With just weeks remaining before NBA teams officially open training camp, the league’s free-agent market—once a sea of tantalizing talent—has all but dried up.
Save, that is, for a single pool left glistening in the distance: Eric Bledsoe, whose much-publicized contract dispute with the Phoenix Suns seems no closer to ending than it was when the two sides formally began negotiations on July 1.
Bledsoe has until October 1 to accept Phoenix’s $3.73 million qualifying offer, a scenario looking likelier with each passing day.
Short of seeking out partners for a potential sign-and-trade, the Suns appear poised to walk away the winner of what’s become the summer’s most high-stakes staring contest—either by retaining Bledsoe for the final year of his contract or compelling him to sign a more reasonable deal than the five-year, $80 million contract that USA Today's Paul Coro reports the fourth-year guard is seeking.
What Phoenix might not realize is how badly that outcome might backfire.
On the surface, fielding a backcourt of Bledsoe, Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas—whom the Suns acquired in a sign-and-trade on July 12—seems like a pretty nice problem to have.
Between Bledsoe’s defense and open-court athleticism, Dragic’s savvy scoring and playmaking, and Thomas’ lightning-bug paint-probing, Phoenix’s guard attack is custom-built to give opposing teams fits.
To their credit, Thomas and Dragic seem more than willing to give the possibility of a three-headed monster an earnest shot.
“We are waiting for his decision,” Dragic told RealGM.com’s Erildas Budraitis in a recent interview. “But I think he is a big part of this team. He was great last year and we played together well. I hope he will sign for the next year.”
Though somewhat more guarded in his remarks, Thomas—in an interview with Basketball Insiders’ Alex Kennedy—expressed optimism that the three could “complement each other in different ways.”
While he mostly echoed the two’s sentiments, Bright Side of the Sun's Dave King nevertheless acknowledged what’s sure to be the massive elephant in the locker room come next season:
In any professional sport, your teammates are your competition as much as any opponent. You have to be competitive to win a starting position or even big minutes. On the Phoenix Suns, who project to have three staring-caliber point guards on the roster next season, competition will be at hand all season long.
For a team that cultivated its chemistry like few others in the league—transforming almost immediately from supposed conference doormat to postseason contender—such diplomacy cannot be understated.
Nothing about Bledsoe's past suggests he'd be the type to sulk his way through the season. Then again, when the stakes are this high, hurt feelings tend to linger longer.
In hindsight, the Suns’ decision to target Thomas was nothing if not a level-headed hedge.
For all they knew, any one of a dozen teams could’ve swooped in and offered Bledsoe a maximum offer sheet, putting Phoenix in the precarious decision of having to match on what remains something of an unproven product—despite a breakout 2013-14 campaign.
Further complicating matters is the contract status of Dragic, who is sure to turn down his $7.5 million player option for the 2015-16 season. That is, of course, assuming Phoenix doesn't preempt such a scenario by signing the Slovenian floor general to a long-term extension.
Taking the long view, Phoenix’s hardball approach to the Bledsoe negotiations makes perfect strategic sense.
From its perspective, Bledsoe’s stellar season was, at this point, less a bellwether than a promising outlier—a hint rather than a guarantor of things to come.
By retaining Bledsoe for his meager qualifying offer, the Suns would have an entire season to determine how they should seek to build their backcourt for the long haul.
But what if the gambit does more harm than good? What if sharing the floor with not one, but two top-caliber point guards expedites Dragic’s exit next summer? Furthermore, what if Bledsoe’s post-negotiation bitterness is so deep-seated that not even the prospect of becoming the team’s de facto leader is enough to secure his re-signing?
Here’s what we know: Barring the impossible, there’s no way Bledsoe doesn’t sign up for the qualifying offer on October 1.
The decision Phoenix faces, then, is whether to bring Bledsoe back on the cheap now only to lose him later or strike out a longer-term deal agreeable to both sides, but which both jeopardizes its near-future cap space and increases the odds of Dragic leaving.
If their surprise 48-win season a year ago proved anything, it’s that the Suns are far closer to contention than just about anyone could’ve thought.
That inevitably changes the financial calculus, such that gambling on upside seems far less attractive than rolling with a sure thing.
Here’s Valley of the Suns’ Kevin Zimmerman on why Dragic better fits Phoenix’s near-future plans:
Why Dragic over Bledsoe? While the ceiling is lower, the risk-factor is less. This is a Jabari Parker versus Andrew Wiggins choice. The sure-fire pick is Dragic but the future could be Bledsoe. [Jeff] Hornacek and [Ryan] McDonough saw Dragic’s leadership in the EuroBasket tournament last season, and that’s something that has its own value. If winning is the key now, Dragic is more ready to do so.
There’s still plenty of time for the Suns to seek out potential sign-and-trades, of course, and you’d better believe general manager Ryan McDonough is hard at work doing just that.
Even if the lack of market intrigue means Phoenix won’t fetch nearly the return haul it might have earlier in the summer, Bledsoe is still young, talented and upside-laden enough to warrant an attractive trade package—especially if said packages aren’t wholly predicated on picks and expiring contracts.
Barring that, it’s safe to say head coach Jeff Hornacek will survive just fine, what with one of the league’s most formidable backcourts on his chess board.
Dragic and Bledsoe in particular have proven capable of cultivating a productive enough relationship that concerns over the future take an easy backseat to forging what could well be a playoff return in Phoenix.
Still, the Suns would be wise, in what little time remains, to tread carefully in their negotiations with Bledsoe—lest last year’s blessing becomes tomorrow’s curse.
Contract information courtesy of ShamSports.com.
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