Eric Bledsoe short on options in free agency as standoff with Suns festers
With NBA training camps opening in six weeks, teams have, for the most part, filled out their rosters. The fast-paced wheeling and dealing and big spending of July have given way to tinkering and improving at the margins. Of the notable players still weighing their options, perhaps the most interesting case is Suns guard Eric Bledsoe.
As a restricted free agent, the 24-year-old Bledsoe can sign an offer sheet with any team. Phoenix, however, has the right of first refusal and can match any offer for the 18th pick in the 2010 draft. Where does Bledsoe stand with the Suns? Negotiations between the two sides appear to have stalled. Bledsoe is reportedly seeking a maximum five-year, $84 million contract, while the Suns have offered four years and $48 million.
Last month, Bledsoe said he thought Phoenix was using the leverage afforded by restricted free agency to his detriment. The ideal scenario for Bledsoe would be for the Suns to offer him the $84 million deal, which he would sign, ending contentious negotiations. Alternatively, if Bledsoe received a max offer from another team, the Suns would have to either match or let him walk and potentially get nothing in return.
The problem for Bledsoe is that neither the Suns nor another team has offered him the max. What gives? For one, some question whether Bledsoe deserves to be compensated like a superstar. For another, the cap dynamics of restricted free agency can scare away prospective suitors. A restricted free agent’s original team has 72 hours to match any offer sheet. The team that extended the offer sheet, meanwhile, is left in a holding pattern, as the money it committed can't be spent elsewhere. This is risky business, particularly in the early part of free agency, when timing can be crucial. During those 72 hours, teams with big money locked up in offer sheets risk losing other desired free agents to other clubs.
Phoenix general manager Ryan McDonough made clear well before July that the Suns planned to match any offer sheet for Bledsoe. With that in mind, what was the incentive for a rival to chase Bledsoe? Of course, any team that might have wanted Bledsoe badly enough could have tested McDonough’s resolve. Still, the risk-reward calculus would seem to have dissuaded potential bidders.
There’s also the matter of the thin market for point guards because so many teams were set with at least a serviceable starter by the beginning of free agency. Further, clubs that needed a floor leader might not have had the salary-cap space available to sign Bledsoe.
At this stage, it seems extremely unlikely that another team will swoop in with a satisfactory offer for Bledsoe. The 76ers, for instance, can take on a max salary, but reigning Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams is installed at point guard and adding Bledsoe wouldn’t align with their philosophy of maintaining cap flexibility until the rebuilding process is further along. Meanwhile, the Suns don’t appear willing to budge from their $48 million offer (which is what this summer's top unrestricted point guard, Kyle Lowry, 28, received in a four-year deal from Toronto after a career season). “We think it's a fair offer," Suns owner Robert Sarver said in a radio interview on Aug. 1. "[S]ome would say it's maybe a little high; some would say it's low."
If the deck appears to be stacked in the Suns’ favor, that’s because it is. What recourse is available to Bledsoe? Signing a one-year, $3.7 million qualifying offer by the Oct. 1 deadline -- a modest raise from last season's $2.6 million salary -- to enter unrestricted free agency next summer. For Phoenix, there's a downside to a low-cost, short-term commitment for a valuable player: If Bledsoe signs the qualifying offer, the Suns would hit next summer with his future unsettled, only with less bargaining power (and hurt feelings on the player's side over how the situation unfolded). Bledsoe would be able to sign anywhere, with the Suns powerless to match and also potentially facing a bidding war for backcourt mate and 2013-14 Most Improved Player winner Goran Dragic, who can become a free agent after the '14-15 season.
Of course, if the Suns desire to keep Bledsoe next summer, they would have the advantage of being able to offer him more money than any other team. It’s worth pointing out, though, that since 2003, 14 players drafted in the first round have signed the qualifying offer and only one (Spencer Hawes) has reached a long-term deal with his original team, according to SB Nation’s Tom Ziller. While signing the qualifying offer would position Bledsoe to command a larger contract than this summer's five-year, $84 million max, there is significant risk involved. If Bledsoe sustains an injury or his performance dips, teams may be loath to extend him a long-term deal. Should that scenario play out, Bledsoe may come to regret not taking the shorter, less lucrative offer the Suns presented this summer.
Could this standoff between Bledsoe and the Suns have been avoided? Yes, but the earlier stalemate was understandable. Phoenix acquired Bledsoe from the Clippers in a three-team trade in July 2013. However, Bledsoe -- who served as a backup in three seasons with Los Angeles -- played only one game for the Suns before the Oct. 31 deadline for members of the class of 2010 to sign extensions of their rookie deals. With his value not yet established, Bledsoe could not agree to a new deal with Phoenix. “There is no rookie extension with Eric, but that doesn’t in any way suggest that we are not excited that Eric is a Sun and we look forward to Eric being a Suns for a long time,” team president Lon Babby said at the time.
Now that the Suns have a 43-game sample size by which to assess Bledsoe, it’s time to evaluate what he’s worth to them and whether the 6-foot-1 guard's play and prospects for growth warrant the max salary he is pursuing. Last season, Bledsoe averaged 17.7 points, 4.7 rebounds and 5.5 assists, posting a 19.6 Player Efficiency Rating and 4.1 win shares. Bledsoe is a tremendous athlete who can attack the basket and create off the dribble. His combination of strength, quickness and long arms makes him a terror on defense. And while Bledsoe's offensive game could use some polish, it’s clear he has yet to reach his peak. Dragic described him as a “mini-LeBron James.”
For all of Bledsoe’s potential, though, his injury history is cause for pause. Bledsoe underwent surgery in January to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee, his second such procedure in three years. Bledsoe played well after returning in March from a 33-game absence, averaging 17.5 points over 19 games for a surprising Suns team that finished 48-34, yet that doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be some trepidation for teams considering a long-term commitment.
In July, Phoenix acquired Isaiah Thomas from Sacramento in a three-team trade. Though Bledsoe is a better all-around player and superior defender to the 5-9 Thomas, the move gave the Suns “insurance and protection” at a reasonable price. Another wrinkle to this predicament comes from the team's statistical splits. As SI.com's Rob Mahoney noted early last season, lineups including Bledsoe without Dragic tended to underperform the Suns’ offensive baseline. In 2013-14, with Dragic and Bledsoe operating in tandem, Phoenix scored 108.4 points per 100 possessions. Offensive output stayed fairly consistent when Bledsoe sat (108.0) but plummeted to 100.4 when Dragic wasn’t in the game, according to NBA.com.
Is there a resolution in sight, given that the Suns reportedly haven't shown interest in a sign-and-trade deal? According to USA Today, Bledsoe is “strongly” considering signing the qualifying offer. That would be the same route big man Greg Monroe, another high-profile restricted free agent, reportedly intends to take with the Pistons. Another option for Bledsoe would be to work with Phoenix on a creative deal. If Bledsoe were to sign, say, a two-year contract, he would enter unrestricted free agency in a more favorable economic climate. With the NBA’s salary cap expected to rise in the coming years -- a new national television deal is set to take effect after the 2015-16 season -- Bledsoe could potentially land a larger maximum contract, from any team, than anything he’d earn this or next summer from the Suns.
That option would make the next two years critical for Bledsoe. But depending on the terms of the hypothetical deal, he’d be playing at a salary that at least approaches his actual value, as opposed to the well-below-market wage he’d be paid by signing the qualifying offer. However the negotiations shake out, the Suns-Bledsoe saga has been instructive in demonstrating the complications involved with restricted free agency.