Eric Bledsoe’s Long, Hot, Restricted Summer

Eric Bledsoe and Greg Monroe are the last guys in the free-agency green room, discovering together how the weird netherworld of restricted free agency — where you’re neither fully restricted nor fully free (but perhaps verklempt) — can unfold at a snail’s pace.

Monroe’s free agency was earmarked for melodrama when Joe Dumars signed Josh Smith to a big-money contract last summer. That Bledsoe sits unsigned seems peculiar. He blossomed as a two-way beast in his first chance as a starter in Phoenix. The league is deeper than ever in quality point guards, and the Suns entered free agency with two — Bledsoe and Goran Dragic. But Dragic can be a free agent after next season, and the Suns thrived playing turbo-ball with both point guards on the floor. Phoenix also has one of the cleanest cap sheets in the league; splurging on a 24-year-old long-armed menace would be a no-brainer.

But the Suns signed a third starting-caliber point guard, Isaiah Thomas, and negotiations with Bledsoe have been stuck ever since. Could something sinister be going on here?

Probably not. It was only a year ago when Nikola Pekovic, also a restricted free agent, sat untouched until mid-August. The market dried up as potential suitors used their cap space, and the Wolves eventually re-signed Pekovic to a five-year, $60 million deal that was basically fair.

The same outcome is likely in Bledsoe’s case, though the market dynamics are different. Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic reported this week that the Suns had offered Bledsoe a four-year, $48 million contract, and that Bledsoe’s team is holding out for a five-year max offer that could run north of $80 million.

And here’s where you can see the wheels turning. The Suns’ offer would slot Bledsoe in the salary range of just about every “good but not great” point guard that has approached free agency over the last two years, with Ty Lawson ($12 million per year) and Jrue Holiday (a hair south of $11 million) the two closest comparable players. (You could toss in Stephen Curry’s ridiculous four-year, $44 million extension, but Curry’s chronic ankle issues forced him to accept a discount in exchange for locking in long-term security early.)

The Suns’ offer would pay Bledsoe exactly what fellow bulldog Kyle Lowry will make over the next four years, and much more than Mike Conley, Brandon Jennings, and Jeff Teague. That seems fair, considering Bledsoe has never logged 2,000 minutes in any season, and missed major time last season after undergoing a second operation on the meniscus cartilage in his right knee. Lawson and Holiday logged more combined minutes in their first three seasons, before signing contract extensions, than Bledsoe has in four full NBA campaigns. The luck of landing on Chris Paul’s team obviously affected that, but so have injuries and major early issues with shooting and turnovers.

Bledsoe had only a portion of the damaged meniscus removed, not the entire band of cushioning between bones, and he played well upon his return. This is nothing close to a Brandon Roy situation, or even a Dwyane Wade situation. But as great as he is, Bledsoe’s NBA track record is limited in comparison to most free agents who grab eight-figure deals after their fourth seasons, and the Suns would be taking on at least some long-term injury risk. Those injuries might scare Bledsoe off the nuclear option for any restricted free agent — taking the one-year qualifying offer, $3.7 million in Bledsoe’s case, and entering free agency unrestricted next summer.

The Suns also understand they are in a good position to play hardball. Most of the cap room around the league has dried up. There weren’t that many teams with both max-level cap space and an urgent need for a starting point guard, and three of those teams — Milwaukee, Orlando, and the Lakers — punted on chasing Bledsoe.

Some teams just don’t believe in pursuing restricted free agents. It’s easy to deliver Bledsoe’s agent a mammoth offer sheet, but it’d be much harder to sweat the 72 hours Phoenix would have to decide whether to match that offer sheet — three full days in which unencumbered teams could snatch up all the other free agents you might want.

And a team with matching rights can actually add an extra couple of days onto that window if it wants to be mean, which it should probably want to be. A little-known clause of the collective bargaining agreement gives any team that matches an offer sheet — Phoenix in this Bledsoe scenario — two days beyond that 72-hour window to administer the player in question a physical. The amount of the offer sheet stays on the rival team’s books during those two days, meaning a team in Phoenix’s position could lock a rival out of free agency for longer than 72 hours.

That’s why some teams just stay out of the derby entirely. The Lakers couldn’t dive into the Bledsoe sweepstakes right away, since they had to keep space open for LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, and once those stars spurned them, the Lakers immediately gobbled up unrestricted free agents. The Magic and Bucks decided Bledsoe and restricted free agency weren’t for them, and neither seems likely to change course now. The Sixers have more cap room than anyone, but they appear to feel reflex nausea at the sight of any good veteran player on another team.

The Suns are right to push for a deal that is both fair and below the five-year mega-contract Bledsoe wants. There may come a point at which the Suns wish to trade Bledsoe, and options multiply if they have him on a contract with leaguewide appeal. Tacking on a fifth year would also prevent Phoenix from trading Bledsoe now, since teams cannot sign-and-trade a player inked to a contract that runs longer than four seasons. Ryan McDonough, the Suns’ GM, has had a killer first year on the job, and he’s not in the business of overpaying anyone on long-term deals. Ask Channing Frye.

But then you can hear the rejoinder from Rich Paul, Bledsoe’s agent: Gordon Hayward and Chandler Parsons just signed for $15 million per season apiece! One of those guys barely cracked 40 percent from the floor last season, and the other is two years older than Bledsoe, fresh off three seasons of playing minimal defense as a third option. Paul could argue that those contracts aren’t even that insane, since the cap is set to rise dramatically over the next three seasons — especially after the NBA signs the new national television deal that will kick in after the 2015-16 season.

You can see the line of thought. The cap will rise for Bledsoe too. The Holiday-Lawson-Curry $11 million–plus deals were signed two years ago, and they’re obsolete now — apples to oranges. Bledsoe sits squarely at the intersection of all sorts of competing trends.

The Suns might counter that if Bledsoe is really confident in both his own abilities and the leaping salary cap, perhaps he should sign a shorter deal at the kind of annual salary Phoenix is offering and set himself up to enter free agency again when the cap takes its biggest jump. We’ve already seen LeBron and Lance Stephenson try to time their next free agency this way, and we’re going to see more guys do it.

And that’s where things get interesting: Executives on lots of teams have gotten the sense from the league office that the NBA will try to smooth the increase of the cap level to minimize the impact of any massive one-year jump in revenue. Exactly how it would do that is unclear. The precise team salary cap — $58 million last season, $63 million this season — is tied to overall league revenues; the two rise and fall together. Players are guaranteed about 50 percent of the league’s “basketball-related income,” and the league and union set the cap figure so player salaries add up to a number in that 50 percent ballpark.

The league’s specific plan for smoothing out the cap increase is unclear, and in the end, it may opt against doing so at all. The players will receive their guaranteed 50 percent share of revenues regardless of any engineering.

You can see the sort of unpredictability it’s guarding against. A few teams have internal projections showing the cap level might jump as much as 30 percent over the next two years, and there is some anxiety that there could be a massive one-year jump in there somewhere depending on the exact timing of the announcement and implementation of the new national TV contract.

It’s a Wild West economic environment that makes it harder for teams and players to plan. It’s easier if you’re a no-brainer max guy, like LeBron, since you can sign one- or two-year deals with full confidence in locking up a long-term max whenever the cap rockets up by the largest amount. The challenge for teams is obvious, with Bledsoe’s free agency serving as a nice example. Gauging the proper value of a player changes if the cap jumps wildly year over year; constructing a long-term core is harder if more players start pushing for shorter contracts. On the flip side, shorter contracts today allow teams to plan for cap space tomorrow.

There are fairness issues for players too. Any guy with upside who signed a long-term contract last summer has to sit on the sideline now as the revenue bonanza ramps up. For players entering free agency now or next summer, the choice between long-term security and annual salary maximization is more stark than it has ever been. How much should a player have to sacrifice in hedging against injury or a decline in skill?

There are no easy answers, but the league may try to make them easier by artificially easing in the cap increase.

All of this plays into Phoenix’s negotiations with Bledsoe, which really aren’t so unusual within restricted free agency. Bledsoe is a really good player who is only starting to harness his skills as a creative floor leader. He has always been explosive off the bounce, but he learned under Chris Paul the power of a change-of-pace dribble — the ability to slow down, probe the lane, read the defense, and fire the right pass.

He reads the floor well, and he has emerged as a league-average 3-point shooter — a major win for him this early in his career. He got to the line six times per 36 minutes last year, a strong number for a guard.

He can still be a bit turnover-prone, but the yips of his first two seasons are gone, and more of his turnovers stem from patient prodding rather than the go-go-go recklessness that marked his first year or two. Bledsoe coughed it up on nearly 19 percent of his transition chances, the 22nd-worst mark among 229 players who finished at least 50 possessions in transition, per Synergy Sports. But fewer of those mistakes were head-slapping dashes to nowhere.

Bledsoe would often race ahead of his team, slow down, pull the ball out, and then try to hit a cutter with a risky pass that was just a tad offline. He likes to attack backpedaling defenders, and there were some spin moves in semitransition that ended badly. But these were not bananas-crazy Lance Stephenson–style transition turnovers, and that is encouraging.

And of course, Bledsoe is a beast on defense — what I like to call a Mirror Guy. A Mirror Guy reacts to the moves of his mark, both on and off the ball, with such perfect timing and balance that it almost appears as if the offensive player is working against his own reflection. Kawhi Leonard might be emerging as the league’s best perimeter Mirror Guy. Larry Sanders, when he’s actually playing basketball, has an uncanny knack for mimicking every jab step and feint a point guard throws at him on the pick-and-roll. He’s a big-man Mirror Guy.

Attacking Bledsoe one-on-one on the perimeter or from the block is usually going to lead to a brutally tough shot — even if you can drive into the restricted area. He’s so strong that one chest-to-chest bump stalls the momentum of almost any guard, and his giant wingspan allows him to challenge floaters and layups from all angles.

He’s not a perfect defender; he can get a little flat-footed ahead of a drive or a pick-and-roll, and he likes to press hard and reach for steals. Water bugs with quick crossovers gave him issues last season. But those guys give everyone issues, and Bledsoe’s elite speed and length allow him to recover from an early misstep better than most can manage.

He’s strong enough to guard some wing players, and the Suns would occasionally slot him on those types so that Dragic, Ish Smith, or even (in tiny doses) Gerald Green might take a run at opposing point guards. But Bledsoe mostly defended point guards, even while playing alongside Dragic.

There is also the small matter of Phoenix’s offense stalling out when Bledsoe ran solo. The Suns scored 108.4 points per 100 possessions when Dragic and Bledsoe played together, and just 100.7 when Dragic sat — a mark that would have ranked 25th among 30 teams over the full season. The team’s overall turnover rate spiked, and Bledsoe made more mistakes when he had to work as the lead ball handler.

Bledsoe also shot 55 percent in those non-Dragic minutes, and Phoenix, as fun as it was last season, wasn’t exactly awash in second-unit perimeter threats who could help Bledsoe create offense.

Bottom line: Bledsoe is a really good player, probably the most intriguing long-term guy of all the high-level restricted free agents. But the Suns are smart to push for a deal well below the max.

Filed Under: NBA, eric bledsoe, Phoenix Suns

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

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