Why Phoenix Suns' Risky Free-Agent Gamble with Eric Bledsoe Will Pay off

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Why Phoenix Suns' Risky Free-Agent Gamble with Eric Bledsoe Will Pay off
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As Eric Bledsoe's restricted free agency drags on, it's tempting to start asking questions, wringing hands and giving in to the sense of urgency building around the Phoenix Suns guard.

Resist those urges; the Suns certainly have.

Phoenix is in total control and knows Bledsoe isn't going anywhere—at least not unless it lets him.

The collective bargaining agreement grants the Suns immense power in this situation, as they can simply wait around for someone to offer Bledsoe a contract, match it and retain him.

They've said that's precisely what they'd do since February, when president of basketball operations Lon Babby confirmed as much in a radio interview as a guest on the Doug and Wolf Show on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM (via ArizonaSports.com). And teams around the league have taken them at their word: Bledsoe hasn't fielded a single offer from another club this summer.

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Whether the Suns are bluffing or not, we may never know. What we do know, though, is that things are proceeding precisely as planned.

It's not like Phoenix is just sitting around and waiting for teams to spend their cap space elsewhere while Bledsoe's earning power gradually recedes in kind—although that's a pleasant side effect of the patient approach the Suns are taking.

Phoenix made a four-year, $48 million offer, according to ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard, which Bledsoe and his camp rejected. Extending a good-faith, fair-market deal like that shows the Suns aren't simply out to squeeze Bledsoe for every penny this summer.

Management, including Babby, has been forthright about the organization's desire to keep the star guard, per Paul Coro of AZCentral.com: "We'll continue to work as hard as we can within that restricted free agency system established by the collective bargaining agreement. We continue to hope and expect that he will remain in a Suns uniform."

While a literal translation of those sentiments would probably be "We are in control here, and we know it," the Suns are dealing fairly with Bledsoe.

Remember, the Toronto Raptors re-signed Kyle Lowry on exactly the terms Phoenix offered its star guard. Despite that reasonable offer, you can't fault Bledsoe for holding out. He's younger than Lowry, just 24, and despite less than one full season as a starter, Bledsoe has shown borderline-superstar productivity.

Ralph Freso/Associated Press

There are injury concerns, sure. A torn meniscus cost Bledsoe half the 2013-14 season, but he averaged 17.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.0 assists in just 32 minutes per game after returning on March 12, per NBA.com, numbers almost exactly in line with his overall season averages.

From Bledsoe's perspective, it made sense to turn down that four-year deal from Phoenix. He might be worth more on the open market, and at the time it was still possible for another team to extend a better offer.

But the option of holding out for a bigger contract (let alone the max salary Bledsoe reportedly covets, per Broussard) is no longer an option. Thanks to Phoenix's stated intention to match any offer sheet, teams spent their cap space elsewhere, leaving none for Bledsoe.

Know who has enough cash to make a max offer? The Suns.

And they're not going to bid against themselves.

Oh, sure, the Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks could get involved, but neither club's interest in Bledsoe ever progressed beyond a passing one. And as always, the looming threat of a Suns match means even talking to Bledsoe is probably a waste of time at this point.

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Really, all Bledsoe has left is the threat of signing a one-year qualifying offer. And even that prospect shouldn't worry the Suns.

Not just because Phoenix would be happy to get another ridiculously cheap year of star-quality play (Bledsoe's qualifying offer for 2014-15 would only net him $3.7 million). And not just because the Suns could use that inexpensive season to fully assure themselves Bledsoe's knee is healthy enough to warrant a long-term commitment.

But also because Phoenix will still have more than enough money next summer to be the prime suitor when Bledsoe hits unrestricted free agency.

Bledsoe has almost no control in this situation, and what little he might choose to exercise still puts the Suns in a powerful position. And that's to say nothing of the risks involved with taking the rare course of the qualifying offer.

Per Sean Deveney of Sporting News:

There have been remarkably few restricted free agents who signed the qualifying offer — fewer than a dozen in the last 15 years. While there have been quite a few success stories (Ben Gordon, Rasho Nesterovic, Vladimir Radmanovic, Raymond Felton), there have also been some disasters (Michael Olowokandi, Melvin Ely, Robert Swift).

When a list of "winners" includes Raymond Felton and Vlad Radmanovic, that's probably not a game you want to play. And the losers Deveney lists, well...that's basically a Scared Straight program for free agents.

The risk for the Suns in this scenario, of course, is that Bledsoe gets fed up, takes the qualifying offer and plays the 2014-15 season with one foot out the door. For a team like the Suns, who performed like a playoff squad in 2013-14 and hope to actually crack the postseason slate this season, that's not ideal.

But Isaiah Thomas is in place as insurance, and it's probably not even fair to assume a disgruntled Bledsoe would mail in a season. After all, it behooves a guy heading into unrestricted free agency to give it his all—just ask Trevor Ariza, king of the contract year.

Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

So even in a worst-case scenario in which no deal gets done and Bledsoe comes back for next to nothing, the Suns still win.

Given all that, the question arises: Why doesn't every team play restricted free agency like this?

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Well, mainly because Bledsoe's short track record and the attendant questions it creates make him unique. Plus, the Suns are in the unusual position of having the future flexibility to make their threats of matching offers seem very, very real. Teams with less cash or more long-term commitments can say they'll match anything but don't always have the financial profile to back up those claims.

Everyone knows the Suns can match without batting an eye.

Credit Phoenix, a team innovating all over the place, for facing a typically complicated situation with total calm and, more importantly, a plan that makes it simple.

Everybody wants leverage in the NBA, especially in contract negotiations. The Suns are putting on a masterclass on how to exploit it.

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