Money Talks: Why Phoenix Had to Sign Eric Bledsoe

In July 2013, the Hawks signed Paul Millsap, then 28, to a two-year, $19 million deal. Holy crap! Paul Millsap is really good! The new collective bargaining agreement, with its shorter contracts, is really saving teams from themselves!

The same July, the Bobcats signed Al Jefferson to a three-year, $41 million deal, an overpay for a big man who admits he can’t play much defense. But the Bobcats’ offense was a stopped-up machine composed of blah parts in need of a fulcrum, and Steve Clifford proved the right system could produce an above-average defense — at least while playing 52 games in the pathetic Eastern Conference — around a big man who couldn’t defend the pick-and-roll or protect the basket. If the deal blew up, hell, it carried a player option for Year 3, meaning Jefferson could bolt after just two seasons. What a world this new CBA had crafted!

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The short deals even turned out to be helpful for players, who could reenter free agency whenever the national TV contract shoved the cap skyward — creating a gaggle of cracked-out teams with eight-figure deals to lavish.

Flash forward just one year, and Millsap, having made the All-Star team, is an expiring contract set for a raise if he stays healthy. He’ll turn 30 in February, and he may hunt for long-term security this time around. Jefferson is coming off foot problems that sadly derailed a wonderful season at the worst possible moment, but if he works another All-NBA-level campaign, he may decline that player option and search for a longer contract. He turns 30 in January.

There will be other situations like these over the next two years. Veterans don’t hit unrestricted free agency until their late twenties, and in this environment in which everyone is leveraging short contracts, a lot of dudes with a lot of miles will dip into unrestricted free agency again in their early thirties. That is when anxious teams have to weigh the pain of losing such a player after such a brief relationship against the pain of inevitable decline.

The Contract

This explains why the Suns were fine inking Eric Bledsoe, a speeding cinder block of muscle with giant appendages, to a five-year, $70 million contract — the longest such deal possible, though about $15 million short of Bledsoe’s five-year max. The Suns had offered Bledsoe a fair four-year, $48 million deal, but in the end, with him poised to take the one-year qualifying offer and bolt this July, the team came up on both years and average annual salary.

That double would seem to be a defeat for Phoenix, and the deal is an emphatic win for Bledsoe and his agent, Rich Paul. Bledsoe is now the league’s sixth-highest-paid point guard, despite just one season as a full-time starter, two knee surgeries, and never having logged even 2,000 minutes in any season. That is something, even if Bledsoe will have to sit out giant cap increases expected in 2017 and 2018.

Going the full five years is a risk given that Bledsoe has undergone two surgeries on the meniscus cartilage that cushions his right knee, including a midseason operation last year in which doctors removed a portion of that cartilage. But Phoenix has the league’s most respected and perhaps most innovative training staff, and they know Bledsoe’s medical history and future prognosis better than anyone. Remember: As ESPN’s Kevin Pelton pointed out, this is the same Phoenix team that took a hard line — correctly, as it turned out — on Amar’e Stoudemire over concerns about his knees.

The reward is having secured Bledsoe for all of his prime seasons, and not just a two-year prime blip before he heads into his thirties. He’ll still hit free agency again around age 29, but he may not be a Sun by then, and even if he is, Phoenix will be able to negotiate knowing it at least had a prolonged experience with prime Eric Bledsoe.

This isn’t a five-year extension; it’s a new five-year free-agency contract, the sort only an incumbent team can offer. We may see more teams let first-round picks play out all four seasons of their rookie contracts without an extension, and then if all goes well, hit them with the five-year Bird Rights offer Phoenix used here — an offer delectable enough it can turn a player’s attention away from the four-year max offer sheet other teams can dangle. That gets you a young player for nine full seasons — his full athletic prime. Reggie Jackson comes to mind as a candidate for this strategy, depending on the price and whether Oklahoma City sees him as a long-term fit with Russell Westbrook.

More than any contract we’ve seen this summer, this baby is a bet. This is the James Harden trade of recent free-agency contracts, the deal we’ll all be debating and discussing for the next half decade. Like Harden, Bledsoe has mostly been a super-skilled bench guy at a surplus position for his teams — a star by the numbers (and, hell yes, the eye test) against backups and hybrid units. As was the case with Harden just two years ago, there are executives around the league who still aren’t sure Bledsoe is worthy of a centerpiece salary slot — if only because they haven’t seen quite enough of him as high-usage starter.

And as happened with Harden, the negotiations became tense.

The money and years will be divisive, and the debate will evolve as the NBA parameters change in unpredictable ways. The cap will rise to at least $66.3 million in 2015-16, though several teams have heard rumblings of a $70 million-plus cap already thundering down upon us in that season. It might sniff $80 million in 2016-17, the first year of what will be a mammoth new national TV contract for the league, and it could continue rising in smaller increments after that.

The Impact on the Suns

Bledsoe’s deal will look proportionally better with each leap. If he’s healthy and productive, it will be tradable. Every deal is tradable, of course; Gilbert Arenas got traded! But some deals get you good stuff, and some deals require you to attach good stuff to dump them. The Suns will say all the right things about being willing to pay Bledsoe, Goran Dragic, and Isaiah Thomas something like $35 million combined through 2017-18, not to mention Tyler Ennis, the team’s rookie point guard.

And, heck, maybe they’ll be telling the truth. Maybe there aren’t “point guards” in Jeff Hornacek’s go-go system. Maybe there are just “guards” who can pass, dribble, and shoot from long range, and maybe you want a ton of them — especially when two, Dragic and Bledsoe, have proven they can defend wing players if need be.

The Suns have unmatched depth at the position, and that depth allows them to be opportunistic should the right deal become available. They can listen to offers for Dragic this season, the last on Dragic’s under-market deal, or once they re-sign him. They can listen to offers on Bledsoe; Masai Ujiri re-signed Nene to a big money deal in 2011 with the precise goal of eventually trading him, and though the return hasn’t panned out (I think JaVale McGee just ran the wrong direction somewhere), the rest of the league took note of the strategy.1

And by the way: Some team was giving Bledsoe a four-year max deal this summer, which would have netted him something around $66 million — and possibly $70 million if the cap rises higher than the league’s current projection. The Suns are getting him for an additional year at the same total price tag.2

The Impact on the League

The league is filled with point guards, and that has depressed the free-agency market for them, as I wrote this week in reference to Kemba Walker. But Bledsoe coming off a healthy season would have been at the head of the July point guard class, and by thriving next to Dragic, he has broadened his market beyond just the teams with obvious holes at point guard. One of those obvious teams — Milwaukee, Detroit (sorry, Brandons), or the Lakers — would have done the deed, and if none of them had, a more creative team would have sprinted into the breach.

Phoenix would have been left without matching rights, and though time heals all wounds, the odds were against the Suns coaxing Bledsoe back after one season on the qualifying offer.

This is bad news for Charlotte, Minnesota, and to a lesser degree, Oklahoma City, the three teams negotiating potential extensions with their own point guards. Bledsoe’s deal doesn’t set the market, but it nudges it up. Perhaps more important, it removes one key player from the game of point guard musical chairs that could include Jackson, Walker, Ricky Rubio, and Rajon Rondo this summer. Phoenix might have played that game, but with Thomas and two incumbent starters, it would have been a peripheral player.

Removing Bledsoe without removing one of the potential aggressive suitors is a win for the Jackson/Walker/Rubio crew.

Bledsoe has a higher upside than any of those guys. He was the most exciting player among last summer’s young free agents — the restricted crew, plus Lance Stephenson. His contract also represents by far the biggest wager. Dallas swooned over Chandler Parsons, but his deal runs just three seasons. Parsons is also a year older than Bledsoe, and he’s been far more durable. He’s a known commodity, though he has the brains and length to improve on defense.

The Jazz maxed out Gordon Hayward, but the Hornets forced their hand, and the deal is also just a three-year job with a player option for Year 4. Stephenson is the scariest gamble on a day-to-day basis, but he’s super-talented, and the Hornets can cut bait after two seasons if he blows in MJ’s ear.

What to Expect From Bledsoe

Bledsoe can be a two-way star, right now, and has a ton of time to improve his ballhandling, decision-making, and 3-point shooting — all of which are trending in the right direction, as I wrote in this more detailed breakdown of his game. He sees the floor well, and he has learned the art of downshifting in the half-court to probe the defense on the pick-and-roll with change-of-pace dribbles, directional changes, and other sophisticated goodies.

Bledsoe is a beast in the open court, but he has learned the nuances of tricking defenses, anticipating rotations, and dribbling in ways that open up passing angles and cutting lanes for teammates. He knows options 1, 2, and 3, and he’s smart enough to skip option 1 when he sees the defense leaning to it early. He should continue to get better with more experience, and if he improves just another notch as a long-range shooter, he’s going to be a killer.

The defense is as advertised. He’s one of my Mirror Guys, defenders who mimic the moves of their marks so precisely, and so immediately, they appear to be moving in concert with them — both on and off the ball. Even strong 2-guards struggle to post him up or dislodge him on drives, and when he falls a step behind trailing the pick-and-roll, he’s fast enough to pop right back into your line of sight with one of his giant arms reaching to swat at your shot.

He’s not 100 percent proven yet. There is risk here for Phoenix, beyond the injuries. The Suns scored at a bottom-five rate when Bledsoe ran things without Dragic, per, and he’s never been a full-time solo starting point guard. But that’s a 43-game sample size on a team that didn’t bring a ton of perimeter threats coming off the bench to help Bledsoe create offense. He is still a bit turnover-prone, especially in transition, though they are less often the product of reckless careening than they used to be.

But he is a risk worth taking — more so than Parsons, Hayward, Stephenson, or Greg Monroe. Bledsoe could be something special, and teams that don’t get meetings with every superstar free agent have to take chances on guys with that kind of potential. And if those high-variance guys hit the right way, they can help their teams score those meetings.

Filed Under: NBA, eric bledsoe, Phoenix Suns, 2014-15 NBA Preview

Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ ZachLowe_NBA