It might not boast quite the poetic pull of LeBron James’ prodigal return, but the ongoing negotiations—some might call it a feud—between Eric Bledsoe and the Phoenix Suns certainly don't lack for political intrigue.
After entering the summer as a prime candidate for a maximum contract, Bledsoe is now considering whether or not to accept Phoenix’s offer of four years and $48 million, per AZCentral.com’s Dan Bickley.
With the league’s free-agent money quickly drying up, the prospect of a last-second dark-horse suitor swooping in with $80 million is becoming less likely by the day.
Worse still, the longer Bledsoe waits, the more apt the Suns will be to pull their offer altogether, leaving the fourth-year combo guard with little choice but to accept the team’s original qualifying offer of $3.7 million for the 2014-15 season.
Given the complex dynamics at play, it’s safe to wonder whether, and to what extent, the Bledsoe saga risks sinking the Suns’ chemistry.
Even in a league leaning harder and heavier every year on the science of statistics, such seemingly secondary concerns oughtn’t be overlooked.
Heading into last season, pulling a pundit willing to posit Phoenix as a playoff team was akin to finding a diamond in a gas-station dumpster. So it is when your roster is devoid of discernible stars.
Sure, Goran Dragic was a nice player. Markieff Morris, Marcus Morris, Miles Plumlee: promising prospects to be sure, even if productive consistency was far from guaranteed.
Into this fledgling franchise flew Bledsoe, acquired from the Los Angeles Clippers in a three-way trade that sent J.J. Redick to L.A. Rather than risk losing Bledsoe in free agency, the Clippers instead opted to fill a more immediate need.
At the time, Bledsoe’s rise was far from a given. He’d already undergone one knee surgery, and questions abounded regarding the bowling-ball guard’s shooting and playmaking abilities.
Moreover, Phoenix faced the very real possibility of a positional feud between Dragic and the younger, flashier Bledsoe. But in a later interview with Slovenian sports magazine Ekipa (via Bright Side of the Sun), Dragic lent some refreshing insight into the genesis of the two’s relationship:
I did not feel threatened. Of course, you are looking a bit differently about the whole thing if you get into the competition. But I was even more self-confident, and I even more "chew" on training. Many people say that competition is healthy, and I agree with that. I'm not afraid of anybody. I'll always give my best, and if I don't succeed, I can't do anything more.
By late December, Bledsoe had emerged as one of the NBA’s most exciting up-and-coming guards—a physical force of nature that, finally afforded full-time starter status, seemed hell-bent on making the most of it.
More importantly, the Bledsoe-Dragic combo was proving more potent in practice than it ever did on paper. Propelled by first-year coach Jeff Hornacek’s emphasis on pace and space, the Suns—the supposed laughingstock of a loaded West—suddenly looked like a playoff team.
Even while Bledsoe recovered from a torn meniscus, suffered in a December 30 win over the Clippers, the Suns somehow maintained their winning ways. Lacking a certifiable superstar, Hornacek appealed instead to team-building concepts at once personal and wholly pragmatic. From an April interview with NBA.com’s Jeff Caplan:
The chemistry part is big. And our guys, we had 10 new guys—you never how that’s going to come together—they’ve gotten along pretty well. We emphasized in the beginning, you’re a bunch of new guys, you’re a lot of guys that have contracts that end this year or they end next year, so that’s always kind of a recipe for disaster when guys try to get individual, worried about their contracts. I told them stories about some of our guys from the past, that when you’re on a good team, that’s when teams want you, that’s when they’ll pay bigger bucks, if you’re on a good team…They’ve put it all aside and just played.
Unfortunately for Phoenix, Hornacek’s penultimate point has now become a painful reality.
It’s hard to imagine one player’s holdout truly jeopardizing team chemistry. Who, after all, understands the complex calculus of winning and wages better than one’s teammates?
At the same time, it’s not hard to see why the Suns have resorted to a bit of hardball. For as much as they clearly appreciate Bledsoe’s value, they also have to worry about re-signing Dragic, who—in the wake of his own breakout season—is almost certain to decline his $7.5 million player option for the 2015-16 season.
The league’s current CBA allows Phoenix to give both guards as big a contract as they see fit, even if it means treading into luxury-tax territory. Still, owner Robert Sarver hasn’t exactly been quick to crest the salary cap in recent seasons. Whether or not he concedes for the sake of a potential contender will go a long way in determining Phoenix’s near-future fortunes.
In a recent open letter to Bledsoe, ArizonaSports.com’s John Gambadoro underscored an important point as it pertains to the Bledsoe-Suns saga: If he really thinks he’s worth max money, why hasn’t Bledsoe so much as fielded a single competitive offer?
For the last 30 days, any team in the NBA had the chance to sign you to an offer sheet and not one team did. They are not scared off by the Suns' remarks of telling the world they will match any offer, which is perfectly within their right. They are scared of giving a good player such as yourself money reserved for superstars. Yes, that is why you don't have an offer. No one thinks you are a max player. Now don't get me wrong, you are a very good player and any team would be happy to have you. Just not at the money you think you are worth.
Looking at Bledsoe’s year-to-year progression, it’s not hard to see why Phoenix has remained reluctant in going beyond an offer on par with those given to the likes of Ty Lawson, Jrue Holiday and Kyle Lowry. Indeed, one breakout year does not—and should not—a max contract make.
In terms of compromising chemistry, Phoenix’s fear isn’t that offering Bledsoe the max would somehow invite resentment, be it from Dragic or anyone else. Rather, the potential for toxic fallout lies in Bledsoe returning for the minimum, only to endure a season full of speculation as to which of the Suns’ two backcourt bulwarks ought to be more fervently courted heading into next summer.
What we’re left with, then, is a game of chicken between two determined, equally stubborn semi-drivers, barreling toward one another down a single-lane stretch of desert road.
Within the resulting guesswork over who blinks, Phoenix fans likely have their personal preference.
As for the Suns themselves, avoiding locker room rancor means not caring about who swerves first, so as long as someone does.