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Are Eric Bledsoe and Phoenix Suns Better off Without One Another?

PHOENIX, AZ - APRIL 14:  Eric Bledsoe #2 of the Phoenix Suns high fives fans as he walks off the court following the NBA game against the Memphis Grizzlies at US Airways Center on April 14, 2014 in Phoenix, Arizona.  The Grizzlies defeated the Suns 97-91. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 13, 2014

Don't tell Eric Bledsoe and the Phoenix Suns that absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Their time apart during a testy summer hasn't done much to bring either side closer on a contract for the restricted-free-agent guard, and the chances of Bledsoe sticking around on a one-year qualifying offer (and then bolting as an unrestricted free agent) have gone from unthinkable to probable.

Suns owner Robert Sarver commented on Bledsoe's potential willingness to sign the equivalent of a one-and-done deal to Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic:

Maybe that's just posturing and negotiating. We haven't heard from the guy in four months, so I couldn't tell you. I do know that when he played here, he felt good about the organization, his coaching staff and his teammates at the end of the season. We had the same feelings toward him.

Four months? So there's been no communication since the final week of the regular season?

We'll forgive Sarver for his exaggeration. A lack of progress in negotiations can make a person forget that Bledsoe and his camp must have at least communicated a firm "no, thanks" to the team's four-year $48 million offer in July.

Restricted free agency does this. The Suns have no incentive to make a big offer because they can just wait to match somebody else's, assuring they won't ever have to bid against themselves. With no other offers coming in, Phoenix's worst-case scenario—Bledsoe playing out another year while it watches to make sure he's fully healthy and capable of improving—is a pretty darn good one.

From Bledsoe's perspective, this all probably feels a little unfair. He said as much to Kyle Burger of EVTM-TV: "I can understand the Phoenix Suns are using restricted free agency against me."

Things aren't looking good between the Suns and Bledsoe, and it's becoming increasingly likely that we're only a year away from a split. Would that be good for anyone?

 

Bledsoe Better Off?

SAN ANTONIO, TX - April 11: Eric Bledsoe #2 of the Phoenix Suns drives against Patty Mills #8 of the San Antonio Spurs at the AT&T Center on April 11, 2014 in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading an
D. Clarke Evans/Getty Images

Saying Bledsoe would benefit from leaving Phoenix presumes he'd perform better with another team.

He might get paid more, but even that's not a certainty. After all, if another club valued him above four years and $48 million, maybe he would have fielded an offer by now.

We can't assume he'll play better either. The surprising secret of the Suns last year was that Bledsoe bombed as a lead dog. When he was on the floor without Dragic, the Suns scored 100.7 points per 100 possessions and allowed 105.6, per NBA.com.

That's a net rating of minus-4.9 points per 100 possessions, which meant a Bledsoe-led Suns club performed somewhere between the levels of the Boston Celtics (minus-5.5) and the Detroit Pistons (minus-4.4) last year.

That doesn't say much for Bledsoe's quality as a top option.

When Bledsoe paired with Dragic, though, the Suns crushed opponents. They posted a net rating of plus-11 that would have topped the league-best San Antonio Spurs by nearly three points per 100 possessions. Toss in those small-sample-size caveats if you like (Bledsoe and Dragic shared the floor for just 38 games last year), but acknowledge the fact that together, those two were beasts.

Bledsoe's stats as a starter, though accumulated in just over half a season, were stellar. It's hard to find excellent backcourt defenders who can also score (17.7 points per game). Bledsoe is one of those guys.

Dec 13, 2013; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns guard Eric Bledsoe (2) and Goran Dragic against the Sacramento Kings at US Airways Center. The Suns defeated the Kings 116-107. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

Unfortunately, without having seen him prove his skills as a go-to guy, it's not safe to say he'll be better off someplace else. In fact, he might be significantly worse.

 

Brighter Suns

PHOENIX, AZ - JULY 21: The Phoenix Suns introduce Isaiah Thomas and Anthony Tolliver on July 21, 2014 at U.S. Airways Center in Phoenix, Arizona. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user
Barry Gossage/Getty Images

Talent like Bledsoe's doesn't come along often. There's a reason he's earned the nickname "mini-LeBron," as his blend of raw physical strength and speed make him a real handful on both ends.

Not only that, but he fits nicely into the two-point guard system the Suns favor.

Those on- and off-court splits with Dragic indicate something important, though. It might simply be the case that for all of Bledsoe's obvious physical gifts, just about anyone could thrive alongside a star like the Dragon.

We could get clarity on that point soon, as Phoenix signed Isaiah Thomas over the summer. Though the undersized point guard lacks the bulk of Bledsoe, his skills as a scorer and distributor are somewhat similar. Even more interestingly, Thomas actually posted a higher player efficiency rating than Bledsoe last season (20.5 to 19.6), per Basketball-Reference.

If Thomas shines alongside Dragic, we'll know Bledsoe's success was attributable to situation and teammates as much as his individual talent.

SACRAMENTO, CA - APRIL 16: Isaiah Thomas #22 of the Sacramento Kings shoots a layup against Eric Bledsoe #2 of the Phoenix Suns on April16, 2014 at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Plus, if Bledsoe were to walk away after the 2014-15 season, the Suns could use the money saved to splurge on improvements throughout the roster. A better scoring wing or a more accomplished low-block big would certainly help. And if Thomas gives Phoenix most of what Bledsoe provided, the overall exchange could be a real win for the Suns.

Good as Bledsoe is, it sure feels like the Suns would survive the breakup better than he would.

 

More Than the Sum of Their Parts

Mar 28, 2014; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns guard Eric Bledsoe (2) stands on the court during the second quarter against the New York Knicks at US Airways Center. The Suns won 112-88. Mandatory Credit: Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

If we pare away all the details, there's an underlying truth that weighs in favor of keeping Bledsoe and the Suns together: They bring out the best in each other.

Bledsoe made a career-altering leap last season, proving he could perform in a starter's role without losing any of his tenacity or effectiveness. And Phoenix benefited from having a second two-way point guard to run its offensive system.

Those facts make it a real shame that the current negotiations are seemingly deadlocked, souring what was clearly a mutually beneficial relationship.

It's hard to see it now, as two sides sense the mounting tension and dig in for the possibility that the fatal damage has already been done. But the Suns and Bledsoe are better off together than they are apart.

Barring a complete collapse in relations that leads to a stunning sign-and-trade, the two parties will get one more season to realize how good they've got it together. Hopefully, Phoenix will make its push into the playoffs, and Bledsoe will lead the charge.

Maybe then they'll see a way to make things work.

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