The Phoenix Suns have steadfastly maintained that they’ll match any offer extended to restricted free agent Eric Bledsoe this summer. That stance likely foiled opposing teams’ pursuits of the star point guard during the early stages of 2014 free agency, because they’d essentially be driving into a dead-end cul-de-sac.
But, with news that Phoenix and the Kentucky product are not on the same page in contract negotiations, organizations around the Association may finally pounce in an attempt to poach the 24-year-old stud away from the desert.
Per a report from ESPN.com’s Chris Broussard, “Eric Bledsoe and the Phoenix Suns remain far apart in contract talks, according to sources close to the situation.”
Broussard wrote that the Suns front office has offered Bledsoe a four-year, $48 million deal, but the man otherwise known as “Mini-LeBron” is holding out for a five-year max contract at $80 million.
Whether the four-year pro is worth a max deal is up for debate.
There’s no doubting that Bledsoe is a tremendous two-way player. He can affect the outcome of games on both ends of the court, but his first year donning a Suns jersey was also his first as a full-time starter in the NBA.
His body didn’t tolerate the increased workload. He underwent surgery in January to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee, which kept him sidelined for more than two months.
The two-pronged attack of point guards—Goran Dragic and Bledsoe—helped guide Jeff Hornacek’s desert-dwellers to an entirely unexpected 48-win campaign in 2013-14. Bledsoe was phenomenal when healthy, but he only played 43 games (slightly more than half the season).
If nothing else, Phoenix has brought in a security blanket of sorts with 25-year-old floor general Isaiah Thomas. The former Sacramento Kings point guard was acquired via sign-and-trade on a four-year, $27 million deal—in other words, an absolute bargain.
Nevertheless, general manager Ryan McDonough’s plans haven’t wavered. He still wants to keep Bledsoe on board, per USA Today’s Sam Amick:
Suns' vision still includes Eric Bledsoe, who is a restricted free agent. Phoenix views Thomas as great third guard to play with EB & Dragic— Sam Amick (@sam_amick) July 11, 2014
The blueprint in Phoenix last year was to use two guards capable of handling the basketball at all times (a la the Suns teams of old with Hornacek and Kevin Johnson in the same backcourt). Adding a third All-Star-caliber point guard to the mix simply makes the Suns more potent than they were already.
As Bleacher Report’s Adam Fromal wrote:
Hornacek’s plan of using two floor generals at once is inherently dependent on having two at his disposal. Rostering three isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity for that system to stand the rigorous test of a full 82-game campaign with enough energy to spare for a postseason run.
A three-point-guard carousel including Bledsoe, Dragic and Thomas would ensure that Phoenix’s fast-paced system continues to run opponents out of the building. It’s a solid plan, but it’s a strategy entirely dependent upon Bledsoe staying put.
That may not happen if the following suitors step up to the plate with an offer Bledsoe can’t refuse; and, more importantly, one that the Suns wouldn’t feel comfortable matching given the point guard’s injury history.
Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey has gained a reputation as a mad scientist within H-Town’s front office.
Wooing three-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard away from the Los Angeles Lakers last summer, and trading for All-Star shooting guard James Harden in 2012, vaulted the Rockets from mediocrity to contention.
Unfortunately for Morey, Houston’s 2014 offseason has been less than stellar.
The Rockets spent the early stages of summer orchestrating the framework of deals to free up cap space. Their pursuit of a third star to pair with Harden and Howard was blatantly obvious, but it didn’t come to fruition.
Morey traded away two key pieces on expiring deals. Omer Asik—the best backup center in basketball—was shipped to the New Orleans Pelicans. Jeremy Lin, meanwhile, was sent to the Lakers along with a future first-round and second-round pick.
Houston escaped total disaster by adding Trevor Ariza on a four-year, $32 million contract, but it’s pretty clear the 2014-15 roster is less potent than it was a year ago.
If the Rockets intend to remedy that in the short term, targeting Bledsoe is an ideal starting point. Patrick Beverley and Isaiah Canaan are the only true point guards remaining on the roster, which isn't a good recipe. An upgrade at the position would go a long way toward improving Houston’s title hopes.
The Rockets could emulate a similar backcourt attack with Bledsoe and Harden, but it’s unclear if they’d rather hone in on free agents next summer instead.
It’s also unlikely that Phoenix would let its free-agent priority leave for a different Western Conference contender.
Nevertheless, Houston has the cap space necessary to put an offer on the table. At the very least, it could push Phoenix into a corner. As a best-case scenario, the Rockets would be the first to call Phoenix's bluff to match any offer and steal him outright.
As Broussard reports, “The Milwaukee Bucks have been mentioned as a team with interest in Bledsoe.”
The Bucks have promising young pieces like shot-blocking specialist Larry Sanders, the lanky John Henson, the “Greek Freak” Giannis Antetokounmpo and No. 2 overall draft choice Jabari Parker out of Duke.
Expensive signings like O.J. Mayo and Ersan Ilyasova haven’t panned out in Milwaukee, which is why rolling the dice on Bledsoe’s health makes perfect sense. At least that signing could be justified.
The incumbent point guard—Brandon Knight—will become a free agent after next season. Bledsoe is an obvious upgrade at floor general and could move Knight to a more favorable role of sixth man in the interim.
Moving forward with Bledsoe and Parker as faces of the franchise would also take pressure off Sanders. He experienced a disastrous 2013-14 campaign marred with off-court incidents.
A core of Bledsoe, Antetokounmpo, Parker and Sanders could be downright dangerous a few years down the road if they can mature. Phoenix is clearly the better basketball situation right now, though.
The biggest draw to Milwaukee would be money. Even with a plethora of bad contracts (Mayo, Ilyasova and Zaza Pachulia), the Bucks have some wiggle room.
Phoenix intends to match any offer, but a sign-and-trade with Milwaukee has legs. If the Suns could poach a youngster like Giannis (unlikely) or Henson (more likely), they could shore up a frontcourt that recently lost Channing Frye to the Orlando Magic.
The Bucks certainly qualify as a dark-horse contender to land Bledsoe through an interesting set of circumstances.
In the past, the Atlanta Hawks organization has not been opposed to sniping big-name free agents away from the Valley of the Sun.
Back in 2005, former Suns shooting guard Joe Johnson left Phoenix for ATL on a sign-and-trade deal. Boris Diaw was sent back in return.
The circumstances facing Johnson were very similar to those facing Bledsoe now.
ESPN.com’s Marc Stein wrote the following of the Johnson saga:
“After maintaining for weeks that it would match any offer sheet Johnson signs, Phoenix chose a new course this weekend, ultimately deciding it was better for team chemistry to pursue a sign-and-trade with Atlanta instead of investing huge sums in a player who wants to leave.”
Could history repeat itself with a new upstart guard?
Bledsoe hasn’t voiced any displeasure regarding his situation with the Suns. However, if he feels that Phoenix is lowballing him, he may become more vocal—as Johnson did in the past.
Atlanta already has a valuable young point guard in Jeff Teague, but Bledsoe displayed the ability to play harmoniously next to another 1-guard in Phoenix. The Hawks have the cap space needed to give Bledsoe’s agent an offer sheet, but mutual interest between the two parties is up for debate.
Grantland.com’s Zach Lowe wrote a column deciphering winners and losers in 2014 free agency. He deemed the Hawks a loser and added the following:
No one will take Atlanta’s money, despite a good core of players, a very good coaching staff, and an innovative style of play Mike Budenholzer has only just begun installing. Some stars won’t even meet with them. I almost wanted to hug Budenholzer when I saw him in Vegas.
If money is the only deciding factor in Bledsoe’s mind, Atlanta shouldn’t hesitate. Drawing huge stars like Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James or Chris Bosh was never a possibility, but a second-tier guy like Bledsoe is feasible—especially since he grew up in nearby Birmingham, Alabama. Remember, Johnson’s Arkansas roots were yet another deciding factor weighing his decision to leave Arizona.
If the Hawks put a huge offer on the table, Bledsoe would gain the upper hand in negotiations. He could ask Phoenix not to match the deal, as Johnson did, and force a sign-and-trade.
This is where the Bledsoe-to-Hawks potential truly gets off the ground.
The Suns said continually that they planned to keep Johnson at any cost—and that was without any lingering injury concerns. When he threatened team chemistry by voicing he’d rather be the No. 1 option in Atlanta, Phoenix changed its course of action and got what turned out to be a pretty darn good player in Diaw.
This time around, the Hawks have assets that may be even more intriguing. For example, point guard Dennis Schroder and 2014 first-round pick Adreian Payne would both fit needs for the Suns. They’re also young enough to develop down the road.
Giving up two prospects in order to (perhaps) overpay Bledsoe may be a steep price. Nonetheless, the Hawks haven’t been seen as a suitable free-agent destination. This may be their one big opportunity to land a star capable of playing alongside Teague, Al Horford and Paul Millsap. That squad would instantly become a contender in the watered down Eastern Conference.
This makes a lot of sense for more reasons than the Johnson comparison.
Atlanta hasn't made waves during free agency, but it's the biggest threat to swipe Bledsoe from Phoenix.
It’s logical to believe Bledsoe will wind up back with the first franchise to give him a starting gig. If another franchise intended to throw max money at Bledsoe, it likely would have happened already.
If you were an opposing GM, would you offer Eric Bledsoe a max contract?
In any case, the Suns won’t be at a total loss if Bledsoe somehow manages to slip through their fingers. Thomas and Dragic can hold the fort in the meantime.
Also, without Bledsoe’s next contract on board, Phoenix could retain Dragic long term when his contract expires. “The Dragon” was arguably the better point guard anyway from aspects extending further than durability.
The plan in Phoenix is, and always has been, keeping Bledsoe. Hornacek’s innovative two-point-guard lineups ran circles around opposing NBA teams and were incredibly fun to witness.
Suns management doesn’t want to lose that.
With that said, sharks are in the water. Another NBA franchise may present a Godfather offer to Bledsoe. If that happens, fans will have to see if McDonough and Co. will stick to the plan or deviate with a last-second change of heart.