Eric Bledsoe was the last elite free agent to get a contract last summer, re-signing with the Phoenix Suns on Sept. 24 after a protracted and contentious negotiation.
Three months later, as the NBA commences its unofficial trade season, Eric Bledsoe might be the first elite player to be dangled on the market.
"I think they signed him with the [thought] that they can move him and get something for him," a rival team executive said last week.
We now pause for an emphatic disclaimer: This is not a trade rumor. There is no indication, as of yet, that the Suns have made Bledsoe available. There are no known offers on the table. Bledsoe might well spend the rest of his career in the Valley of the Suns.
The above quote should be placed in the category of informed speculation. It is the firm belief of one well-connected team executive, nothing more.
Caveats aside, there is every reason to believe the Suns will trade Bledsoe, or one of their other flashy point guards, in the next few months. It's the logical move, competitively and financially. So as we assess the buyers, sellers and names that will define the NBA trade season, we begin in Phoenix.
Under NBA rules, Dec. 15 is the first day that players who signed new contracts over the summer can be traded. With just about every player now eligible to be dealt, the trade season has begun. Teams have until Feb. 19 to make deals.
The Suns (12-13) are in free fall, having lost five straight games—including a rout by Oklahoma City on Sunday—leaving them with a tenuous hold on eighth place in the West. The Thunder (11-13), healthy at last, are coming for that final playoff spot, and will likely get it.
Phoenix, point guard rich but frontcourt poor, is overdue for a roster shakeup.
Three of the Suns' top four scorers are point guards: Goran Dragic (16.1 points per game), Isaiah Thomas (14.6) and Bledsoe (15.6). Meanwhile, the Suns badly need a big man who can score in the low post, rebound and protect the rim.
The Suns also have salary-cap concerns and Dragic's impending free agency to consider.
Phoenix has committed $70 million over five years to Bledsoe and $27 million over four years to Thomas. Bledsoe and Thomas will earn a combined $20.5 million next season. Dragic, an All-NBA third-team selection, could command $15 million a year or more on the open market in July.
Would the Suns pay three point guards a combined $35 million, more than half of the projected cap? Would they let Dragic walk away for nothing?
The answer to both questions is "probably not," which is why team executives across the league expect the Suns to trade one of the three. Some interviewed for this story said Thomas was the most likely candidate.
"I do think that they're going to look at it, [but] only if it makes them better," said another Western Conference executive.
Of the three, Bledsoe would surely fetch the best package. Thomas is undersized and lacking as a playmaker. Dragic's free agency could scare off potential suitors, or at least diminish their trade offers. But Bledsoe is young (25), under contract and has All-Star potential—making him the Suns' most valuable trade asset.
Also worth noting: Although the Dragic-Bledsoe backcourt has been effective, Dragic thrived as the sole point guard while Bledsoe was recovering from injury last season. But with three point guards now splitting time, Dragic has seen his production and his efficiency fall.
The Suns could start Gerald Green at shooting guard in Bledsoe's place and go with a more traditional lineup—presumably one bolstered by a new starting big man.
Around the League
So, who else is likely to be on the block between now and Feb. 19? These are the players most often mentioned in an informal poll of general managers and scouts.
Lance Stephenson, Charlotte
Signed to a three-year, $27 million deal in July, he's been a disaster on every level. ESPN.com's Marc Stein reported over the weekend that the Hornets were already seeking offers. "He's probably more likely than anybody," an Eastern Conference executive said last week. "But as disruptive as he's been, do you trade for him?" Another executive said the Hornets would deal anyone aside from Kemba Walker, Al Jefferson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
New Pistons president Stan Van Gundy needs to trade one or both of these guys if he wants to preserve the sanity of new Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy. Both are firmly on the block, per rival executives.
Rajon Rondo, Boston
Yes, again. Celtics president Danny Ainge has repeatedly indicated that he wants to keep Rondo, but rival GMs expect him to test the waters, just as he did last season.
David Lee, Golden State
It's not a given, but the Warriors have to at least gauge his value. Lee has played just one game in their 21-2 start, and Draymond Green has proven a better fit at power forward. Green is also a restricted free agent next summer, and the Warriors badly need cap flexibility if they hope to keep him.
Dion Waiters, Cleveland
The fourth overall pick in 2012, Waiters has struggled to adapt to a reduced role on the LeBron James-centric Cavaliers. He hasn't been shy about his discontent. The Cavaliers could use a mobile, rim-protecting big man, and they're expected to use Waiters, along with Brendan Haywood's expiring contract, as the key pieces of a major deal.
Thaddeus Young and Mo Williams, Minnesota
The Timberwolves are going nowhere this season and might as well see what they can get for these two respected veterans, who would be attractive to any contending team.
The Knicks, New York
Well, maybe not all of them. The Knicks will probably keep Carmelo Anthony for now. But rival executives say that everyone else at the Garden is available, possibly even the ball boys. J.R. Smith is the most likely to be exiled, if the Knicks can find a taker.
The Nets, Brooklyn
Reports emerged last week from ESPN.com's Marc Stein and Ohm Youngmisuk that the Nets were prepared to unload all three of their star players: Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez. The more likely scenario, per team sources, is that the Nets will trade one of the three, two at most, and keep retooling around whoever is left. Team officials want to rebuild while staying competitive.
The Nets began dumping salaries last week, sending Andrei Kirilenko to Philadelphia in a move to reduce their luxury-tax bill.
Various Pelicans, New Orleans
Anthony Davis is, of course, untouchable, and the Pelicans want to keep Jrue Holiday, Omer Asik and Ryan Anderson. Everyone else is available, according to rival executives.
The team most eager to deal? That would be the Houston Rockets, who might not wait long.
"[The Rockets are] definitely doing something before Dec. 19," one source said last week.
Here's why: The Rockets have an $8.4 million trade exception they are determined to use. They prefer to do so by Friday so that anyone they acquire can be re-traded by the Feb. 19 trade deadline.
Under NBA rules, if multiple player salaries are "aggregated" for trade purposes, those players cannot be dealt again for 60 days. Thus, Dec. 19 becomes the de facto deadline for acquiring players who might be dealt again by Feb. 19.
Houston acquired the $8.4 million trade exception—which can be used to acquire one or more players with a combined salary of up to that amount—in the Jeremy Lin trade with the Lakers this past summer.
The Rockets, the source said, "are determined to complete something" with the exception and are working aggressively to find a trade partner. Houston had inquired about Kirilenko before the Nets sent him to Philadelphia.
Several teams have large trade exceptions or expiring contracts that could make them major players on the trade market:
• The Lakers have Steve Nash's $9.7 million expiring contract, which is mostly being paid by insurance because of his season-ending injury.
• The Knicks have the expiring contracts of Amar'e Stoudemire ($23.4 million) and Andrea Bargnani ($11.5 million).
• The Cavaliers have a $5.3 million trade exception and Haywood's uniquely structured deal. He's making $2.2 million this season, but is on the books for a non-guaranteed $10.6 million next season. Another team might want the contract to use as a trading chip next summer. Cleveland also owns Memphis' first-round pick in 2015, though it is subject to protections.
"I think the Cavs are going to be the team that makes the biggest move," said a Western Conference executive.
A number of executives view the Denver Nuggets as prime sellers between now and the trade deadline, and it makes sense. The Nuggets are stocked with talented, reasonably priced role players, but they lack a single star player to carry them.
Wilson Chandler and Timofey Mozgov, both acquired in the Carmelo Anthony trade in 2011, have garnered a ton of interest, per rival executives. Any number of playoff teams could use Kenneth Faried's rebounding, or Nate Robinson's scoring punch.
But one Western Conference executive held up a caution flag.
"Nope," said the executive, who indicated the Nuggets had been rebuffing trade inquiries. "They're very happy with their team."
At 10-14, with losses in six of their last seven games, the Nuggets might need to reassess that stance.
So, what team might make sense as a destination for Nets star Deron Williams? How about his former team in Utah? That was the suggestion of one Eastern Conference scout, who has been wholly unimpressed with Trey Burke (Utah's top pick in 2013) and Dante Exum (Utah's top pick in 2014).
"Utah needs a point guard," the scout said. "There's the team for Deron Williams, seriously. Trey Burke is at best an average backup. [Exum] has struggled. He can't make a shot. I think he was overrated. He's 19. We'll give him time.... They have enough talent to be .500 maybe, or better than they are. I think what's holding them back is point guard."
The One-Question Interview
Tyson Chandler, traded from New York to Dallas last spring, returns to the Garden on Tuesday night, having revived his career with the Mavericks. I asked him recently why the Knicks never flourished with the All-Star frontcourt of Carmelo Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire and himself.
"We never got in a system that allowed all of us to flourish at the same time," Chandler said. "We were all hitting on cylinders at different times. There was never a point where we all were rolling. And that was disappointing. Because I felt like we wouldn't be able to be stopped if that was the case."
Many observers viewed the Anthony-Stoudemire-Chandler frontcourt as a bad fit all the way around. Chandler disagreed.
"Because there were times that we would accidentally stumble upon things in practice, and it would look great," he said. "If we played in the same kind of offense like here [in Dallas], the way the ball just flows, boom-boom-boom-boom-boom, we would have been incredible. Because it would have allowed us to just be great in our own ways at different parts of the game.
"Here, it's not really planned out. The [offense] allows however the game is going, dictates who is going to take the shots. Chandler [Parsons] may get the majority of shots one night, Monta [Ellis] may, Dirk [Nowitzki] may. I may get 12 to 14 shots. It's just the way the game goes.... But [in New York], it was always preplanned, where shots and things are going to come from. And that was difficult for the three of us."
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.