Shortly after completing a sign-and-trade for the Sacramento Kings’ Isaiah Thomas, Phoenix Suns general manager Ryan McDonough waxed optimistic to AZCentral’s Paul Coro about how the diminutive point guard would complement the dynamic duo of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe.
“…If you can have one or two of those guys on the court at all times, you really don't have any dropoff scoring-wise,” McDonough said. “You always have multiple weapons. You have guys who can run pick-and-rolls from either side of the floor and can push the floor in transition.”
But the move boasts a more practical aim as well: hedging against the possible departure of Bledsoe, with whom the Suns remain engaged in talks over the fourth-year guard’s future with the franchise.
With the dynamic Thomas now in the fold, it’s worth wondering: Is re-signing Bledsoe essential to the Suns’ success next season?
According to ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard, the Suns have offered Bledsoe a four-year, $48 million deal, a figure similar to those recently doled out to Stephen Curry ($44 million), Ty Lawson ($48 million) and Jrue Holiday ($41 million).
On Tuesday, Coro quoted Phoenix president of basketball operations, Lon Babby, as saying the Suns "hope and expect" for Bledsoe to return.
As a restricted free agent, Bledsoe is free to sign with another team, at which point the Suns would have the right to match.
Unfortunately for Bledsoe, as teams scrambled to bolster their lineups in the early days of free agency—compelled, no doubt, by the landscape-altering powers of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and the summer’s other heavy hitters—the big money Bledsoe was looking for quickly dried up.
Bledsoe might be able to wait it out in hopes that a team with significant cap space finally steps forward. At a certain point, however, the Suns might get tired of waiting and withdraw the offer altogether.
Judging by the stats, though, they might want to wait it out a bit longer.
According to NBA.com (stats subscription only), Bledsoe registered the third-highest raw plus-minus amongst all Suns players with a minimum of 500 minutes logged.
Moreover, of the 29 two-man units that charted 100 minutes or more, the Dragic-Bledsoe pairing finished fourth in overall net rating (11.0) over 885 minutes—despite the latter missing 39 games with various maladies.
Unfortunately, that fact alone might be what’s made Phoenix so apprehensive about signing the tenacious two-way guard to a long-term contract. In just four seasons, Bledsoe has missed a total of 88 games, and he has yet to best the 81 games he tallied during his rookie season.
That’s not for nothing, especially if the Suns are seriously considering committing considerable cap space to such a physical force of nature.
Another concern lies in the fact that Phoenix—picked by so many to finish in the Western Conference basement one year ago—simply won’t have the same luxury of surprise this time around. Teams will inevitably be better prepared to handle the Dragic-Bledsoe duo. Similarly, there’s a chance the latter’s breakout year could be in for a fourth-year regression to the mean.
Then again, you can’t blame the Suns for worrying they might be losing out on the opposite outcome. From HoopsHabit’s Evan Massey:
Bledsoe’s playmaking ability improved immensely last season, and he has the potential to get even better in that category. Dragic is a more than capable scorer, and the Suns have plenty of other perimeter shooters as well. If the Suns put the basketball in Bledsoe’s hands and allow him to make plays for his teammates, their offense could look much smoother and be even more high powered than it has been.
Defensively, Bledsoe is extremely improved from his first couple seasons in the NBA. He may not be one of the best in the league, but he is a very pesky defender on the perimeter. Last season, he averaged 1.6 steals per game and used his speed and quick hands to force opposing offenses to be careful when he is on the floor.
The fact that Phoenix owner Robert Sarver has put his wallet squarely on the table before—on a team highlighted by Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire and Shawn Marion—means he’s not categorically opposed to taking a chance on talent.
While some would argue last year’s Suns overachieved, the opposing view seems just as likely: that Phoenix was, from top to bottom, loaded with high-performing, undervalued assets. Bledsoe and Dragic were just the two most notable examples.
Rolling the dice on Bledsoe—be it at the price tag already on the table or something slightly higher—is the kind of move Sarver has to make if Phoenix has any chance of reclaiming its status as a Western Conference contender.
Could the Suns make the playoffs without Bledsoe in the fold? It’s certainly possible, particularly if Thomas and Dragic can approximate last year’s backcourt magic. Next-season leaps from the likes of Gerald Green, Miles Plumlee, Markieff Morris, Marcus Morris and promising rookie T.J. Warren will take care of the rest.
To be the team they're truly capable of being, however, maintaining their chemistry by bringing Bledsoe back must be the Suns’ A-1 priority—especially if the only real casualty is a bit of the bottom line.
All cited NBA.com stats are subscription only. All stats courtesy of NBA.com and current as of July 22 unless otherwise noted.