LOS ANGELES -- Twenty-six years ago, the Phoenix Suns grew enamored with an explosive but erratic young point guard who was sitting on the bench in Cleveland, stuck behind a budding All Star. Kevin Johnson was a first-round pick and a blur with the ball, but he couldn't shoot like Mark Price, so the Cavs shipped him to the Suns. Johnson was promptly named the NBA's Most Improved Player, a generous award, but a misnomer. Johnson hadn't really improved. He'd just been given a chance. He started the next nine seasons in Phoenix, made four All-Star teams, and never missed the playoffs. "It worked for us back then," said Jeff Hornacek, who starred for the Suns in the KJ era, and now coaches them. "So far, it's worked for us again."
Eric Bledsoe was stuck on the bench in Los Angeles, behind Chris Paul. Like Johnson, Bledsoe is a 6-foot-1 roadrunner, with a chiseled upper body that makes him appear bigger. He too treats every possession like a 94-foot dash. He too has heard the questions about his shot. As a backup to Price in 1987-88, Johnson averaged 7.3 points with 3.7 assists in 20.1 minutes. As a backup to Paul in 2012-13, Bledsoe averaged 8.5 points with 3.1 assists in 20.4 minutes. After the Suns acquired Johnson in '88, they eased his learning curve by pairing him with Hornacek, another capable ball-handler. After the Suns landed Bledsoe last summer, Hornacek adopted the same approach and paired him with Goran Dragic, a second point guard. The results have been almost as striking. Johnson averaged 20.4 points in his first full season; Bledsoe is up to 18.4
Explaining how the Suns sit sixth in the ruthless Western Conference, after bringing up the bottom nine months ago, is not easy. Their starting center, Miles Plumlee, averaged all of 0.9 points in Indiana last year. Their starting power forward, Channing Frye, sat out because of an enlarged heart. Their starting small forward, P.J. Tucker, mat best be remembered from his time with Hapoel Holon in Israel, Aris Thessaloniki in Greece and most recently Piratas de Quebradillas in Puerto Rico. The Suns did have a lottery pick in June, which they spent on center Alex Len, but he has played only four games because of ankle problems. Their lottery pick from last June, Kendall Marshall, they traded to Washington, along with their best big man, Marcin Gortat. They did recoup veteran center Emeka Okafor in that deal, but he's given them nothing due to a neck injury.
At a time when teams are racing to the rear, in pursuit of Jabari Parker or Andrew Wiggins, the Suns were as logical a choice as any to get there first. Ryan McDonough is a first-time general manager. Hornacek is a first-time head coach. Bledsoe is a first-time starter. Inexperience, though, is not to be confused for inability. Hornacek is an early candidate for Coach of the Year and Bledsoe for Most Improved Player, though the title is a misnomer for him, just as it was for Johnson. "It's all opportunity," Bledsoe said Monday, in his first homecoming to face the Clippers at Staples Center. "I was playing good here in the limited minutes I had but I wasn't going to play in front of Chris. I went somewhere I could."
The Clippers' quandary with Bledsoe was reminiscent of the 49ers and Colin Kaepernick. They traded a future first-round pick to Oklahoma City in 2010 so they could draft him 18th overall, even though he never started at point guard for Kentucky. In 2011, when New Orleans requested that he be included in the package for Paul, the Clippers balked. "Really?" one executive involved with the talks thought at the time. "You're going to blow this deal for Eric Bledsoe?" The Clippers held firm, even though Bledsoe would be their fourth-string point guard, behind Paul, Chauncey Billups and Mo Williams. The Clippers didn't need Bledsoe but they couldn't stand for anyone else to have him, either.
Bledsoe became the organization's pet project. It wasn't uncommon to see him at practice surrounded by Paul, Billups, Williams and assistant coach Robert Pack, another former point guard. Bledsoe appreciated all the counsel, but wondered if he'd ever get to show what he had learned. "It was frustrating because you're young," Bledsoe says. "You want to play." The Clippers let him spearhead their second unit last season and finished third in bench points per game. Bledsoe was a one-man fast break. He caught lobs as easily as he tossed them. He smothered point guards and blocked seven-footers. Fans fell for him, but scouts weren't as sold, questioning his court awareness and vision. Sure, he could keep up his turbo-charged pace for 15 to 20 minutes a game, but what about 35 to 40.
The Clippers hired Doc Rivers last summer, and though he gushed about Bledsoe, he wasn't invested in him. He studied the Clippers' first-round loss to the Grizzlies and recognized that their problem wasn't a lack of athleticism, but a lack of shooting. He also studied the Clippers contracts and saw that there was no way the club could afford Bledsoe after this season, when he is a restricted free agent. The NBA is not the NFL. You don't always choose the younger model. No one would tab Bledsoe over Paul. "He was ready to be a starter," Rivers said. "I didn't know if he'd have been happy or not. He could've handled it but it would've been no fun." Rivers sent Bledsoe to Phoenix in a three-way deal that netted two snipers, J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley. It was a fine haul for the Clippers. It was a superior one for the Suns.
The Suns believed that Bledsoe could be a full-time point guard, but they couldn't know for sure. They harbored the same concerns as everybody else about his ability to limit mistakes and manage games. In the first practice of training camp, Hornacek watched him pass. "OK," the coach thought. "He can read situations." Still, the Suns wanted to see more, and did not sign Bledsoe to a contract extension by the Oct. 31 deadline. This summer, he could command close to a maximum deal, and odds are the Suns will pay it. They boast a long tradition of breakneck point guards, but few have defended with the strength and vigor of Bledsoe. The Suns lead the NBA in fast-break points, according to teamrankings.com, partly because their typically woeful defense has risen from 26th to 16th. It turns out that Bledsoe can indeed sprint for 30 minutes. "At times we look at him and say, 'We have to get him out of the game,'" Hornacek said. "Then all of a sudden he flies down the court."
Grading the trade now is unfair. Redick only played 17 games for the Clippers before breaking his right hand and Dudley has struggled to acclimate, shooting 34.1 percent from three-point range, worse than Bledsoe. Redick will return in the next few weeks, and if he helps shoot the Clippers through a round or two of the playoffs, they can declare the swap a success. But the Clippers seem to miss the juice that Bledsoe provides. They're down to 17th in bench scoring, per hoopsstats.com, and their defense has slipped eight places. The loudest ovation at Staples on Monday might have been for a Bledsoe video montage. The Suns pummeled the Clippers, 107-88, a reminder of why teams don't often trade within their divisions. Over the next decade, the Clippers are going to see way more of Bledsoe than they'd like. "I knew we'd compete every night," Bledsoe said. "I didn't think we were going to be like this."
At Hornacek's urging, Bledsoe has been watching Kevin Johnson, calling up clips on YouTube. "I tell Eric, 'Kevin would fly every time," Hornacek said. "Every time he got the ball he was gone. There was no slowing him down. Teams would lay off him because they had to stop his penetrating. So he worked on a pull-up jumper from 18 feet. He made that and then he was unstoppable." Bledsoe has an array of moves that come directly from Paul, from Billups, from Williams, from Pack. "KJ could shoot that mid-range with the best of them," Bledsoe said. "That's the next step for me, shooting the mid-range and dictating the game."
The bad news for the Suns is they are not getting Jabari Parker or Andrew Wiggins. The good news is Eric Bledsoe will make sure of it.