Eric Bledsoe’s season-ending knee surgery leaves the Phoenix Suns with a choice: Compete for a low-playoff seed in the West or plan for the future?
Over the summer, the Suns blindsided the league with a series of moves that could have made them an if-everything-goes-right team of interest. Clearly, everything hasn’t; Phoenix has opened its season by winning just 12 of its first 33 games, the kind of record that parks a team out West in 12th place even in a relative down year for the conference. Poor chemistry has piled atop nagging injuries and the weight of a preseason trade demand. All of the above is now punctuated by a bitter pill: Eric Bledsoe, Phoenix’s lead guard and best all-around player, has undergone surgery to repair a torn left meniscus and will miss the remainder of the season.
This, keep in mind, was Bledsoe’s good knee. The 26-year-old went under the knife in 2014 to remove a piece of his torn right meniscus. That decision allowed Bledsoe to return after just two months at some risk of later complication. This time around, Bledsoe—now secure with the kind of big-money contract he didn’t have at the time of his last surgery—has chosen to take a longer route to recovery. That seems wise for a player whose success is so clearly linked to his athletic explosion, though it will force the Suns to stumble ahead with an even less practical mix of players than before.
Bledsoe has been on the floor for roughly 2/3 of Phoenix’s total minutes this season. In the minutes the Suns play without him, their lineup constructions have been inconsistent and generally ineffective. Phoenix is worse for missing a player of Bledsoe’s dynamism—the kind of athlete who can shake free to make something of nothing—no matter the general staleness of the offense. And for as erratic as Bledsoe’s defensive attentions can be, this is still a shaky team in coverage losing its best option for denying dribble penetration.
Phoenix has been dealt a loss. A Suns team without Bledsoe doesn’t have the organic means to make the playoffs in the way that the team’s owner, Robert Sarver, clearly desires. Phoenix's response to that realization will be marked by its desperation and the chaos therein.
Suns GM Ryan McDonough has walked a tightrope to meet his owner’s interest in keeping competitive while minding the franchise’s long-term health. Phoenix dealt Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas to land draft picks and Brandon Knight, who is a talented (if divisive) guard and borderline All-Star candidate in Milwaukee. The Suns created cap room enough to sign Tyson Chandler to lead a present-day defense and take a swing at LaMarcus Aldridge. They ultimately fell short in that transformational round of Tic-Tac-Toe when Aldridge chose to join the Spurs. A signing with repercussions felt when Markieff Morris, irked that his brother, Marcus, was dealt to clear the aforementioned cap space, demanded a trade.
Still Phoenix had an opportunity to make a competitive run this season behind a capable roster. Those hopes were dashed by injuries that have hamstrung Chandler all season, a general indignation that has infected Morris’s play and an awkward fit between Bledsoe and Knight. Phoenix isn’t at all living out its worst-case scenario, though the breaks have clearly gone against a franchise that, on paper, could have fared better.
A 111–104 loss to the Sixers—then its fourth-straight loss overall—over the weekend proved incendiary. Assistant coaches Mike Longabardi and Jerry Sichting were fired in what amounted to a warning shot for head coach Jeff Hornacek. That Bledsoe was injured eight minutes into the game against Philadelphia speaks to the level of pressure that persists. Everything will be more difficult without Bledsoe. Yet still Hornacek and others within the organization may come to be held responsible, fair or not, when the team’s play comes to reflect that. The coaching staff shares fault in the fact Phoenix is drifting into the bottom third of the league in offense and defense. Whether firing Hornacek midseason would be a productive move is ultimately a different matter altogether, dependent largely on how this team sees itself and what it aims to be.
Making the playoffs would have been nice for a Suns team caught amid its own urgency and lean toward prudence. What would be nicer under the current circumstances is if the Suns could resolve their stalemate with Morris to the point that he could actually play effective minutes or be moved along. What could yield more significant returns than a playoff berth would be the practical experience players like Devin Booker, T.J. Warren, and Alex Len could gain in Bledsoe’s absence. A lottery pick could be more fruitful for the Suns in their current form than a first-round flameout would otherwise be, whether they package that pick in a trade or use it (along with a first rounder owed by the Cavaliers) to stockpile even more developing talent.
Phoenix can dwell on the improbable if it prefers by firing Hornacek (in his final year under contract) for a jolt, making a move out of compensation and pushing forward at all cost. The reality is Bledsoe’s latest major knee injury is a call for the conflicted Suns—who have already had so much go wrong this season—to let go.