Restricted free agency is a tricky business. The overall concept is fairly intuitive—the "home" team has the right to match any offer sheet the restricted free agent signs—but the complicated mechanics and timing of it all makes determining who will actually be presented with an offer sheet to sign essentially a crapshoot.
We saw this conundrum at work this past week with Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward.
Utah RFA Gordon Hayward is meeting with Cavaliers officials in Cleveland today, sources tell Yahoo. Offer sheet could be forthcoming.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) July 2, 2014
Cleveland's belief that Utah will match any Hayward offer sheet is strongly discouraging Cavs from extending one, league sources tell Yahoo.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) July 3, 2014
Here's the rub—when a team signs a free agent to an offer sheet, the "home" team has three days to decide whether or not to match. But during that three-day period, the dollar amount of the offer sheet stays on the offering team's books, effectively clogging up its cap space and preventing it from going after other free agents.
If the whole process ends with the "home" team matching, the team that presented the offer sheet essentially just wasted three days that could have been spent wooing other free agents.
All of this brings us to Phoenix Suns guard Eric Bledsoe, around whom the rumor mill is eerily quiet right now. Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski reported on June 29 that Phoenix plans to "aggressively pursue re-signing Bledsoe or match any offer sheet for him," and since then, there has been barely a peep about any team other than the Suns chasing Bledsoe in free agency.
With the Suns said to be chasing the LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony pipe dream, as detailed in the Wojnarowski piece above, Bledsoe is on the back burner for now. Attempting to pair those two stars is a worthwhile pursuit, but once they make their respective decisions (neither is expected to actually sign with the Suns), Phoenix should immediately move to re-sign Bledsoe.
And if Bledsoe is eventually presented with an offer sheet from another team, Phoenix should match it—no matter how large.
If you think a maximum contract for Bledsoe is too large, consider a few things. First, maximum contracts are not the same for everyone. Bledsoe's max deal would be worth nowhere near as much as, say, Anthony's four-year, $96 million max with a non-Knicks team.
As a fourth-year player, Bledsoe is eligible for a contract that starts with a first-year salary equal to 25 percent of the salary cap, according to Larry Coon's CBA FAQ. (Note: Because of a provision in the rules, though, the actual starting salary number is closer to 23.5 percent of the cap.)
With a projected salary cap of $63.2 million for the coming season (pending the league's review of its books this week during the player movement moratorium), Bledsoe's starting salary would be around $14.9 million.
Assuming maximum 4.5 percent raises over the course of the deal, it would be worth just less than $64 million over four years if the contract came in the form of an offer sheet. If Phoenix were to present a max offer itself, the deal would be worth just over $66 million over the same timespan.
Still, a starting salary just under $15 million and an average salary over $16 million is a whole lot of money. Why tie that up in Bledsoe?
Last season, Bledsoe was one of only eight players to average at least 17.0 points, 4.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 1.5 steals per game. The other seven: LeBron James, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Chris Paul, Kyle Lowry, John Wall and Russell Westbrook.
Because Bledsoe averaged fewer minutes than all of those players, he looks even better when you extrapolate production on a per-36-minutes basis. Only three players averaged at least 19.0 points, 5.0 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 2.0 steals per 36 minutes: Bledsoe, LeBron and Westbrook.
Additionally, over his first four seasons, Bledsoe averaged 14.2 points, 4.9 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 2.1 steals per 36 minutes. In the history of basketball, only 10 other players have averaged at least 14 points, 4.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 2.0 steals per 36 minutes while playing at least 100 games in their first four seasons.
Over the course of their fifth through eighth seasons (the seasons Bledsoe's upcoming contract would cover), those players collectively averaged 16.7 points, 5.3 rebounds, 7.4 assists and 2.4 steals per 36 minutes. You know who averaged at least those numbers this season? Nobody. That gives you an idea of the kind of potential Bledsoe has.
Assuming James receives a maximum contract this summer, the average salary of those seven players who equaled or bettered Bledsoe's per-game numbers from last season is about $15.7 million (per ShamSports salary data), and that's including Curry's low-ball average from his $12 million-per-year extension signed a few years ago when he was coming off ankle problems. A "rookie max" deal is basically just market rate for Bledsoe's production.
When you consider that Bledsoe is also a significantly better defensive player than at least half of the players on that list—Curry, Harden, Paul, Westbrook—it becomes clear that he's easily worth the money.
All of this is even before we get to Bledsoe's importance to the Suns. According to NBA.com, the Suns were about 2.5 points better per 100 possessions with Bledsoe on the floor this season and 5.2 points better per 100 defensively.
When Bledsoe played with Goran Dragic as his backcourt mate, the Suns obliterated opponents, outscoring them by 11.0 points per 100 possessions, scoring and defending at a top-five rate. When that pair played with P.J. Tucker, the margin shot up to 13.0 points per 100 possessions, and the defense reached league-leading levels.
Bledsoe's hounding on-ball defense was a key to keeping the Suns afloat on that end, and his pilfering abilities also played a large part in their leading the NBA in fast-break points.
As I detailed in this space back in December, Bledsoe's speed and relentless attacking mindset also help key Phoenix's dangerous pick-and-pop offense. Bledsoe ranked 12th in the NBA in drives per game this season, according to SportVU data released by the NBA in conjunction with STATS LLC, while Dragic ranked seventh.
Among the 58 players who averaged at least 5.0 drives per game, Bledsoe's 8.6 points per game created via drives ranked a very solid 13th, within the top 25 percent. Every player ahead of him, save for LeBron, averaged more drives per game. Only Tony Parker played fewer minutes per game.
Perhaps most importantly, Bledsoe is still just 24 years old. He's already quite good, and he's only going to get better. There aren't many players in the league who can replicate—or even imitate—his skill set. The combination of speed, strength, tenacity, aggressiveness and full-court athleticism can only be packed into so many people.
When you have a chance to lock up a player of this caliber, at this age, at a fair price point, you take it. Simple as that.