Greg Monroe has left a trail of bread crumbs for Eric Bledsoe.
Teams—specifically incumbent teams—hold all the power. They can diminish a player's market value and, in some cases, eradicate it entirely.
There is only one thing a player can do at that point, when the market is dry and their individual influence dwindling even further: what Monroe is doing.
According to USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt, he will accept the Detroit Pistons' qualifying offer rather than sign a new contract, delaying his free agency until next summer, when his restrictions disappear and his freedom is absolute.
Rare is the player coming off a rookie contract who passes up a lucrative payday, no matter how much more he wants, no matter which team it's coming from. And while the future impact Monroe's decision has on other case studies—assuming he has one at all—can be tirelessly debated, his is a path Bledsoe has the opportunity to travel now...if he dares.
"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," Suns owner Robert Sarver said, per Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic. "We had the same feelings toward him."
Past feelings aren't enough to bridge the gap between what Phoenix is offering and what Bledsoe is seeking.
The Suns, as Coro notes, haven't budged on their four-year, $48 million offer. Bledsoe, meanwhile, is after five years and $80 million, according to ESPN.com's Chris Broussard, putting he and the Suns more than $30 million apart.
If Bledsoe is hellbent on signing a max contract, inking Phoenix's qualifying offer worth a little more than $3.7 million is the only play. There are no other options.
Interested teams won't come calling with max offer sheets this late into free agency. The money isn't there outside Tankadelphia Philadelphia.
If Greg Monroe and Eric Bledsoe are truly willing to sign QO's, you would think Pistons and Suns would be willing to do S&Ts instead.— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) August 12, 2014
Forcing a sign-and-trade is out of the question, too. The Suns have made it abundantly clear they would match any offer he receives, so the incentive to move him isn't there if they covet him that much.
That leaves Bledsoe to do the Monroe (sign Phoenix's qualifying offer) or settle for tens of millions of dollars fewer than he wants.
This decision wasn't taken lightly by Monroe. He had been "discussing options with his agent, David Falk, for the past two offseasons," before taking such drastic measures, according to Zillgitt.
Monroe also signs the qualifying offer knowing he, assuming continued health and production, will have a strong market next summer when there aren't any strings attached to his free agency. Talented big men who can play the 4 and 5 positions still don't come in packs.
Top-notch point guards are more common and therefore not as likely to be overpaid. Kyle Lowry signed a four-year, $48 million pact with the Toronto Raptors after playing like the Eastern Conference's best point guard in 2013-14. That's exactly the same contract Phoenix is offering Bledsoe.
Will there be interested teams willing to pay Bledsoe more money next summer?
Removing the restricted free-agency label helps increase Bledsoe's appeal. Teams don't have to sit and wait for 72 hours while cap space is tied up in a player they'll never keep, so the market will be there, more so than it is now.
Jameer Nelson, Raymond Felton and Devin Harris aren't long-term, championship-building solutions at point guard for the Dallas Mavericks. Jose Calderon and Pablo Prigioni aren't the future for Phil Jackson's New York Knicks.
All of those teams will have ample reason to upgrade at point guard next summer. All of them are also in position to create enough cap space to enter the Bledsoe sweepstakes, per ShamSports. And there will be other teams for Phoenix's point guard to peruse; he will have options.
Think of a dark horse like the Atlanta Hawks. Though they don't need a point guard, Bledsoe's ability to play the 2—he spent four percent of his minutes there last year, but playing alongside Goran Dragic left Phoenix with a positionless backcourt, so to speak—makes him a potential running mate for other floor generals.
Not to mention the Suns, who will still have the ability to offer him more years and money than any other outfit. After seeing him play more than 43 games this season, they could be inclined to break open Sarver's vault-protected piggy bank.
The downside? Continued uncertainty.
Everything between now and then would be predicated on assumptions. Additional teams—in enormous markets, no less—will have cap space, but can Bledsoe follow 2013-14 with an equal or even better 2014-15?
Last season marked his first as a full-time starter, and while he joined Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, James Harden and LeBron James as the only five players to average at least 17.0 points, 4.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 1.5 steals per game while shooting 45-plus percent from the floor, injuries are a concern.
Bledsoe missed 39 games last year. That has no doubt played a role in Phoenix's thinking. It also has to resonate with Bledsoe himself, as he's forced to ponder his own mortality, like Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes dutifully details:
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.
But he, unlike Bledsoe, has the security of a long-term contract.
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
Accepting his qualifying offer provides no such safety net. If Bledsoe hurts himself, his market value will ebb in the direction of the injury's severity. Suddenly that four-year, $48 million contract looks pretty good, yet is nowhere to be found.
Bledsoe will have some fierce competition to contend with as well. Kemba Walker is slated for restricted free agency, Monta Ellis can hit the open market, Rajon Rondo will hit the open market and Dragic has the option to explore unrestricted free agency.
As playmakers, any of them could impede Bledsoe's market. Dragic's case is especially interesting.
There's no telling what the Suns would do if both of their starting guards reach free agency at the same time. Bledsoe will either be deemed more indispensable because he's almost a half-decade younger than the 28-year-old, or Phoenix will be less inclined to pay him if a combination of Dragic and Isaiah Thomas is cheaper.
Sweet though unrestricted free agency seems—especially to restricted free agents—its candy-coated appeal is dependent upon everything going Bledsoe's way.
Betting against there being any market-mangling roadblocks is the risk.
To Monroe, or Not to Monroe?
What's transpiring between Bledsoe and the Suns is no longer a game of chicken.
One side isn't waiting for the other to blink. Perhaps the Suns are waiting for Bledsoe to move on his demands, but that's because they can; Bledsoe himself has no such luxury.
The money he wants isn't there. It's not on the semi-open market. It's not in Phoenix. There is only what the Suns are offering or a unique attempt at tilting the battleground in Bledsoe's favor.
And though it's a risky attempt, Bledsoe's decision isn't about risk itself. It's about faith, as Zillgitt argues:
It is a rare move for a restricted free agent to forsake financial security and a long-term deal now for the hope of something similar one year later. Signing the qualifying offer to become an unrestricted free agent doesn't happen often, but it does happen and there are risks involved — injury or a down season — that could impact the value of the next contract.
It requires foresight, confidence and boldness to sign the qualifying offer, and while it gives a player a chance to explore unrestricted free agency earlier than usual, most players don't want to take that risk.
Faith in one's self is the risk. Bledsoe would be betting on himself because he believes, because he knows his value is bigger and better than what the Suns claim.
What should Eric Bledsoe do?
Does he actually believe that? The continued absence of his signature on Phoenix's offer says yes, just as it did for Monroe in Detroit. And if he actually believes he's worth more, it's time for him to act like it.
Sign the qualifying offer. Play through next season. Make the gamble Phoenix won't and other teams can't for a chance at gaining the power and security you clearly crave but cannot get right now.
Turn the tables.
Flip the script.
Follow the bread crumbs.