With Eric Bledsoe
sidelined indefinitely, Jeff Hornacek and the Suns
forge ahead. (Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images)
Rarely has any opponent been able to slow the run-and-gun Suns this season, but Thursday's unfortunate news should at least give Phoenix pause. What was originally diagnosed as a sprained right knee for star guard Eric Bledsoe has been reclassified as something more severe. His injury is worrisome enough, according to a report from ESPN.com, that Bledsoe will soon undergo surgery to address the problem and has been ruled out of action indefinitely. The full extent of the damage isn't yet known, meaning a surgery and ensuing recovery could either span weeks or months.
Phoenix waits in limbo until a determination can be made, though Bledsoe's short-term absence seems secondary to the larger factors in play. First and foremost: The 24-year-old guard's restricted free agency at season's end, wherein the Suns reserve the right to match any formal offer sheet that Bledsoe signs. His recent play made it rather apparent that a max or near-max offer would likely come Bledsoe's way next summer, with Suns GM Ryan McDonough noting to Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.com that the team will pay "whatever it takes" to keep him. With this latest injury, though, comes a blemish to that kind of absolute stance.
If the damage to Bledsoe's meniscus is relatively minor, then no adjustment to the Suns' trajectory need be made. They'll proceed with the season and approach free agency largely as intended, knowing full well what Bledsoe is capable of when given freedom to operate and a round supporting cast. Should his prognosis bear more disparaging news, though, perspective within Phoenix's front office and the league at large will likely shift. A single knee injury in a player so young might not ward off suitors, but it does change the calculus involved in weighing a potential max contract against Bledsoe's likely return on such a deal. That could work to the benefit of the Suns (should his injury scare off competitors), or it could just as easily discourage Phoenix from matching a potential offer. All we know for sure is that a particular item on the free agent agenda as of yesterday seemed settled, but today has again been made murky.
Where that leaves Phoenix, exactly, is difficult to say until Bledsoe goes under the knife. Even then, it's not as if McDonough will gather Suns officials in the war room to lay out a singular strategy. Circumstances change. Context evolves. Bledsoe's injury could force Phoenix to reconsider its prospects and directions in many regards, but its not as if an iron-clad commitment need be made at any point. The Suns merely course on through Bledsoe's absence however long, to make for the best decisions for the franchise whenever possible. It might be easier to classify each team's goals in the simplest terms, but well-run franchises are largely shining examples of progressive decision making. Not unlike Bledsoe himself, they read and react.
The initial read will likely involve the Suns attempting to do as they've done for the last 34 games under head coach Jeff Hornacek: Space the floor, run pick-and-roll for days, and keep as competitive as possible. Phoenix has been a respectable 5-5 without Bledsoe in the lineup this season, and could potentially sustain that pace through the creative talents of Goran Dragic if the full rotation can continue to compensate for Bledsoe's absence. If not, then again the team can revisit and adjust its dynamic goals. Such is the benefit or operating with a young roster and an incredible amount of cap flexibility; Phoenix can shift gears to respond to anything that comes its way, be it a season-ending injury for Bledsoe or an institutional interest in angling for the best draft pick possible.
Convoluted as that might be from a narrative standpoint, the Suns' situation is entirely fluid. Today they remain a playoff contender, in the running for a postseason berth so long as that course makes sense. They simply aren't tied to that singular aim by a matter of salary or age, nor do the Suns face any of the pressures that come from a lingering rebuild. Phoenix is ahead of the curve no matter the status of Bledsoe's injury, and from that comes a position of advantage and a wealth of possibilities.