Phoenix Suns guard Eric Bledsoe has everything you want: athleticism, youth, scoring ability, playmaking, defensive aptitude, the ability to play multiple positions and a track record of being a dynamic two-way player.
The only thing he doesn't have is a contract that matches his potential and production.
That is, at least not yet.
After playing the best basketball of his career this past season, Bledsoe is scheduled to hit restricted free agency this offseason. As teams try to line up their free-agency plans and address needs, Bledsoe is an enticing talent a few teams likely wish they could get their hands on.
But restricted free agency is a dangerous game to play, particularly when it doesn't seem like there's any chance of the player's original team failing to match on a signed offer sheet.
That's the situation opposing teams are in when negotiating with Bledsoe this summer. It seems as though the Suns are fully prepared to match any reasonable offer, as Suns general manager Ryan McDonough told Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.com:
"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."
Whatever it takes?
"Correct," McDonough said. "Any reasonable offer.
"We have some advantages. We're able to give him another year, five instead of four if we choose. We're able to give him higher-percentage increases than other teams too. And then if another team does make an offer, we can always match that. So we feel like we're holding the cards with Eric, and more importantly, I think Eric's had a good experience here so far."
McDonough is correct in his assessment that the Suns are holding the cards here. The only thing that could change the equation is if Bledsoe were to sign an "unreasonable" offer, which a max offer could potentially be deemed as.
Remember, though, that all max offers aren't created equal. There's a tendency to think that Bledsoe getting paid "the max" would mean he'd make as much money as anyone else possibly could, but that's not how it works in the NBA. The max is based on years played and your previous contract.
For example, the max contract last year for a player with zero to six years of experience was $13.7 million, or alternatively, 42.14 percent of the projected BRI (basketball-related income).
Although it usually ends up being a bit less, a good guideline to follow (via Larry Coon's salary-cap FAQ) is that players with 0-6 seasons in the league can have a max deal worth 25 percent of the cap, players with 7-9 years will have 30 percent and players with 10 years or more in the league can get 35 percent of the cap.
Players with contracts over these amounts (like Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant) are having their new deals or extensions based on contracts that were signed under the old collective bargaining agreement.
This is important because Bledsoe, with four years of experience, should have his max offer check in right around $15 million a year, based on the salary cap for next year.
Would Phoenix be willing to pay that? You never really know for sure until the deal is on the table, but the right people are saying the right things about Bledsoe's free agency.
Here's what Suns President of Basketball Operations Lon Babby said earlier this year on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM, as transcribed by Adam Green at ArizonaSports.com:
"Yes. If you ask me today, I would say absolutely we are going to match any offer, but I hope it doesn't come to that. I hope Eric has developed enough of a feeling, and my instincts are that he likes it here."
Bledsoe's potential max offer sheet may not be ideal for Phoenix, especially since there may be multiple teams willing to sign him to it. And $15 million a year for a young star guard is a little more palatable for most teams than the "max" label would lead you to believe.
The Suns, obviously, want to avoid it getting to that if at all possible. Other teams can't offer Bledsoe an extra year on his deal like Phoenix can, so it's less money at the end of the day, but a few can offer a clear-cut starting point guard job without having to do any sharing.
Is that something Bledsoe wants? It's hard to tell, but it sure seemed like his relationship with Goran Dragic worked out really well both on and off the court.
Here's what Dragic told Paul Coro of AzCentral Sports:
Every day, every month, every year, we can get better and better. It was our first season and we already played so good together. Next season, hopefully he's going to stay here — yes, Eric — and try to raise that bar even higher. We're always joking around. We're always talking that, 'Hey, you're going to stay here. You better stay here. Otherwise, we're going to hunt you down and try to bring you back.'
To ensure that the Suns get Bledsoe back, they might be wise to avoid restricted free agency and Bledsoe's potential max deal altogether by negotiating with him beforehand.
Here's what McDonough told Bob Baum of the Associated Press his team's intentions with Bledsoe:
"I think he likes being in Phoenix," McDonough said. "I know he liked playing for Jeff (Hornacek). He and Goran really blended well and meshed."
McDonough said he and Lon Babby, Suns president of basketball operations, are hoping to work out a contract agreement with Bledsoe before free agency.
"We'll go to Eric and his representatives to try to work out a deal first," McDonough said, "but I think one way or another, he's going to be a Sun for a long time."
Let's assume that Bledsoe sees the potential dollar signs and chooses not to negotiate early, and instead enters restricted free agent. Here are the teams that might test the Suns and sign Bledsoe to a max offer sheet.
Would this be a conventional fit? Definitely not. The Cleveland Cavaliers, of course, have Kyrie Irving at point guard. Bledsoe would be signing a deal to play mostly off the ball, which might not be what he really covets.
He'd also have to live in Cleveland, which is probably a tough sell compared to Phoenix. It might be different if the Cavs were a playoff team or had a ton of star talent in place, but it's hard to say Cleveland is much better set for the future than Phoenix is.
There are only a few redeeming qualities here that could lure Bledsoe. The first, as crazy as it sounds, could be the potential to team up with LeBron James in 2015 if he decides to come home. Bledsoe and James are noted friends, and while this might be grasping at straws, it could be an incredibly smart move for the future.
Mainly, though, Bledsoe shouldn't be scared to pass up a max offer sheet regardless of where it comes from. Phoenix will almost certainly match as opposed to losing him for nothing, so there isn't as much of a risk here as one might think.
There's some question as to whether Cleveland would want to sap up its available funds in a player unlikely to sign, even if it was just for a few days, but Bledsoe could be everything Dion Waiters was supposed to be next to Irving. That would be a great backcourt for years to come.
It's tough to find teams that have a true hole at point guard, and even more difficult to find teams that won't fill that hole before free agency.
It seems pretty likely at this stage that the Orlando Magic will take Dante Exum or Marcus Smart at pick No. 4 in the draft, but what if they go with a big guy or a wing instead?
If that happens, finding a point guard in free agency could become a major priority. Jameer Nelson is on his very last legs and an expiring deal, and it's tough to find anyone who will tell you with a straight face that Victor Oladipo is going to be a point guard for the rest of his career.
That could make a player like Bledsoe awfully appealing, especially if Orlando doesn't have serious intentions with its cap space anyway. A chain of events has to take place for this to happen, but you could see Bledsoe falling in love with Orlando and vice versa.
While there are potential other suitors, like maybe the Los Angeles Lakers (based on what happens with Kevin Love) or a dark horse like the Philadelphia 76ers (who probably aren't ready to invest major salary yet), the heavy favorite for Bledsoe will be Phoenix.
After all, it's essentially Phoenix's decision whether to keep Bledsoe or not. Given the age of the roster and the low salary commitments elsewhere, it would be pretty foolish to let Bledsoe go over a few extra million a year.
While there are some concerns about Bledsoe's injury history and if he can hold up for 82 games given his physical style, those almost certainly won't be enough to keep Phoenix from investing. McDonough traded for Bledsoe knowing he was going to produce, and now that he has, it's either time to pay him or cash in with a sign-and-trade. Considering that Phoenix has multiple first-round picks this year, it's hard to imagine the Suns selling off Bledsoe for more assets of that ilk.
Perhaps Bledsoe would be dangled in a sign-and-trade deal for a player like Kevin Love, but even that seems a bit unlikely. Bledsoe is capable of being a star in his own right, and no matter which way they go about it, he's going to need to get paid like one.
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