Phoenix Suns guard Eric Bledsoe is going to be a big part of the news during the upcoming NBA offseason. The only question is whether he'll grab headlines as a max-salary signing or as part of a blockbuster trade.
Either way, we'll soon get an idea of the 24-year-old guard's value.
Spoiler time: It's pretty high.
The first option—and the one that seems most likely—is for the Suns to re-sign Bledsoe for big bucks. At present, there's no way to be sure how big those bucks will be. With control over Bledsoe as a restricted free agent, all Phoenix has to do is match whatever offer sheet he signs elsewhere to ensure he'll be in purple for the foreseeable future.
But all indications are that it'll take a max contract to keep him.
Suns interested in Love deal w/best assets Dragic, Bledsoe & picks.NBA sources say it will take full max deal to control free agent Bledsoe.— Marc J. Spears (@SpearsNBAYahoo) June 7, 2014
We get this news by way of trade discussions, which we'll return to later. For now, it's critical to determine how much Bledsoe brings to the Suns if we're going to get a handle on whether they're willing to spend ultra-large to make him a franchise cornerstone.
Bledsoe's skills as a combo guard work nicely with those of the Suns' best player, Goran Dragic. And while there was a time not so long ago when playing guys like Bledsoe and Dragic together might have seemed like overkill, modern NBA offenses now need creators on both the strong and weak sides.
Just about every good defense overloads the strong side, hoping to force a swing pass back to the other half of the floor. Having a dangerous scorer and penetrator who can attack shifting defenses on those swings is now practically a must.
Last season, Bledsoe gave the Suns 17.7 points, 4.7 rebounds and 5.5 assists on 47.7 percent shooting in just 32.9 minutes per game. That's a ton of production across the board, and as he learns to harness his ridiculous speed and physicality he'll only become a bigger contributor on the defensive end as well.
Despite some rough edges, that defensive potential was evident last season, as Bledsoe's presence on the court improved the Suns' defensive rating by 5.2 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. Phoenix actually performed better on offense when he sat, but if it has real designs on being a contender, the two-way play Bledsoe brings will be a necessary ingredient.
And at any rate, his overall impact was hugely positive, leading to an on-court net rating of plus-4.9 points per 100 possessions in 2013-14.
There should be some justifiable concern over the knee injury that cost him almost half of last season, but Bledsoe looked very much like himself after returning to play the final 19 contests of the campaign.
Overall, Bledsoe is in rare statistical company, as only LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Kyle Lowry and James Harden matched his point, rebound and assist averages last year, per Basketball-Reference.com.
Maybe that's why the Suns have been so bullish on Bledsoe for so long.
President of basketball operations Lon Babby had this to say when asked about matching any offer sheet coming Bledsoe's way on the Doug and Wolf Show on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM (via Adam Green of ArizonaSports.com):
I think our answer to that is yes, that we know enough about Eric as a player. Even more importantly, we've lived with him now for almost a year as a person. We like everything about him. Like him as a teammate, like him as a representative of our franchise and everything that he stands for.
Babby was smart to say that, if only to dissuade any opportunistic competitors from purposely bidding up Bledsoe's price.
Per B/R's Dan Favale:
Posturing or not, there had to be some truth to what Babby was saying. Phoenix may be hoping to retain Bledsoe at a discount, but after how well he and the team performed last season, overaggressive suitors are unlikely to scare the Suns off.
And that's ultimately the key, isn't it?
The Suns have seen enough of Bledsoe to this point and have a good enough idea of what he might become to invest whatever it takes to keep him. Maybe somebody will toss him a max offer just to force the Suns to pay as much as possible. But if Phoenix is convinced Bledsoe is its guy, it'll pay up.
But what if Bledsoe is worth even more as a way to bring back an even bigger prize?
That brings us back to the topic in which half the league will find itself somehow entangled this summer: the ongoing Kevin Love Experience.
A package of Bledsoe, Channing Frye, another salary-filler and a couple of first-rounders would be among the best combinations the Minnesota Timberwolves could expect to get for their halfway-out-the-door superstar.
When the alternative is losing Love for nothing (or taking on the hefty salaries of guys like David Lee), the chance to get a blossoming star whose restricted free agency Minnesota could largely control would have great appeal. And that's to say nothing of the value of a handful of picks that could help hasten the rebuilding process.
The Suns have enough upcoming first-rounders (three this year and more coming in the next two drafts from the Los Angeles Lakers and, ironically, the Wolves) to give one away every time Pitbull barks the word "playoffs" in that insufferable pregame song for ESPN—which is to say "a lot."
If they want to just keep dumping those picks into a Bledsoe-for-Love deal until the Timberwolves are satisfied, they can do exactly that.
Getting Love would give the Suns a tantalizing offensive piece to pair with Dragic. That duo on its own could be a foundational pillar of a top-five scoring attack. Love would fit in perfectly as a pick-and-pop partner for the Slovenian lefty, and his mixture of size and shooting basically makes him the prototype forward for a Suns team that loves pace and space.
Unfortunately, it's not as simple as that.
While it would be terrific for the Suns to reel in Love in a trade, they can't be sure he'll stick around when his opt-out chance comes next summer.
Sure, they could hope to get him to agree to opt in ahead of time, which would at least give the Suns two years to see how close Love gets them to being a legitimate contender. But that's not going to happen.
Opting out and hitting unrestricted free agency gives Love a chance to make max dollars and explore loads of options in 2015. And while the question of whether Bledsoe is more valuable as a franchise cornerstone or trade bait is debatable, one thing is completely certain: He's not somebody you give up for a one-year rental on Love.
Maybe the Suns think they're closer to a title than anyone else, in which case gambling on a single season with Love might make sense. But for the sensible types (and the reasonably risk-averse), the best bet is paying Bledsoe whatever it takes to keep him, slotting him next to Dragic and resting comfortably, assured of a devastatingly effective offense for years to come.
As safe options go, that doesn't sound so bad.