While it's been rumored for many days, the Eric Bledsoe for Paul Millsap trade is still out there on the minds of Jazz and NBA fans alike. That is because the trade makes a lot of sense on the face of it: the Jazz give up an expiring talent to the Clippers for a long-term PG, an established position of need. The Clippers, on the other hand, get a talent upgrade as they fight to establish true contender status.
That being said, questions remain on the Jazz side, questions the Jazz front office will need to have sure answers to in order to make the move. Let's dive into those questions to discover: should the Jazz make the trade?
1. How good can Eric Bledsoe be?
Bledsoe is putting up a good season, no doubt. His 18.9 PER is third on a fantastic Clippers team, and he's led their bench unit to the top performance in the league. In under 22 MPG, he averages 9.6 PPG, and shoots over 42% from three. Also impressive is his defense: he holds opponents to just a 13.6 PER, and averages 1.6 steals and 0.9 blocks per game. This impressive performance comes in his third season, at just age 23.
How did other players turn out who had similar early success? Let's take a search through Basketball Reference. I did a search for other guards who had a PER within 1 point of Bledsoe before the age of 23, it turns out there are 47such players (with over 500 minutes) in NBA history. Here's the full list:
There's a wide variety of players here, and I invite you to draw your own conclusions. My feeling is that his closest comp is Jameer Nelson, who also put up a good season at similar percentages at age 23 in a mostly bench role. The best players on this list, Kobe Bryant, Isiah Thomas, and Derrick Rose, all had their success at an earlier age. On the other hand, a T.J. Ford-esque outcome is possible, but doesn't look particularly likely: that the majority of players on this list are still active is telling.
2. Can Eric Bledsoe be the PG of the future for the Utah Jazz?
The prototype Jazz PG has always been pass-first in style, causing Jazz fans some cognitive dissonance in recent years when Devin Harris and Mo Williams have taken the reigns. To be clear, Bledsoe is very much in the Harris/Williams side of the equation. He averages just 3.3 assists per game, just 5.5 per 36 minutes. Mo Williams career AP36 average is 5.8, Devin Harris' is 6.3. If Jazz fans want to to see a pass-first point guard, the team is trending in the wrong direction.
The more open question is whether or not a pass-first point guard is necessary in an efficient Jazz offense. My feeling is that the abandonment of the pass-first PG is more of a detriment to aesthetics than production; players like Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose have shown the ability to lead top-5 offenses with an emphasis on PG scoring. Even those players, though, are better passers than Eric Bledsoe is.
3. Who makes up the salary gap in the trade?
Of course, a one-for-one Paul Millsap for Eric Bledsoe trade doesn't work under the CBA, as such, the Clippers will need to add significant salary ballast to make the deal work. Jamal Crawford's probably too good to be just a throw in. Lamar Odom is an expiring contract as well, but is terrible, would bring his own unique form of drama to Utah, and comes at a position of relative surplus: even after the trade, Marvin Williams, like Odom is a SF who can play PF if needed. While Odom could give a few minutes per game to the Jazz at PF... they're not likely to be good ones.
The other alternative is Caron Butler, who also has been struggling, albeit not as badly. He's a below-average starter, and quite honestly, would probably simply take minutes that DeMarre Carroll is more qualified to use. Furthermore, his 8 million dollar salary next year would eat into the Jazz capspace planned for that summer, and would mean that the Jazz would likely have 2 completely average SFs locked in for $16 million next year for no particular reason. It wouldn't be pretty.
4. How do the salaries work for the Utah Jazz long-term?
This also becomes a little bit interesting: acquiring Bledsoe would mean three young starting-quality players (Favors, Hayward, and Bledsoe) to go on the restricted free agent market together during the same summer. While the Jazz would likely have the ability to resign all three without going over the luxury tax line (contingent on what they do with Al Jefferson), it's then more unclear if Kanter and Burks could be resigned the following summer. Of course, this is largely dependent on each player's individual development. This, though, may be the proverbial "good problem to have"; even if the Jazz had to lose one of those players for luxury tax reasons (a la the Oklahoma City Thunder), they could make a trade for some significant assets for the latter half of this decade.
5. Will Paul Millsap resign with the Utah Jazz?
This is the hardest question, and the one Jazz fans have the least information about. Paul Millsap is an incredibly good player, I think he's significantly underrated. His +/- numbers are fantastic, his standard numbers show great efficiency, and his steals and rebounding provide extra possessions for the Jazz. Naturally, keeping a player like Millsap would make the Jazz more likely to win games in the future.
The uncertainty, though, comes in when considering what Millsap is likely to make in this open market, when many teams have cap space to use; would Millsap be worth the money he'd be given? To me, he's such a good player, and still underrated, that it's hard to believe he wouldn't be. In this post, I argued that he'd be worth at least a $10 million per year deal, I think he'd likely get more.
And then: does Millsap want to stay in Utah? Signs point in both directions: there's some indication that he might not love a shared role with Derrick Favors down the road, but he currently seems to enjoy playing with Jefferson, and has played in Utah his entire career. He's recently started a Twitter account and done an impressively thorough Jazz gear giveaway. Perhaps he's trying to raise his value to the Jazz organization?
Whatever the reason, this is the most important question to answer for the Jazz. If there's a 70% chance of keeping Millsap, I don't think it makes sense to do this deal: Bledsoe is too questionable a long-term fit to make it worth that risk. On the other hand, if there's only a 30% chance of keeping Millsap, it probably makes sense to acquire some long-term value before it's too late. By Tuesday's end, we'll know a lot more about the Jazz' estimation of the likelihood of Millsap's departure.