Eric Bledsoe got to play starter's minutes last season for the first time after a summertime trade from the Los Angeles Clippers to the Phoenix Suns, and he quickly proved deserving of the opportunity. The tough, explosive guard was one of just six players to average at least 17.5 points, 5.5 assists and 4.5 rebounds per game last season; the other five were the league's MVP (Kevin Durant) and runner-up (LeBron James), two perennial All-Stars (James Harden and Russell Westbrook) and arguably the best guard in the Eastern Conference last year (Kyle Lowry). He was a two-way menace who paired with Goran Dragic to give first-year coach Jeff Hornacek one of the league's best backcourts, a hard-charging duo that helped propel the Suns from basement dwellers to the brink of a playoff berth in a brutal Western Conference.
Bledsoe's breakout campaign was limited to just 43 games and 1,416 minutes by January surgery to remove a piece of the meniscus in his right knee. But despite the worrying nature of a second meniscus surgery in 27 months, the Kentucky product looked just as quick, strong and productive after returning from the procedure, and looked to be in line for a big-time payday as he entered free agency this summer. As we near August, though, a full four weeks after the NBA's annual free-agent frenzy began, that payday has yet to come.
Multiple reports indicate that Phoenix has offered a four-year contract worth $48 million, the same deal that Lowry got, while Bledsoe and agent Rich Paul want a five-year max offer that could top $80 million. The bad news for Bledsoe is that there doesn't appear to be any reason for the Suns to get into his preferred price range; all's quiet on the Bledsoe front, because the 24-year-old is a restricted free agent, governed by a different set of rules than those players who hit the market free and clear.
Bledsoe gets why things are taking so long ... but that doesn't mean he likes it. From Kyle Burger of WVTM-TV in Bledsoe's hometown of Birmingham, Ala.
"First off, I'm going to let my agent handle it," Bledsoe said [of the contract negotiations] while attending a "Ball Up" streetball tournament in Birmingham. "I can understand the Phoenix Suns are using restricted free agency against me. But I understand that."
There wasn't any malice, really, in the way the quiet and soft-spoken Bledsoe offered that assessment. It was a flat statement of fact, and it's not wrong — the Suns have just about all the leverage, leaving Bledsoe mostly to sit and wait.
As Larry Coon explains in his NBA Salary Cap FAQ, "An unrestricted free agent is free to sign with any other team, and there's nothing the player's original team can do to prevent it. Restricted free agency gives the player's original team the right to keep the player by matching a contract the player signs with another team. This is called the 'right of first refusal.'" As BDL Editor Kelly Dwyer wrote in November, restricted free agency exists largely to help front-office decision-makers, allowing them to pass on bidding against themselves for players near the end of their rookie-scale contracts in favor of exploring the league-wide market for a player's services before making a long-term decision.
This can come back to bite you. The Utah Jazz, for example, now probably wish they'd given Gordon Hayward the "deal in the four-year, $50-million plus range" he sought last summer, rather than letting him hit restricted free agency and eventually having to match a four-year, $63 million offer sheet. But while the Jazz might be kicking themselves for not getting a deal done early after having three years of time to weigh the value of a player they drafted, the Suns had seen Bledsoe in purple and orange for all of one game before the deadline to offer him an extension of his rookie contract. First-year Suns general manager Ryan McDonough decided instead that he'd use the leverage afforded him by restricted free agency — and by his work to clean up the Suns' salary-cap sheet by getting rid of big money and/or long-term deals for Jared Dudley, Caron Butler, Michael Beasley and Marcin Gortat — to let Bledsoe sing for his supper.
If McDonough didn't like the tune, then he would have avoided larding up the books with a pricey deal for a player who didn't take well to an increased role. If everything sounded sweet, he could match any offer a competitor made, keeping a valuable contributor at the market rate. As it turned out, things broke just about perfectly for McDonough; he does like Bledsoe, and a month into the offseason, nobody has tested just how much he wants to keep his rising star guard in the fold.
Maybe that's because McDonough said all along that the Suns will match any offer for Bledsoe, leading prospective poachers to decide they'd just be wasting their time. Maybe it's because there weren't very many suitors due to league-wide depth at the point. Maybe it's because the teams who might've been in the Bledsoe market got spooked by the prospect of offering him a max deal after that second meniscus surgery.
Maybe some teams have lingering questions about how effective Bledsoe would be as a full-time lone lead guard, given that the Suns' offense — fantastic when Bledsoe and Dragic played together, scoring an average of 108.4 points per 100 possessions according to NBA.com's stat tool, which would have been the league's fifth-best mark over the full season — fell apart when Dragic sat (just 100.4-per-100, which would've finished 24th) but kept cooking when Bledsoe wasn't available (108-per-100, which would've been eighth). Maybe it's because the collective bargaining agreement provides a three-day window after you sign a restricted free agent to an offer sheet for their previous employer to exercise that "right of first refusal" — a 72-hour period during which you can't spend that promised money elsewhere, and that could end with your other free-agent targets getting snapped up by competitors. (As Grantland's Zach Lowe wrote last week, that period can actually last even longer than three days, too.)
Maybe it's a bit of all of the above. Whatever the explanation, the reality is that there haven't been any bites, and that after a month of free-agent shopping, there aren't very many teams with enough cap space left to throw a heavy deal at Bledsoe.
The Philadelphia 76ers, who have about $31.85 million on the books for the year ahead, could offer Bledsoe a max contract without blinking, but Sam Hinkie and company are less interested in adding big-time future money for players who could help them win more games this year than they are being inexpensive, collecting another high lottery pick and seeing where cheap internal development will lead them. The Milwaukee Bucks still have a little over $10 million in cap room and could create more by jettisoning some unguaranteed salaries, but look to be a long way from tendering the kind of offer that might make Phoenix blanch and have decided to round out their guard rotation with short-term, short-money deals (Kendall Marshall and, reportedly, Jerryd Bayless). Ditto for the Orlando Magic (Ben Gordon, Luke Ridnour, Willie Green) and Atlanta Hawks (Shelvin Mack, Kent Bazemore).
The team most likely to offer Bledsoe an eight-figure deal, then, is the one that currently employs him ... and Phoenix won't outbid itself by $32 million just to be nice.
That said, Bledsoe isn't entirely without options. He could work to negotiate a shorter deal that would limit the Suns' financial outlay while allowing him to hit free agency again in a couple of summers, like LeBron James and Lance Stephenson have this offseason. And if he can't come to terms with the Suns, he could sign his qualifying offer, play the 2014-15 season for $3,726,966, and hit the market next summer as a completely unrestricted free agent.
Such options — including that dicey last one — would represent Bledsoe taking something of a loss in his first crack at a lucrative post-rookie contract, and would sacrifice the prospect of long-term financial stability, which you'd think might matter to someone who has had two meniscus surgeries since coming into the pros. But they'd also represent Bledsoe and his representatives gambling that he's only going to get better and put up bigger numbers with more opportunities in the Suns' go-go offense — even after the addition of fellow restricted free agent point man Isaiah Thomas — and put himself in position to lock up that full max deal as soon as he hits the market unrestricted. As ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne wrote last winter in a great feature on Bledsoe, "In Bledsoe's mind, it is never wrong to bet on himself."
We might soon learn just how much he's willing to wager in his first crack at big-time dollars. In the meantime, the Suns still hold just about all the cards, including the "right of first refusal" trump, and Bledsoe can't do much besides stew at the rules of this particular high-stakes game.
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