Phoenix Suns fans have every right to feel hopeful.
With Coach of the Year candidate Jeff Hornacek, incumbent talents like Goran Dragic, plenty of cap space and a savvy general manager in Ryan McDonough, the Suns are in ideal position to succeed now and into the future.
It is possible, however, that the encouraging outlook could quickly turn to pessimism.
Phoenix won 48 games in 2013-14, but one of its key cogs—Eric Bledsoe—is set to become a restricted free agent this summer. McDonough said in December, “We’ll have no problem stepping up and paying Eric whatever it takes to keep him,” per ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne.
It’s an encouraging sign, but what if those plans change due to various circumstances?
Another NBA franchise could extend a max contract to Bledsoe with the hope of snatching him away from the desert. Whether the 24-year-old is worth that price tag has been a subject of debate among the Phoenix faithful.
On one hand, the Kentucky product averaged 17.7 points, 5.5 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 1.6 steals while shooting 47.7 percent from the field during his first year as a full-time starter. He managed to raise some eyebrows by shooting 35.7 percent from long range and continued to make elite defense look downright effortless.
Given his uncanny ability to contribute at a high level on both ends of the court, he’s certainly worth a hefty pay raise.
Naysayers, however, will point out that he missed nearly half the year due to knee problems. Where’s the guarantee that Bledsoe won’t be the next cautionary tale in the mold of Brandon Roy or Eric Gordon?
Phoenix made the right decision moving on from Amar’e Stoudemire during the 2010 offseason. Trading two-time MVP Steve Nash to the rival Los Angeles Lakers for a plethora of draft picks in 2012 worked out swimmingly as well, even though it was a tough pill to swallow.
Ultimately, the Suns’ legendary training staff should have the final call. If they don’t believe Bledsoe’s knees will hold up, McDonough may have no choice but to look at other options.
Keeping the stocky floor general at market price still seems to be the best-case scenario—especially since the backcourt pairing of Dragic/Bledsoe worked so well together.
But what will happen if No. 2 isn’t brought back?
Glass Half Full
Even with Bledsoe sidelined, the Suns managed to compile a winning record at 20-19. That was made possible in large part due to Dragic and Gerald Green. The latter thrived as a member of the starting lineup, posting 17.4 points per game as a starter compared to 13.6 as a reserve, per NBA.com.
Granted, one game over .500 will not translate to a playoff berth in the loaded Western Conference. Heck, Phoenix finished 14 games over .500 and still couldn’t attain the No. 8 seed.
The Suns can be a competitive team without Bledsoe. In order to compete for a championship, however, luring new stars to the Valley of the Sun would be a must.
At this juncture, it appears that the Suns—along with every other team with cap space—are poised to make a run at the biggest names available.
Keep a level head when reading this report, but according to Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski, Phoenix is devising a plan to speak with superstar forward LeBron James during free agency. The hope is that the Suns’ ability to pair LBJ with Carmelo Anthony could lure him away from Pat Riley’s Miami Heat.
Woj wrote the following:
Phoenix is determined to emerge as a legitimate destination for James and Anthony, who have privately shared an affinity for playing with each other in the NBA. Salary-cap structures make it prohibitive for teams elsewhere to fit these two stars together without completely gutting a roster, but Phoenix’s general manager Ryan McDonough has constructed a far different reality to sell them in potential meeting next week, league sources told Yahoo Sports.
If King James wants to play with Melo in a situation that is financially feasible for both guys, Phoenix is a destination he must consider. As AZCentral Sports’ Paul Coro points out, however, that long shot of a decision may still be tied to Bledsoe’s presence.
"It might be nearly as far-fetched of a dream as it sounds, but the Suns are positioned with the cap space and maneuverability to chase James and the co-star of his liking without yielding Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, James’ close friend, in the process," he wrote.
Bledsoe and James are both represented by the same agent, Rich Paul.
If the restricted point guard doesn’t return, James may not view Phoenix with the same esteem. In theory, that adds one more reason why the Suns will match any offer for Bledsoe.
Would LBJ still consider dwelling in the desert if it meant teaming up with Anthony and Dragic?
It’s not impossible, but again, this scenario is a pipe dream. I fully expect LeBron to work out contract talks with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh en route to a Miami return. The Heat have plenty of financial flexibility of their own, after all.
So imagine a Suns roster without James (an easy thing to picture). Could the Suns still build a viable contender around Dragic alone?
It would probably take additions of Pau Gasol and Luol Deng, or a favorable sign-and-trade scenario including an outbound Bledsoe. There’s no guarantee that a new core would make it out of the west, though.
Still, bringing in proven veteran leaders would maintain a winning culture, which is better than the alternative.
Glass Half Empty
On the off chance that the Suns let Bledsoe walk, and can’t woo another star to Arizona, they’ll be back at square one.
Considering that P.J. Tucker is also poised for restricted free agency and Channing Frye decided to opt out of his player option for 2014-15, the Suns could look drastically different a few months from now.
Although McDonough said in April, “I think it’s unlikely that we’ll bring in three rookies to the Suns,” per BrightSideoftheSun.com’s Dave King, that’s where we stand.
Bogdan Bogdanovic, the No. 27 pick in the 2014 draft, will likely be stashed overseas for more seasoning before he’s brought to the NBA. Phoenix’s other selections—T.J. Warren, Tyler Ennis and Alec Brown—are going to compete for roster spots. Brown is the only wild card as a second-round talent, but he could certainly make the team as a cheap seat-filler.
So what will the Suns be sans Bledsoe with Warren and Ennis on board? No disrespect to those incoming rookies, but Purple and Orange would become a rebuilding franchise once again.
Without a star like Bledsoe, Phoenix would need a new All-Star-caliber option to compensate. Even if Warren and Ennis put up stellar numbers, their lack of experience would put a deep playoff run out of reach against worthy Western Conference contenders.
“Whatever It Takes”
Although some Suns fans may not want to hear it, paying Bledsoe “whatever it takes,” as McDonough said last year, is the best course of action.
Even with the injury history, the young upstart is worth the gamble.
Losing him and replacing his departed roster spot with Ennis would put too much pressure on the youngster out of Syracuse. Before sniffing the playoffs again, fans would have to wait for the 19-year-old to grow into himself or for McDonough to make more savvy moves.
Two-way players are tough to come by in the NBA. As awkward as that sounds, even All-Star starters like James Harden and Kyrie Irving don’t thrive on the less glamorous end of the court.
Bledsoe has made defense his calling card while developing plenty of firepower on offense as well. If he stays healthy, he’s definitely worth a max deal.
That’s an admittedly big if, but it’s a risk the Suns should be willing to take.