PHOENIX — The most compelling topic during Friday’s what-a-difference-a-year-makes Suns press conference was Eric Bledsoe’s ability to be coached.
And this had nothing to do with directives initiated by Jeff Hornacek.
While a 23-game improvement over last season made this event little more than a well-deserved victory lap (despite the Suns just missing out on the postseason), there was a tricky cloud lurking in one corner of the Al McCoy media bunker at US Airways Center. It wasn’t exactly a storm cloud; let’s think of it as a restricted-precipitation cloud.
This condensed vapor started forming a day earlier, when Bledsoe remained committed to a script of extreme ambivalence regarding his work future. As a restricted free agent with marching orders from his representation, the 24-year-old point guard did his part to avoid alienating potential bidders in what — via the "restricted" provision — is a slightly open market for his services.
"I wouldn’t read anything more into it," Suns president of basketball operations Lon Babby said.
Right, by swearing allegiance to the Suns as this point in the proceedings, Bledsoe might put his rights-holding employer in the swell position of bidding against itself.
Anyway, Babby — a former agent — prefaced his remark by praising Bledsoe’s representation and reminding us that maintaining leverage is good business.
But it should be noted that the Suns aren’t taking the ambivalent approach. They’re putting potential Bledsoe suitors on public notice, all but guaranteeing that any offer sheet for a player who seems very much like a franchise cornerstone will be matched. Although that’s their version of a useful and predictable tactic, teams looking for star potential in a point guard are familiar with the routine.
What’s the takeaway? The Suns hold the cards, and owner Robert Sarver holds the checkbook.
"We think, one way or another, he’s going to be a Sun for a long time," general manager Ryan McDonough said.
That’s where our what-a-difference-a-year-makes theme takes hold. Babby started it by opening Friday’s presser with a review of the goals he announced at last year’s presser.
"Obviously, the results are good or I wouldn’t be doing this," he said.
It would be foolish to disagree.
The Suns added young talent, perhaps even beyond their expectations. They developed this talent beyond perhaps anyone’s expectations and — thanks to a home run coaching hire — saw it molded into a team that was as hard-working and fun to watch as it was effective.
"We got it back to Phoenix Suns basketball and what it’s really like," Hornacek said.
Translation: The reset on franchise culture has been accomplished, some important components of the next great Suns team are in place and the flexibility to add more talent is there.
But that flexibility could be a bit compromised by how far the rebuild has progressed in a year. At the forefront of what seems like a really good problem to have is Bledsoe, who outplayed peer predictions that were based on what could be considered cameo runs with the Clippers. There are already whispers of max-contract offer sheets.
Locally, the chatter has turned to how much of that flexibility will be eaten by attempts to retain both Bledsoe and, over the course of the next year or two, most of this season’s culture re-establishing corps.
"We have some flexibility," McDonough said, "but we also have some big decisions coming up."
P.J. Tucker, for example, also sits in the restricted-free-agent boat heading into the summer. While McDonough and Babby were eager to acknowledge Tuck’s importance to the team, just how high the Suns will go to keep him remains to be seen.
The question of how much additional talent is needed and how many current Suns players still have sufficient potential to keep around for the long haul will be in play for a while.
"We intend to do a little bit of both," McDonough said in reference to adding without much subtracting. "We need to add some talent. We know that. There are some good things in place; we don’t want to rock the boat and screw that up."
To that end, Markieff Morris — and twin brother Marcus — will be restricted-free-agency candidates next year. If ‘Kieff’s improvement arc continues on its existing trajectory, he’ll command a nice, big deal. Or the Suns could extend him/them in come October.
The mercurial Gerald Green, meanwhile, is on the books for another season. If he becomes more efficient, keeping him won’t be cheap.
We need to add some talent. We know that. There are some good things in place; we don’t want to rock the boat and screw that up.
Suns GM Ryan McDonough
And Goran Dragic, who can opt out after the 2014-15 campaign, is expected to once again outplay the seasonal $7.5 million on his ledger.
It should be noted that anyone suggesting that the Suns eventually might have to pick one point guard over the other is looking at this variable from inside the prism of rigid positional stereotyping. In this instance, being really good basketball players trumps the notion of true point guard/shooting guard balance.
Simply put, the Suns killed it with Bledsoe and Dragic working together (23-11). To be sure, quite a few teams could prorate their victory totals for injury considerations and look much better; this won’t prevent us from doing so for the Suns, whose record with both point guards would have been the fifth best in the league at a winning percentage of .676.
Let’s also point out that before shooting off of one leg in his last two games, Dragic had made 42 percent of his 3-point attempts (he finished at 40.8). This ability of The Dragon and Bledsoe to keep the floor spread for each other — and minutes spent running the offense while the other rests — keeps the Suns truly dangerous on offense.
But the biggest challenge to working with two point guards — being posted up by bigger shooting guards while on defense — became far less problematic for the Suns than the task of defending two attacking playmakers became for their foes.
Thanks to this situation and others, the franchise is in a good place.
"If you look around the league," Babby said, "there’s only a handful of teams that are as well-positioned as we are."
This positioning includes a mother lode of outside-the-top-10 draft picks, which McDonough wouldn’t mind using to either trade up in the order or package in a deal for an established player.
"I think it’s unlikely we bring three rookies into the Suns this year," McDonough said.
And the rise in value of their current players hasn’t dimmed the Suns’ hope of landing elite talent in free agency.
With his belief that Phoenix always has been high on the list of NBA employment destinations, Babby — citing Hornacek as a key upgrade — is even more bullish now.
"If I put my former agent hat on," he said, "where would you rather go than the Phoenix Suns?"