Prophet or pragmatist, Lon Babby set the table for the Phoenix Suns’ current feast of uncertainty back in April.
"The sum was greater than the parts this year, but circumstances change," said Babby, the Suns’ president of basketball operations, during an end-of-season press conference. "Contracts change. Players want to demonstrate that they’ve improved. It’s just like another school year. You come back, your friends are a little different.
"We’re not going to delude ourselves into thinking that when we come back in October we’re picking up where we left yesterday."
But when the Suns return, will Eric Bledsoe be corrupting that Petri dish, working on a relatively light, one-year deal, quietly piling up numbers en route to unrestricted independence?
The question arises in the wake of comments Bledsoe made last weekend in his hometown of Birmingham, Ala., suggesting he wasn’t pleased with how the Suns have negotiated his restricted free agency. That led some to interpret that his dissatisfaction will lead him toward playing the upcoming season for the minimum qualifying offer, thereby gaining unrestricted free agency and a ticket to greater riches elsewhere a year from now.
Whether that’s actually the case is open to debate because seemingly everying Bledsoe says and does is accomplished at low volume.
Even last weekend’s comments regarding his contract status were considerably less volatile than what was suggested by social media.
I can understand the Phoenix Suns are using restricted free agent against me. But I understand that.
Here’s what Bledsoe — who reportedly was offered a four-year contract for $48 million instead of the five-year, $80 million he and agent Rich Paul are seeking – said:
"I can understand the Phoenix Suns are using restricted free agent against me. But I understand that."
A review of the actual interview casts Bledsoe as a bit less mad about the situation – at least as in terms of the Suns’ tactics — than anticipated. OK, so he’s not exactly happy, either, but the presumed antipathy could be manageable.
With some perceptual wiggle room still available, the rest of us should attempt to keep our emotions in check.
Based on contracts signed by comparable point guards in previous seasons — Toronto’s Kyle Lowry is Exhibit 1A — the Suns’ offer seems solid. And the market for Bledsoe was established when the rest of the big-spending NBA declined to test the Suns’ resolve to match any offer sheet.
The Suns shouldn’t be obliged to bid against themselves, especially with Goran Dragic and a host of other rotation players coming of contract age next summer.
On the other hand, negotiating down from the max level isn’t exactly nuts on the part of the Bledsoe camp.
The question is whether they’re willing to come down at all.
While comparisons to recently-maxed point guards Kyrie Irving and John Wall could be offered, those players have longer track records and higher levels of overall offensive efficiency.
With a few contractual alternatives still available to Team Bledsoe (a better Suns offer, or fewer years to hit free agency again when the TV pot increases), let’s take a look at what could occur if it chooses what has been referred to as "the nuclear option."
That option would be signing the $3.7 million qualifying offer in order to become an unrestricted free agent next summer. Doing the math, that would leave them to recoup $8.3 million in lost income over the length of his next contract. Add in the $36 million the Suns are offering for the next three seasons and your talking upwards from three years $44.3 million.
There are risks inherent in such a strategy, especially for a young player who checks in with two meniscus procedures.
Although even the healthiest of knees is subject to risk in the cutting, stopping and landing landscape of professional basketball, the Suns did feel confident enough in his future health to offer four years at a handsome sum. With Dragic coming financially due next year and Isaiah Thomas on the books at reasonable money, that’s not a little bit of faith.
Another risk might be found in just having Thomas around. Although the Suns plan to rotate their three point guards into their small-ball alignment, it might not be easy for any of the three to duplicate their numbers from last season.
General Manager Ryan McDonough mentioned the San Antonio Spurs achieving their success with no player reaching an average of 30 minutes in regular-season games. Coach Jeff Hornacek will ride the hot hands, which could include some games with Dragic and Thomas as the closers. It also should be pointed out that Bledsoe was among the league leaders in crunch-time goodness last season.
What helps Bledsoe in any march toward unrestricted free agency is widespread dependence on efficiency numbers. He and agent Paul can point to per-minute performance when it’s time to negotiate. But with three primary ball handlers in two slots, sustaining those efficiency numbers may be a challenge.
Perhaps the greatest Bledsoe concern would be that pesky chemistry issue. Will he and Thomas get along? And with current logjams at multiple positions, will Bledsoe’s escape status make us forget last season’s harmonic convergence?
Not with so much loot on the line.
If it seems that Bledsoe is focused on "getting his" — whether this includes forcing shots or passes, gambling on defense or not kicking the ball ahead — Hornacek has the ultimate motivation … a seat on the Suns’ bench.
Don’t bet against the coaching staff and the players involved when it comes to playing the right way.
Regardless of the outcome of the current impasse (and it still seems very unlikely the Suns will want to part company this summer), expect Bledsoe to perform well.
He’s had enough pride in his game to reach this level.