PORTLAND, Ore. – Eric Bledsoe quietly dresses at his locker at Fiserv Forum. He’s not the center of attention as members of the media wait for other players to talk following a win over the Toronto Raptors.
A year after his arrival in Milwaukee in a major trade – for himself and the Bucks – there’s generally less noise surrounding Bledsoe and he’s loving where life has taken him. As a team, the Bucks are off to their best start since 1971. They’re doing it by playing hard, playing together and having fun under new coach Mike Budenholzer.
For Bledsoe, that level of fun is one of the main drivers of the Bucks’ 8-1 start heading into Tuesday’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers. Personally, it’s something he’s not accustomed to.
“Man, it’s been a while,” Bledsoe said with a smile when asked for the last time he was having this much fun on the court. “Everything’s a learning experience. We’ve got a great bunch of guys in this locker room that are willing to sacrifice for the betterment of the team and it’s fun playing that way.”
It’s a drastic change from where he was a year ago. Frustrated with his role and the team’s slow rebuild, he made it clear he didn’t want to continue fighting an uphill battle with the Phoenix Suns. Ultimately, he was sent away as then-Suns general manager Ryan McDonough searched for a suitable trade partner.
During his weeks-long exile following his viral “I Dont wanna be here” tweet apocryphally sent from a salon, Bledsoe’s reputation was put through the wringer as he worked out on his own waiting and hoping for a trade. He was coming off one of his best seasons in Phoenix, but questions about his commitment, personality and ability to fit into a winning scheme continued to swirl.
“That’s life, bro,” Bledsoe said. “Everybody is not going to like you. Some people aren’t going to like you and some people like you. You can’t go through life worrying about stuff like that both on and off the court.”
Then, on Nov. 7, 2017, the trade happened with Bledsoe moving to one of his preferred locations.
The Bucks sent center Greg Monroe, on a $17.9 million expiring contract, and a pair of picks to the Suns for Bledsoe. The second-round pick attached to the trade did not convey to the Suns.
In making that trade, Bucks GM Jon Horst was essentially making the bet that Bledsoe’s two-season value to the Bucks would exceed that of a future first-round pick. The Bucks were fortunate this past spring when a coin flip allowed them to keep their first-round pick at No. 17, meaning the pick likely won’t convey to the Suns until 2020 and could potentially be in the No. 20-30 range.
By virtually any measure the trade has worked out well for Bledsoe and the Bucks thus far. Bledsoe has meshed well with his Milwaukee teammates, providing value as the team’s starting point guard.
Meanwhile, Monroe languished in Phoenix before being bought out and joining the Boston Celtics, where as a strong low-post presence in an era where teams are moving away from post play, he played sparingly to close last season. A vaunted free-agent signing when he joined the Bucks on a three-year, $50 million deal in 2015, Monroe took a minimum deal this summer to join the Raptors. Through 11 games this season, Monroe has played just 22 minutes for Toronto.
“It seems funny to say it’s only been a year Eric’s been here with us,” Horst said. “It feels like it’s been longer; it feels like he fits this group. We’ve been extremely happy with what he did for us last year and so far what he’s meant for our team this year. For us, it was a great trade, a great opportunity for this year. He’s a big piece of what we have going forward.”
In 80 games – all starts – with the Bucks, Bledsoe has averaged 17.4 points, 5.2 assists, 4.0 rebounds and 1.9 steals in 31.1 minutes per game. He’s been more efficient in Milwaukee than he was during his time with the Los Angeles Clippers or the Suns.
With players like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton around him, Bledsoe has had to shoulder less of a scoring and playing-making load and has adjusted well to that role.
“It’s a big change, man,” Bledsoe said. “We’re winning. That’s all I ever wanted to do is win and build something special. We’re doing that here.”
Everything hasn’t been perfect, though.
Bledsoe has had bouts with turning the ball over, at times has made head-scratching shooting decisions and struggled during last year’s playoffs while igniting a public spat with Boston’s Terry Rozier. However, in aggregate, his contributions have been positive and appreciated by his teammates.
“He brings a lot to the team – physicality, leadership, plays amazing,” Antetokounmpo said. “He makes plays every night. He’s one of our leaders on the team. He’s helped this team to become who we are today.”
Center John Henson added: “He attacks, gets downhill. If you sleep on him or kind of take your attention off him that’s when he attacks and he knows how to do that well. He plays off Khris and Giannis so well. I’m happy to have him and he’s a good friend of mine. We love him.”
While Bledsoe has found a better fit in Milwaukee, he doesn’t begrudge his former teammates in Phoenix. The biggest problem there, to him, was that the team was young. They had talent, but the experience of learning the NBA while battling the quality teams of the Western Conference proved to be a difficult road.
Those four-plus seasons with the Suns didn’t go as Bledsoe had hoped they would when he signed a five-year, $70 million deal in 2014, but he still finds value in his time in the desert.
“It was a blessing; it taught me a lot,” he said. “It taught me to play through my mistakes, it taught me to play through a lot of stuff. It was a gift. …
“Playing with a great group of guys over there, it meant a lot to me. Coming over here, we’ve got a lot of talent. Everyone’s pretty much around the same age. We’re playing toward winning a championship one of these days.”
While things on the court are going well, Bledsoe’s also happy with the developments off it. Last season, his wife and children stayed in Arizona following the trade and he spent most of the year farther from them than usual.
Now, the whole family is together in Milwaukee. There’s no telling what will come next considering Bledsoe’s contract is up after this season, but for now, everything has aligned well.
The Bucks are winning, Bledsoe’s playing a consistent, key role and there are plenty of smiling faces waiting for him every time he goes home.
“I’m blessed, man,” Bledsoe said. “I’ve got my family here to support me, I’ve got great teammates, a great coaching staff. Everything is in the right direction.
“I’m living my dream.”