New York, NY (SportsNetwork.com) - Give the Los Angeles Clippers a big assist for an unexpected start for one of their Pacific Division counterparts. We have that story and more as we take the pulse of the NBA.
The Suns were expected to be a lottery team by most NBA observers, including myself, but right now they're one of the surprise teams this season with their 14-9 start and are just 1 1/2 games back of the first-place Clippers in the Pacific Division. They also sport one of the most dynamic backcourts in the league with Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic. The two point guards are having no problems co-existing, and they've spearheaded Phoenix's terrific start.
The Suns can thank the Clippers for the key offseason addition of Bledsoe, who was acquired from Los Angeles as part of a three-way deal with the Milwaukee Bucks.
A number of Suns' players have upped their game this season, including Dragic, Markieff Morris and Miles Plumlee, but I think it's the addition of Bledsoe that has played a big role in their improvement, and he's the No. 1 reason why Phoenix has played so well.
The fourth-year point guard is averaging 19.5 points, 6.4 assists, 4.3 rebounds, 1.8 steals and is shooting 49 percent from the floor.
Basketball analytics website TotalPlayerValue.com has Bledsoe ranked as the 23rd-best player in the league, and the sixth-best point guard behind Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard, Stephen Curry and Tony Parker.
While Bledsoe was sidelined for six games in November with a bruised left shin, the Suns went 3-3. With him in the lineup, Phoenix is 11-6.
Since Bledsoe's return late last month, the Suns are 6-2 and in the midst of a five-game winning streak during which he and Dragic have really excelled.
Over the last five games, Bledsoe has averaged 21.2 points, 7.8 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 2.2 steals, and shot 48.7 percent from the floor and 47.6 percent from 3-point range. Not to be outdone by his backcourt mate, Dragic also has put up big numbers, averaging 22.8 points on a blistering 53.7 percent from the field and an even better 54.2 percent from downtown.
Christmas is just a week away, but I'm as far as I'm concerned, the Suns got a really early gift from the Clippers in Bledsoe.
LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
I think the three-way trade with Suns and Bucks that sent Bledsoe and Caron Butler packing and brought in J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley made the Clippers weaker rather than stronger.
Bledsoe is simply a better player than Redick, and his talents are more suited to excel in the playoffs. Redick can't create off the dribble nor create shots for teammates like Bledsoe, and isn't nearly as athletic, which creates problems for him on defense.
Bledsoe will be a restricted free agent after the season, but is making just $2.6 million this season, while the Clippers are paying Redick $6.5 million as part of the four-year, $27 million contract they gave him in the sign-and-trade deal.
As for Dudley, he's been so bad since joining the Clippers that he recently took to Twitter to rip himself and apologize to the fan base.
"I have to apologize to all clipper fans by my play this season! I have been playing like s. It's been downright embarrassing!" Dudley tweeted.
Prior to this season, Dudley was a lifetime 47.3 percent shooter from the floor and hit 40.5 percent of his 3s. With the Clippers, he's shooting 43.9 percent from the field and 34.7 percent from downtown, while averaging just 8.6 points per game.
PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
Damian Lillard doesn't get any extra pay for playing overtime games, but it sure does look like it the way he's performed in those situations in his brief career.
To say he's been spectacular is probably an understatement.
Last year's NBA Rookie of the Year winner has played in eight overtime games, and you'd have to say he's a big reason why the Blazers have gone 7-1.
Lillard is averaging 5.4 points during the overtime sessions and he's been superhuman with his shooting touch. He's 15-of-19 from the floor (78.9 percent), which includes a perfect 10-for-10 on his two point attempts. He's also connected on all eight of his free throw attempts.
His most recent overtime heroics came last Sunday in Detroit, when he hit a twisting, fadeaway jumper in the lane to just beat the buzzer and give the Blazers a 111-109 win over the Pistons. Lillard accounted for nine of the Blazers' 12 overtime points.
For whatever reason, Amir Johnson's play has really picked up since the Raptors dealt Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings. Johnson, who temporarily lost his starting job to Tyler Hansbrough, is averaging 20.5 points, 9.3 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in the four games since the trade, and shooting an amazing 74 percent from the field.
Gay's departure also means a lot more playing for time Terrence Ross, who has started the last three games at small forward.
Prior to the deal, Ross was averaging just over 18 minutes and 6.2 points. In the four games since the trade, the former No. 1 pick of the Raptors in 2012 (9th overall) is playing 31 minutes per game and averaging 14.5 points.
Toronto is 3-1 since Gay was sent to Sacramento, but I wouldn't jump to any conclusions yet, with those wins coming over the Los Angeles Lakers in Kobe Bryant's first game back, along with the Philadelphia Sixers and Chicago Bulls.