- Eric Bledsoe is finally on his way out of Phoenix. In a win-win deal, the Bucks will get another important piece and the Suns can truly start from scratch.
It started with a simple tweet and ended, shockingly, with a win-win deal. The Suns shipped out Eric Bledsoe on Tuesday morning, with the disgruntled guard bound for Milwaukee in exchange for Greg Monroe and protected first and second-round picks, according to ESPN. The Bucks have a new wingman for the ascendant Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Suns pulled a return of some substance in a situation with little leverage, and the trade wheels are off just one month into this wild season. Let’s break it down.
This is a dreamy scenario for Milwaukee, who are under the win-now gun sooner than anyone expected thanks to Giannis’s all-out defiance of traditional great-basketball-player adjectives. Adding a secondary scorer like Bledsoe, who can lead second-unit lineups when Antetokounmpo rests and match up with both backcourt positions is a potentially scary dimension for a team already fielding versatile personnel. Despite being buried in the desert for the last few seasons, Bledsoe’s physicality and ability to attack the basket remain sharp. He’ll be a valuable shot-creator for a team in desperate need of another one.
While he’s not an ideal floor spacer to play alongside Giannis, Bledsoe did shoot 37% from the deep two seasons ago before tearing his meniscus 31 games into the 2015–16 season. When both guys are on the floor, Milwaukee can still play three shooting threats around them, with Khris Middleton, Mirza Teletovic, Malcolm Brogdon and Tony Snell all viable. The Bucks suddenly have one of the East’s toughest backcourts and are well-positioned to make strides, particularly on defense. The absence of Monroe likely means more minutes for John Henson and Thon Maker, and while they’ll miss being able to dump the ball down to him on dead possessions, Milwaukee will now have the luxury of a pacier, spacier attack at all times.
As for Monroe, the sense is that he was unlikely to return next season anyway. The big man is owed $17.8 million in the final season of the deal he signed three summers ago, and entering a summer where many teams will be pressed for cap space, it’s conceivable that the Bucks would have let him walk. Bledsoe was owed $14.5 million to start this season and $15 million next year, an affordable deal that gives Milwaukee a clear window to sell him on a new arena and an exciting, young on-court project (read: Giannis). It’s worth noting that taking on salary could impact the Bucks’ decision process with Jabari Parker, who continues to rehab his knee and will be a restricted free agent this summer. Before the deal Milwaukee was right beneath the luxury tax line (about $1 million under), and by adding Bledsoe’s deal to the books for next season, they’re set to approach it again. Giving Parker what he’ll want would likely take them over it, and with that, it’s conceivable the Bucks could deal another midsize contract before the summer.
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports the outgoing first-round draft pick is protected as follows: the Suns get the Bucks’ pick in 2018 if it falls between picks 11–16, in 2019 if it falls between picks 4–16, 2020 if it falls from 8–30, and it will be unprotected in 2021. It’s a creative protection that hedges on Milwaukee either bottoming all the way out (highly unlikely) or playing well enough in the short-term to compromise some of the value of their pick (it seems unlikely it will convey for this draft, given the Bucks’ trajectory. The second-rounder will reportedly go to the Suns, conditional on if it falls from 48 to 60 this season. If not, the Bucks will keep it.
It hurts to give up multiple draft assets, but those protections help, and at some point Milwaukee had to step on the gas and send the right message. The fact they held on to Brogdon, Maker and Parker in this deal is also a win. Watching the Bucks inch toward long-term contention will remain fascinating, and Bledsoe freed from a frustrating situation will make the East that much more fun.
This is a pleasant compromise of a return for Phoenix, who were without a ton of leverage having removed Bledsoe from team activities after his fateful online declaration of disdain. The Suns are now positioned to have three first-rounders in the 2018 draft: their own, the Heat’s pick (protected for selections 1–7), and this Bucks pick (with the assumption Milwaukee makes it to the playoffs). Adding some type of long-term assets in any Bledsoe deal was imperative, and Monroe’s expiring deal will position the Suns to spend in a summer market that could be lean for free agents. It’s unlikely they’ll end up with Milwaukee’s first within the next two drafts if the Bucks’ trajectory turns toward the upper half of the East as expected, but in that case the Suns should get that second-rounder this season.
Despite the potential delay on the first-rounder, there’s little illusion that the Suns are gazing down the road. Monroe is likely nothing more than a rental, and in addition to one of the league’s most barren roster situations, the Suns now have around $9 million in cap space. They’ll be positioned to take on other teams’ bad contracts in exchange for more picks (in theory)—good business if they can get it. An earlier Bledsoe deal, as reported last week by SI, would have seen Phoenix absorb the contracts of Pelicans centers Omer Asik and Alexis Ajinca, plus first-round picks from New Orleans and Detroit to facilitate a three-way deal with Bledsoe going to the Pistons and Reggie Jackson to the Pelicans. That type of philosophy should crop up again as the Suns continue to figure out the long run: assuming Monroe walks and depending on what happens with Alex Len this summer, the Suns could have up to $23 million in room. That flexibility doesn’t hurt, but of course, requires thoughtful execution.
Bottom line, getting any type of positive future return on Bledsoe was key, and the Suns got it done. They’ll continue to roll the balls out, hope Devin Booker’s development continues and see what they have in Josh Jackson, Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss—all of whom are recent Top 10 selections, none of whom can legally drink. Also look for Phoenix to convert productive 27-year-old rookie Mike James’s two-way deal into a proper NBA contract. Moving on in full from the Bledsoe situation and into the post Earl Watson era gets easier from here; drafting well will remain imperative. What is perhaps the league’s most drawn-out rebuild drifts onward.