open looks, but a coach also has to change his game plan to fit what his players can do well.

Kidd won’t be the only one feeling the pressure in Milwaukee. Small-market franchises with transcendent superstars don’t have a very large margin for error. The Bucks can’t afford to make any mistakes. After spending the last four seasons in relative obscurity in Phoenix, Bledsoe will be playing under a microscope. If he doesn’t improve his effort on defense and he struggles with a smaller role on offense, everyone will know about it. He is a 27-year-old with a history of knee issues who relies on his athleticism. Eric Bledsoe has waited his entire career for a chance to make a splash. He may not get another.