All signs point to the Phoenix Suns retaining 24-year-old point guard Eric Bledsoe when he becomes a restricted free agent at season’s end. He’s been terrific in a limited sample size—Phoenix is 16-8 with him in the lineup—but repeated knee injuries have clouded his promising NBA future.
The Suns were riding high in December when Bledsoe stayed healthy after missing six games the month before. Phoenix accumulated an impressive 10-3 record during 2013’s final month as a result, which included statement wins against the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers.
The newly acquired point guard was averaging 18 points, 5.8 assists and 4.3 rebounds to go with a player efficiency rating of 20.05. At the time, Suns general manager Ryan McDonough said the following, per ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne:
“Obviously we don’t have a whole lot of money committed for the future, we don’t have a lot of long-term contracts on our books. So we’ll have no problem stepping up and paying Eric whatever it takes to keep him.”
McDonough reiterated that the Suns would match “any reasonable offer.”
Of course, that was before Bledsoe required surgery to remove part of a torn meniscus in his knee.
The former Kentucky Wildcat said recently that he’d return this season “if it’s possible,” according to Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic. The youngster added that he’s “taking it slow” with his recovery, which plants the seed that he could miss the remainder of the 2013-14 campaign to ensure he comes back 100 percent healthy and avoids another setback.
Phoenix will certainly want Bledsoe back in the short term, because his teammates are fighting for a playoff berth with a 26-18 record (No. 7 in the Western Conference).
However, the front office also has to be thinking and planning for the long haul. Since this isn’t Bledsoe’s first knee surgery, it may err on the side of caution. Per The Associated Press (via ESPN.com):
“This is the second time in a little more than three years that the 24-year-old player has undergone surgery to repair a torn meniscus in the same knee. The first surgery was performed Oct. 7, 2011, during the lockout of that NBA season.”
Will the injury history scare away the Suns in free agency? Well, not according to Suns owner Robert Sarver. He said the following, per Dan Bickley of The Arizona Repubic:
I think we had a pretty good idea of who Eric was when we traded for him. So I wouldn’t say we need to see more of him to match any offer. Obviously we’d like to see more of him because our team plays better when he’s playing. And we’re competing (now), we’re making a playoff run this year. And I think if we can get him back, not only can we make a playoff run, we have a chance to be a team that can win in the playoffs, too.
Even with an injury history and a small sample size of stellar play, Bledsoe will almost assuredly be offered a max contract this summer. The question is, can Phoenix afford to match that type of deal?
The $$$ Factor
As is the case with any business, money is important. And while signing Bledsoe to a max contract would be a gamble, it’s a risk the Suns can afford to take.
According to Sham Sports, Goran Dragic and Channing Frye are the only two players on the roster set to make more than $4 million during the 2014-15 season. Dragic will make $7.5 million, while Frye has a player option that would pay him $6.8 million.
In short, the Suns are in a favorable position from a financial perspective. They aren’t locked into numerous years of egregious contracts (cut to New York Knicks fans face-palming), and they have a bounty of cheap, young assets: Miles Plumlee, Archie Goodwin, Alex Len and the Morris twins.
McDonough and Co. will have big decisions to make down the road, but the current cap situation in Phoenix allows for plenty of leverage in terms of signing Bledsoe.
The Championship Factor
Max contracts are a fickle beast.
There are NBA alpha dogs who deserve them without a shadow of a doubt—like LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Paul George. At the same time, however, there are guys who cripple their teams’ salary-cap situations with egregious deals—like Amar’e Stoudemire and Eric Gordon (ironically, two guys the Suns nearly signed).
In today’s NBA, if you are paying max money to a guy like Gordon—who is very clearly not going to lead the New Orleans Pelicans to a championship—you’re stuck in no man’s land.
The Atlanta Hawks, for example, toiled away for years with Joe Johnson as the team’s best player and never made it past the second round of the playoffs.
NBA teams require superstar players to win on the biggest stage. And while Bledsoe has shown flashes of superstar potential, it’s unclear whether or not he could lead Phoenix to a championship as the team’s best player (which he likely would be under a max deal).
Additionally, history dictates that it’s very difficult for point guards to lead championship squads when they’re the team’s best player.
The last floor general to do so was Chauncey Billups, who led the Detroit Pistons to a title in 2004. That team ranked second in the NBA by surrendering just 84.3 points per game.
You’d have to turn back time all the way to 1989-90 to find the previous alpha-dog point guard who led his team to a championship, when Isiah Thomas did so in Detroit. Again, that team was tremendous defensively, ranking No. 1 in the NBA by allowing 98.3 points per game.
So while it’s not impossible to win rings with a point guard as your best player, elite defense has been the recipe for success in those cases.
The Suns defense in 2013-14 ranks 16th out of 30 teams in points allowed per game.
If the plan is to re-sign Bledsoe long term, McDonough needs to either add another max-contract superstar beside him or develop a strong defensive identity.
Let me start this section with a cautionary tale.
Back in 2010, when Amar’e Stoudemire became a free agent following a Western Conference Finals run with the Suns, Sarver offered the talented big man a $96.6 million contract that was filled with “built-in stipulations” to protect against injury problems, per Coro of The Arizona Republic.
The Knicks blew that deal out of the water by offering STAT $100 million guaranteed, uninsured.
Four years later, the Suns are in the midst of a promising rebuild while the Knicks are paying Stoudemire more than $21.6 million to sit on the bench (and they’ll likely be paying more than $23.4 million next season).
The lesson? Never guarantee nine figures to a guy with a long injury history, but that should have been a no-brainer for Knicks owner James Dolan four years ago.
Yes, Bledsoe has a history of health problems. Yes, this is his second meniscus surgery on the same knee since 2011.
With that said, a viable argument could be made that every athlete is just as much of an injury risk the second the ball is put in play. Russell Westbrook, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, Al Horford, Marc Gasol, Derrick Rose, Kobe Bryant and others have all suffered severe injuries in the span of a few months. NBA stars have simply been dropping like flies.
Is signing Bledsoe to a max contract a risk? Yes, it most certainly is a gamble.
However, as Herm Edwards famously said, “You play to win the game.” With E-Bled on board, the Suns have a much better chance of doing just that on a consistent basis for years to come.
McDonough and head coach Jeff Hornacek have already put this team in a position to succeed. If they’ve earned anything, they’ve earned the fans’ collective trust to make whatever move they feel is in the best interest of the franchise.