The realities of restricted free agency have twisted the relationship between Eric Bledsoe and the Phoenix Suns into something it never should have become. Now, the only question is whether that relationship is too damaged to save.
To recap, Bledsoe remains unsigned, still adrift on the free-agent seas alongside fellow RFA Greg Monroe long after the rest of the league's top available talents have already found homes. He's not in that situation because he's unworthy of a contract. Quite the opposite, actually; Bledsoe is, arguably, a franchise cornerstone.
The problem is that the Suns made it clear to potential suitors from the outset that they would match any offer coming Bledsoe's way. So those offers never came, and Phoenix slid a four-year, $48 million pact across the table to Bledsoe in July—a deal that remains unsigned.
And Bledsoe's no dummy. He knows what's going on.
He told Kyle Burger of WVTM-TV in Birmingham: "I can understand the Phoenix Suns are using restricted free agency against me. But I understand that."
It's simple: The Suns saying they'll match any offer (and having the cash to make good on that threat) prevents other teams from even bothering. Why tie up cash in an offer sheet you know will be matched when you can spend it elsewhere?
In addition to Bledsoe's comments, there followed a report from Chris Haynes of CSNNW.com that cited a league source who said there had been an “ominous development” in talks between Bledsoe and the Suns and that the “relationship is on the express lane to being ruined.”
Suns owner Robert Sarver told Arizona Sports 98.7 FM:
We think it's a fair offer. I think you could argue, you know, I mean some would say it's maybe a little high; some would say it's low. What's fair is important to us, and also important to him—him and his agent. It's not necessarily us to determine what he thinks is fair; it's him to determine that.
The fact that said offer remains unsigned says plenty about Bledsoe's opinion on its fairness. And even if Bledlsoe's frustration stems more from the inequitable bargaining position created by restricted free agency than the dollar amount of the offer itself (that's Kyle Lowry money!), the point is: He's not happy.
Unhappiness, it seems, is a common emotion for players in Bledsoe's position.
Restricted free agency is merely part of a larger system designed to give teams an edge in retaining their own talent. It works alongside other collectively bargained options like the fifth year on a max deal and Bird rights, both of which are meant to help clubs who've invested in their players to keep them. They're tools.
But as Bledsoe intimated, those tools can sometimes feel an awful lot like weapons.
Negotiations in restricted free agency don't happen at arm's length. In this case, the Suns know Bledsoe cannot simply leave. At the very worst, Phoenix can sign him to a one-year qualifying offer, keeping him with the team next season before allowing him to hit unrestricted free agency.
And as worst-case scenarios go, even this one seems pretty favorable for Phoenix. After all, Bledsoe missed half the season with a torn meniscus last year. Don't you think the Suns might like to see how he holds up in 2014-15 before handing over a huge contract?
Unrestricted free agency next summer could put Bledsoe in a far more advantageous position. He'd have real leverage—especially if he were to play well this year. But players around the league got a horrifying reminder of just how valuable long-term contracts can be when Paul George went down with a broken leg in Team USA's scrimmage.
In the unlikely event Eric Bledsoe was considering playing next year for the qualifying offer, tonight was a reminder of why he shouldn’t.— Brett Pollakoff (@BrettEP) August 2, 2014
NBA careers are short, typically over by the time a player hits his mid-30s. And everyone—Bledsoe included—just got a refresher about how abruptly things can change course. It says something when Bledsoe's "best" option, his only real leverage, is to take on the enormous risk of a one-year deal.
That powerlessness has to be eating at Bledsoe. He's not being held hostage (few hostages are ever presented with the chance to make $48 million), but he's also not enjoying the kind of career freedom he'd probably like.
The upshot here is that the current situation between Bledsoe and the Suns—even if it resolves itself reasonably soon—could sow seeds of discord that affect their relationship down the line.
Consider some of the other messes restricted free agency has caused. Eric Gordon told Jimmy Smith of The Times-Picayune that he would be "disappointed" if the then-New Orleans Hornets were to match the offer sheet he signed with the Suns in 2012.
They matched anyway, and he was stuck in a place he didn't want to be. Injuries have played a role in Gordon's disappointing stay in New Orleans, but there's also been a cloud of dissatisfaction hanging over the Crescent City for some time.
The parallels aren't exact, but the overarching idea is the same: Restricted free agency can create awkward situations—ones that drag on to the detriment of both team and player, in some cases.
So it's not necessarily the idea of losing Bledsoe that should worry the Suns, unpalatable as that may seem. The scarier proposition might be keeping him on a pricey deal after driving a wedge between him and the organization this summer. It's probably not wise to peer too far down that hypothetical road, but the possibility of unrest, locker room troubles and maybe even a trade demand aren't out of the question.
Maybe that's extreme, but it should be a legitimate concern. Sarver, however, doesn't seem worried, per his radio interview with Arizona Sports 98.7 FM:
And what professional players do, regardless of how their contract works out, when it's time to play, they play as hard as they can—for themselves, their teammates and for the organization. So what takes place before a contract is signed usually doesn't have a lot of bearing on what takes place after a contract is signed—when you have a high-character athlete and a high-quality organization.
Sarver could be right. Bledsoe has conducted himself professionally throughout his career, handling the difficulty of playing a reserve role with the Los Angeles Clippers and then being traded last summer without incident. Perhaps once a deal is finally done, he'll agree with Sarver's assessment that this has all just been business as usual.
But it's not hard to see this playing out in another, far more damaging fashion.
The Suns and Bledsoe won't be splitting any time soon. He'll be around for at least another year unless something drastic happens, and we'll most likely see a multiyear agreement for something slightly above the four-year, $48 million contract that's been on offer.
Sarver can talk about bygones being bygones all he wants, but we can't just expect Bledsoe to forget how this process has gone. And although his current situation is really just a product of the way the restricted free-agency system has been set up, he's still perfectly justified in feeling like he hasn't gotten a fair shake.
The Suns are making the smart financial move by taking a hard-line approach in negotiations where they have all the control. They want Bledsoe and know they don't have to pay market value to get him. In the end, though, the cost may be far greater than Phoenix suspects.
Even if an ugly breakup isn't on the horizon, Bledsoe and the Suns could be in for something even worse: a long, unhappy relationship.