It will be the Suns.
Quite literally, they'll have to give Bledsoe a lot of money.
It just remains to be seen how much, since his market value and worth to the Suns are still very much up in the air.
Chris Broussard of ESPN.com initially reported on July 17 that the Suns were offering Bledsoe four years and $48 million, while the explosive point guard was seeking a max contract worth five years and approximately $80 million.
Neither side has budged weeks later, and it's created a potential rift between player and team, according to CSNNW.com's Chris Haynes:
Phoenix has made it known publicly and repeatedly that they intend to match any offer sheets competitors issue out to Bledsoe. This tactic has succeeded in scaring away any potential suitors so far. However, the effort by the Suns to undermine Bledsoe’s market is what has angered Bledsoe and his reps and led to a standoff in which the relationship is now on the verge of being irreparable, we’re told.
This is where it gets weird. The Suns are clearly willing to pay Bledsoe more, otherwise their scare tactics wouldn't be working so effectively.
Bledsoe still hasn't signed an offer sheet weeks into free agency, presumably because he hasn't found one worth inking. And that's no surprise. Restricted free agents hold virtually no leverage nowadays, and within a bone-dry market, Phoenix holds all the power.
That control allows the Suns to remain $32 million apart from Bledsoe without fear of losing him. They can simply match or exceed whatever offer he receives—something owner Robert Sarver seems more than willing to do.
"We think we gave him a fair offer, and (we would) be more than happy to sit down with him and continue to negotiate it," he said, per ArizonaSports.com's Andrew Gilstrap. "We're happy to do that."
Happy enough to give Bledsoe what he wants?
That all depends.
The 24-year-old point guard is coming off an impressive, albeit injury-plagued, 2013-14 campaign, during which he joined LeBron James, Stephen Curry, James Harden and Chris Paul as the only five NBA players to average at least 17 points, four rebounds, five assists and 1.5 steals per game while shooting 45-plus percent from the floor.
So, all superstars.
Once considered a per-36 minute dream who was capitalizing on short bursts of playing time, Bledsoe's numbers put previous performances to shame:
All this begs the question: Where's Bledsoe's money at?
Offering him a max contract off the bat isn't standard practice—not in Phoenix—but after pitting himself among the league's elite statistically, the Suns are dangling Ty Lawson money. They're baiting him with Jrue Holiday money.
They're handing out Stephen Curry money that wouldn't actually be Stephen Curry money if it weren't for his then-paper ankles.
And therein lies part of the problem. Bledsoe appeared in just 43 games last season.
Knee injuries kept him out for almost half the year. The Suns have just cause to proceed with caution, not unlike the Golden State Warriors did with Curry in 2012, when they signed who is now a top-seven star for $44 million over four years.
Injuries are leverage in this case. As is Phoenix's organic leverage: the absence of an offer sheet.
Zach Harper of CBS Sports delves deeper:
This is the problem for players in restricted free agency. If they don't create the market for themselves by pursuing teams instead of waiting for teams to pursue them, the market can dry up and leave them wondering how to counter an offer they perceive as low from their incumbent team.
Without an offer sheet, Bledsoe doesn't have leverage. Actually, let's not call it leverage. That's not what it is.
Sans an offer sheet, Bledsoe has no market value. The Suns are his market; he has a market of one. And that market of one is offering what it's offering. And it will continue to offer what it's offering unless Bledsoe gives Phoenix a reason to fork over more.
Establishing a more competitive market may be impossible this late into the process, though.
Four NBA executives and two player agents—all of whom were granted anonymity by the Arizona Republic's Paul Coro—unanimously agreed Phoenix's proposal is fair. One of them even considers Bledsoe fortunate to see that much cash:
I'm surprised that they would offer him that much. They don't need to. It is really fair and, in fact, generous. He is talented, but he has never put it together very long, and he hasn't been healthy. It's hard to turn your team over to him.
Even if there are teams who want to pay Bledsoe more, most of them can't.
Almost all of them can't, per ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton:
Following up on @AminESPN's comments on Eric Bledsoe's market drying up, Sixers only team I see with room to make max offer to him now.— Kevin Pelton (@kpelton) July 15, 2014
“First off I’m going to let my agent handle it,” Bledsoe told Alabama 13's Kyle Burger. “I can understand the Phoenix Suns are using a restricted free agent against me. But I understand that.”
Indeed, there's a certain devil-may-care bravado emanating out of Phoenix. The Suns have nothing to worry about. Why should they offer Bledose any more when no one else is? Or when they can and will match any contract he receives?
They shouldn't. And they won't. That's their right.
They're just playing the hand they've been dealt. It just happens to be much stronger than Bledsoe's at the moment.
Discretionary Price Tag
At the risk of alienating Bledsoe, the Suns can—and likely will—come up on their offer. But not by much.
I am also hearing that Suns are sticking with the 4/48 offer to Eric Bledsoe for now, but that it could go up slightly.— Jordan Schultz (@Schultz_Report) August 3, 2014
The threat of new leverage doesn't loom large. If Bledsoe doesn't find another offer sheet, the only thing he can do is accept Phoenix's qualifying offer, play out next season and have complete control over his future by summer 2015, when he will be an unrestricted free agent.
Accepting the qualifying offer is a major risk, though. Another injury could derail Bledsoe's earning potential. Playing poorly could hurt him financially, too.
This is a chance for Bledsoe to secure his financial future. Whatever contract he signs—be it what Phoenix is offering or another one—sets him up for life. There's no way that's lost on him.
More than a month into free agency, Bledsoe can only hope the Suns are willing to budge slightly, which they just might.
Tony Parker extension reportedly at about $15M avg over 3 years. Eric Bledsoe must think the 4x champ is getting rooked.— Jeff Caplan (@Caplan_NBA) August 1, 2014
Sarver's previous comments not only suggest there's still room to negotiate, but the Suns would be walking a fine line if they assume the take-it-or-leave-it approach.
Bledsoe is still a valuable building block—a young and talented athletic specimen who plays the league's most important position and helped pilot the NBA's eighth-best offense last season.
Signing Isaiah Thomas only safeguards their dual-point guard dynamic so much. Goran Dragic can become a free agent next summer, and there's always the possibility Thomas doesn't fit in. Chemistry is important, and it's this profound connection that leads Bleacher Report's Jim Cavan to believe flexibility is paramount:
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.
How much is Bledsoe worth to the Suns?
Something and someone eventually has to give for this relationship to be completely salvaged. In the (likely) event Bledsoe doesn't find that rival offer sheet, the Suns could move their needle slightly as a sign of good faith, in an effort to keep existing good will alive and well.
How far must they rise?
However much he's worth to their future.
What's he worth to their future?
Whatever they're offering.