- While Giannis Antetokounmpo is the leader of the Bucks and arguably the frontrunner for MVP, Eric Bledsoe has set the pace for Milwaukee this year.
As of this week, the Milwaukee Bucks have the best record in basketball. They have the league’s best net rating, the fourth-best offensive rating, and the best defensive rating. None of this is a small-sample oddity or a cute success story anymore; the Bucks are elite. One of the most remarkable stats of the season is that Milwaukee hasn't lost back-to-back games all season long.
"We've mentioned it once or twice," Coach Mike Budenholzer said of that back-to-back stat. Then he alluded to his team with the San Antonio Spurs. "I was around some really great teams," he said. "It just became understood that, you know, if you lose a game, you never want to lose two in a row. And as you watch good teams around the league, you know when they lose, you don't want to be that next team on their schedule." As Brook Lopez said of the streak, "I don't know if we talk about it a ton, but we realize it. It's definitely a point of pride." And while no quirky regular season trend will ultimately mean anything by May and June, the back-to-back streak is another reminder that a rock solid foundation has emerged almost overnight in Milwaukee.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is obviously the cornerstone. Even as James Harden lines get progressively more obscene with each passing week in Houston, Giannis is still probably the MVP. Budenholzer is the Coach of the Year, unleashing the most lethal version of Giannis while optimizing the rest of the roster. Lopez has his own quirky story; he's the lifelong low-post player who reinvented himself as a seven-foot Kyle Korver, and as he shoots 6.6 threes per-game at 37.9%, the lane is wide open for everyone else.
Malcolm Brogdon is one of the most efficient guards in the league, great on both ends, and full of thoughtful quotes that have been a signature since he was at UVA. Khris Middleton is everyone's favorite underrated star, and despite some regression after a red-hot start to the year, Middleton remains one of the most reliable two-way wings in the league. There's even D.J. Wilson, a second-year player who looked like he was on his way out of the NBA after he spent his rookie year marooned by Jason Kidd; four months into his sophomore season, he's beginning to look like a stretch five who could be a genuine factor when it's time for Milwaukee to counter Toronto and Boston this spring.
And then there's Eric Bledsoe. His season in Milwaukee has been easy to overlook, in part because his success doesn't come with a convenient narrative. He's more accomplished than a role player, but he's not quite a star. He's the point guard, but the offense begins and ends with Giannis. He's a two-way Antetokoumpo sidekick who can help this team challenge for the East, but as far as underrated two-way success goes, most of the NBA nerd community has already pledged lifelong allegiance to Middleton.
In recent years Bledsoe is probably most famous for his "I Don't Wanna Be Here" tweet in Phoenix last season. When he was reminded of that memory last week, he shook his head. "It's in the past," he says. "I can only control what I can control." He still maintains that he was tweeting about a hair salon, and he says he can't help it if nobody believes him. In any case, the hair salon/trade demand controversy became one of the most notable moments of his career (and also the kind of perfectly ridiculous story that could only emerge from the modern NBA news cycle).
The other watershed Bledsoe moment came in last season's playoffs; those two weeks were even worse than hair salon episode. Bledsoe shot 44% from the field and 31% from three as the Bucks lost in seven games to the Celtics, and he spent the bulk of the series being outplayed by Terry Rozier. When Rozier accidentally confused him for Drew Bledsoe after Game 1, it became a rallying cry among Celtics fans on the internet. Then Rozier came back and had 23 points and eight assists in Game 2; afterward, Bledsoe said he "didn't know who the f---" Rozier was. In Game 5, the two of them nearly came to blows in Boston, and the Bucks again lost on the road. In Game 7, Boston won easily and the real Drew Bledsoe showed up and answered questions postgame. The whole ordeal was a nightmare.
"It was bad," Bledsoe admits. "I didn't play the way I wanted to play. But at the same time, I asked for that [playoff] situation. That was my first time in a long while being in that situation. So for me, to see what level I need to be at, that was a great experience for me. I can either hide from it or embrace it and take the next step. If I were to go in today, it definitely makes me hungrier."
Nine months after that Celtics series, Bledsoe has rebounded in a big way. He's arguably the second-most valuable player on this Bucks team. "He's meant everything," Lopez says. "He's been so huge for us. Obviously as a point guard, he's a leader in that regard. But he's just such a spark plug. He brings so much energy and intensity and toughness. It's irreplaceable." Bledsoe is averaging just 15.1 points per-game—his lowest in six years—but he's been the perfect guard to set the pace on offense, and night after night, he's setting the tone for the best defense in basketball. "There are so many good point guards and scorers," Budenholzer says. "To have a guy you can put on them that can be disruptive and limit them, get them out of their comfort zone, it's meant a ton to us."
Bledsoe has always been known as an elite defender; he looks the part. He's an incredible athlete, he's got the biceps of an NFL linebacker, and he’s got the length to shadow guards all over the floor. The problem has been consistency. In Phoenix, he battled various nagging injuries and played through a lot of forgettable losses for teams that were destined for the lottery. As the years passed, there were questions about how much value he really provided on either end of the floor. Even last season in Milwaukee, he was decent as a defender, but he gambled too often. His offense was inefficient and streaky. His impact varied by the week.
This season that story changed. "Energy," Bledsoe says of his role. "Defense. Picking up the team. As long as I play with energy and pace, it should be fine. Because, you know, Giannis is the leader of our team. But [the pace] starts with me."
On offense, Bledsoe may be scoring less, but he's more effective. His perimeter shooting still comes and goes, but he's added a career-high 7.0 assists per-36 minutes while he leads the break. He's taking more than 75% of his shots either at the rim or from three, and he's converting on 76% of those finishes at the rim (by comparison: LeBron is at 74%). "I've always been able to finish," Bledsoe says, "But with our offense, there's so much space. Even when I've got a defender in front of me, it's basically one-on-one. Everybody [on defense] is so focused on us shooting the three-ball. As much as it helps Giannis, it helps me as well."
Defensively, he has been even better. Against Houston last week, the Bucks were able to force James Harden into nine turnovers, short-circuiting the Rockets offense just enough to pull away on the other end. The Bucks success was relative—Harden still managed to get 42 points—but it was built on the strength of a scheme that prompted a double-take from anyone who saw the game, as Bucks guards overplayed Harden's left-hand and essentially gave him an open path to the lane. As the Houston game unfolded and the strategy became clear, it looked like a galaxy brain scheme from Budenholzer that was strangely effective.
Post-game, we found out that while Budenholzer had suggested overplaying Harden's strong hand, most of that strategy was Bledsoe. As Malcolm Brogdon said, "That was a totally different scheme than coach drew up. We wanted to shade him to his right, but Bled sort of created that way of guarding him as we all followed."
Bledsoe explained it this way: "There were a couple times in film this season that Budenholzer was telling everybody schemes, and he basically just told me, 'Bled, you do what you do.' I just try to play people's tendencies. I know [Harden] likes the step-back. My main thing was just to get him off the three-point line, force him to shoot twos. It was like, 'You can have the lane." A few days later, in D.C, Bledsoe couldn't help but smile at the strategy. "It was crazy, right? I told Brook, 'I want to limit his touches, and I don't want him shooting stepback threes all night.'"
Budenholzer later explained that the Houston strategy was discussed more among his players before the game than it was by him. And as for Bledsoe's role, Bud says, "Eric is just so talented defensively. So gifted. He has a little more rope than probably any player I've ever coached. He's so athletic and strong and fast, he can get to spots from unique positioning. So yeah, he exaggerated a little bit and it was good for us."
Budenholzer's not a coach who's given to hyperbole, and his trust in Bledsoe is telling. All season long, his point guard has been meeting elite scorers at the point of attack, chasing them over pick-and-rolls, and recovering about as well as any guard could reasonably be expected to. Bledsoe is long, smart, and fast—this season in Milwaukee, all the tools that earned Bledsoe his elite reputation are giving Milwaukee an elite defender every night. Couple that with more patience on offense, and Bledsoe's probably deserves more All-Star consideration than he'll get.
Take this week. In 24 minutes against the Heat Tuesday night, he had 17 points, two steals, and a block, as Bucks beat writer Eric Nehm noted Bledsoe was "just all over the place on defense ... just generally causing chaos." Milwaukee won by 38. The following night in Memphis, Giannis went to the bench with foul trouble early in the third quarter, and the Bucks were up one. Bledsoe responded with a flurry of steals, fast breaks, and threes that keyed a 19-0 run to break the game wide open.
"When Eric's really good," Budenholzer said recently, "We're really good."
The question for everyone else around the NBA is how much do they trust this Bledsoe run? Will his defense be this effective in the playoffs? Will he stay healthy? At 30.8% from three, will his shooting hurt Milwaukee? And if the Bucks are (clearly) really good when Bledsoe's really good, then what happens to this team if he isn't? Appreciating what's happened so far in Milwaukee doesn't necessarily mean the rest of the world has to buy into what could happen this spring. Anyone who watched last year's Boston series will probably have to wait for playoff success to convince themselves that Bledsoe has turned a corner.
And then, this summer: What will Bledsoe command as a free agent? On the one hand, he's played a critical role for one of the best teams in basketball, he's still getting to the rim at will, and he's one of only a handful guards who can actually play effective defense in the middle of a supercharged NBA. On the other hand, he's 29 years old in a league that's already replete with star point guards, he's had various knee injuries that might give teams pause, and the most consistent season of his career is coming in the midst of a contract year. It's unclear what Bledsoe's market around the league will look like, and with four of five starters set to hit free agency one year before Giannis becomes eligible for a supermax extension, it's also unclear what the Bucks will be willing to pay him.
"I just focus on what's going on now," Bledsoe says. "I can't get caught up in what's going to happen in July. It's January right now."
Bledsoe says he's having more fun this season in Milwaukee than he's had at any point in his career. He has liked Budenholzer ever since his coach brought him to dinner this summer to ask about his kids and get to know him off the court, and he has loved life with the team. "When I first got here," Bledsoe says. "We didn't know each other. I didn't know the team, they didn't know my game. This year everybody knows what everybody wants to do. And we'll accept it—everybody gotta sacrifice for the team, and it's working. We're in a great spot right now."
"I don't know," says Bucks GM Jon Horst about plans for this summer. "We want to keep the group together. We're really good, I don't know how good we are yet. I think as a core, we want to invest in it and keep 'em together. We've put ourselves in a position to be able to do that, and hopefully we'll be able to do that. I think the guys all love it here."
In between blowout wins and the most successful regular season the team has seen in 30 years, all these existential questions will continue to percolate in Milwaukee. Giannis is a sure thing; he's already one of the five best players in the league, and almost every game is a new reminder that he's going to own the next decade. The rest of the story in Milwaukee is harder to gauge. The ceiling is unclear, the future is uncertain, and in the meantime, the Bucks continue to be so much better than anyone would have expected nine months ago. In a few different respects, the year of Eric Bledsoe sort of explains everything.