How Eric Bledsoe's Contract Impacts Goran Dragic's Future with Phoenix Suns

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How Eric Bledsoe's Contract Impacts Goran Dragic's Future with Phoenix Suns
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Goran Dragic's future with the Phoenix Suns is beyond his control. 

Nearly two months into free agency, the Eric Bledsoe saga soldiers on. He remains unsigned, and while the Suns haven't waited around twiddling their thumbs—Isaiah Thomas, anyone?—they are in limbo until this sudden soap opera reaches resolution.

The end result, whatever it is, will impact Dragic. Not only will he be either losing or retaining his backcourt partner in crime, but he's approaching a crossroads of his own.

Dragic can become an unrestricted free agent next summer if he so chooses. He holds a player option worth $7.5 million, and if he follows up 2013-14 with an equally strong 2014-15, it's not unreasonable to assume that he will explore the open market.

And though Dragic's decision to hit free agency may not be rooted in Bledsoe's actions, the money Phoenix is offering—or not offering—will be.

 

If Bledsoe Leaves...

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Few entertained the idea of Bledsoe leaving before the offseason began. He wouldn't be going anywhere.

Then the offseason actually happened. 

Phoenix hasn't moved on its initial four-year, $48 million offer, according to Paul Coro of AZCentral.com; Bledsoe, meanwhile, is believed to be seeking five years and $80 million, per ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard

Marked difference in opinion has created tension. Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today says the relationship between player and team has "soured" amid negotiations. Those findings echoed CSNNW.com's Chris Haynes, who suggested the bond may have been broken beyond repair.

Worst-case scenario has Bledsoe leaving by way of trade or another offer sheet. The latter is unrealistic, since the Suns would likely match any contract their point guard receives. It doesn't help that funds have dried up around the league either, making it so there is no offer sheet for Bledsoe to sign.

A sign-and-trade was thought to be equally unlikely, but Jude LaCava of Fox Sports 910 (via Bright Side Of The Sun) says otherwise:

I'll tell you this, and I think this is the first time it's reported, I do believe in my NBA sources. You can take this to the bank, so to speak, the Suns are now discussing trade possibilities for Eric Bledsoe.

That's the new chapter to this and I wouldn't back off of that information. I think it's 100% correct.

True, false—it doesn't matter. If Bledsoe is traded, Dragic has leverage entering next summer.

The free-agent market won't be awash with talented floor generals. Thomas will also be the lone starting-caliber point man on the roster at that point.

That leaves Dragic to negotiate a lucrative new contract which in theory should pay him way more than the $7.5 million he's slated to earn for 2015-16. And without Bledsoe or a spectacular contingency plan, the Suns may be forced to pay him the kind of money they won't give his sidekick.

 

If Bledsoe Bends...

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Seeing Bledsoe play for any team other than the Suns remains unlikely. Chances are he stays in Phoenix for at least another year.

Or four.

For all Bledsoe's displeasure, he could find himself signing the four-year, $48 million pact the Suns are slinging. That's a lot of cash, after all—enough financial security to set him up for life.

There's also the matter of leverage, something Bledsoe isn't toting.

Restricted free agents are at the mercy of incumbent teams. Their only clout-carrying play is to accept a one-year qualifying offer, play one season at a steep discount and hope they're valuable and healthy enough to land a bigger contract the following summer.

Most restricted free agents won't take that risk. Greg Monroe of the Detroit Pistons is an exception. Though Bledsoe can follow his lead, Tom Ziller of SB Nation colors these types of power plays empty threats:

Think of all the weird, tortured restricted free agency cases we've had over the years, like Josh Smith, Josh Childress, Gerald Wallace and others. None of them resulted in the player signing the qualifying offer.

Ben Gordon is the closest example of a high-level case. After failing to reach a deal with the Bulls in 2008, Gordon signed the qualifying offer and received an absurd, painful five-year, $55 million deal with Detroit in 2009. But Gordon is a rare case: since 2003, only 13 first-round picks have ever taken the qualifying offer. Of those 13, only Spencer Hawes agreed to a long-term deal with the same team.

History points toward Bledsoe re-upping with the Suns now, not later. And if history repeats itself, it has a mixed bag of repercussions should Dragic reach free agency next summer.

Locking up Bledsoe on a long-term deal ensures the Suns have at least two talented point guards (Thomas) on the docket, bilking Dragic of some bargaining power. 

At the same time, they'll also have kept Bledsoe on their own terms without bending to his max-contract demands. Housing him at $48 million is far different than lining his pockets with $80 million over the next half-decade. 

The Suns, then, should have enough cap flexibility to keep their backcourt dyad intact. At the very least, re-signing Bledsoe now puts them in the thick of Dragic's free-agent fray later, armed with the ability—and hopefully the means—to keep him in town, too.

 

If Bledsoe Accepts Qualifying Offer...

Matt York/Associated Press

This is where things get really interesting.

Possibly for the worse. 

Accepting the Suns' $3.7 million qualifying offer isn't out of the question for Bledsoe. Zillgitt says the point man is "strongly considering" pulling a Monroe with the hopes of landing a more substantial deal next summer. 

Pushing forward on what is basically a one-year contract changes everything. It's a risky yet smart play for Bledsoe if he truly believes he's worth more than the Suns are dangling.

Playing through next season while appearing in more than 43 games and producing at a level that rivals the 17.7 points, 4.7 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 1.6 steals per game he averaged last year puts him in the driver's seat.

Bledsoe will only be 25 come next summer. Investing max money in him over another five years may not seem as egregious to the Suns if exceptional play precedes negotiations. But then there's the matter of Dragic to consider.

Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press
Could this duo meet its end in one year?

If he opts for free agency in this scenario, the Suns have two marquee free agents on their hands, both of whom may command contracts that average eight figures annually.

We already know that's what Bledsoe is demanding; Dragic is unlikely to be any different. 

Six players averaged at least 20 points, three rebounds, 5.5 assists and one steal per game last season: LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, James Harden and Dragic. All of them, with the exception of Dragic and Irving, will earn $10-plus million in 2014-15. 

Irving, by the way, isn't really an exception. He's merely finishing out the "last year" of his rookie contract before his max extension kicks in for 2015-16, at which point he'll be earning noticeably more than Curry.

What happens if Dragic—who will be 29 in summer 2015—puts himself in that same company next season? What happens if he ranks in the top 15 of win shares again? What happens if he helps the Suns navigate labyrinths of adversity once more, pushing them near or into the playoffs?

He'll get paid. Whether it's by the Suns or someone else, he'll get paid. And there could be a strong chance it's by someone else.

Having two talented point men on the open market could force the Suns into an awkward decision: Do they keep Bledsoe or Dragic? If that becomes an actual question, the answer should be the younger, more athletic Bledsoe

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Ideally, the Suns won't have to choose. They would re-sign both and carry on with the dual-point-guard lineups that quarterbacked a top-eight offense

What will inevitably become of the Suns' Goran Dragic-Eric Bledsoe backcourt?

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But there's no guarantee this will be an ideal situation if the Suns end up here. They would either invest in a loaded backcourt or disperse the funds in a way that ensures only one of Bledsoe and Dragic returns. 

"What we ultimately decided is: This is the strength of our team," Suns Coach Jeff Hornacek told AZCentral.com's Bob Young of signing Thomas. "Let's bolster it instead of going in a different direction."

Maintain that mindset, and the Suns, no matter how Bledsoe's immediate future plays out, are on track to keep him and Dragic together.

Move on that philosophy in any way or put a cap on its value, and Bledsoe's decision now could be the beginning of an abrupt, backcourt-breaking, duo-disbanding end.

 

*Salary information via ShamSports. Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.


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