With the Kevin Love trade finally completed and free agency all but over, the fate of Eric Bledsoe is one of the offseason’s last unresolved subplots. Along with Greg Monroe, Bledsoe has been stuck in restricted free agency limbo for the last few months, unable to come to terms with his team or drum up much interest on the market. Bledsoe reportedly wants a max contract, which is much more than the Phoenix Suns have been prepared to offer.
The Suns skepticism is understandable, given that Bledsoe has started only 78 games in his NBA career and had major knee surgery in January. At the same time, in the 43 games he played in Phoenix, he looked like one of the best point guards in the league and was an instrumental factor in their unlikely push for a playoff spot. If he accepts their one-year qualifying offer and becomes an unrestricted free agency next summer, he should have no shortage of suitors.
Coming into the season, few knew what to expect of Bledsoe. He had spent the last two seasons with the Los Angeles Clippers as Chris Paul’s understudy, averaging less than 20 minutes a game. With Vinny Del Negro stubbornly refusing to play two-point guard lineups, even when that meant starting career journeyman Willie Green, Bledsoe’s opportunities were limited. As a result, there wasn’t a ton of interest when the Clippers made him available in trade talks.
Phoenix was able to swoop in at the last minute, acquiring Bledsoe as part of a three-team deal that sent JJ Redick and Jared Dudley to the Clippers and Caron Butler and two second-round picks to the Milwaukee Bucks. It was a buy-low move with little risk for a team in their position - after missing the playoffs and seeing their win totals drop for three straight seasons, the Suns were starting over with a new GM (Ryan McDonough), and coach (Jeff Hornacek).
The new management team in Phoenix cleaned house, getting rid of three starters and bringing back only four players from a team that won 25 games the season before. They were expected to be a West Coast version of the Philadelphia 76ers, bottoming out to improve their odds in one of the most anticipated draft lotteries in recent memory. However, instead of beginning a multi-year rebuilding process, they became one of the biggest surprises of the NBA.
Hornacek’s spread pick-and-roll offense was a perfect fit for the players on hand, as almost everyone in the rotation had a career high in field goal percentage. Miles Plumlee was the roll man, Channing Frye was the stretch-4 and PJ Tucker was the 3-and-D wing while Bledsoe and Goran Dragic took turns spotting up and orchestrating the offense. It was a triumph of spacing - the Suns played four three-point shooters at all times and blew teams off the floor.
When Bledsoe went down with a knee injury on December 30, Phoenix was 19-11 and No. 6 in the West. In the 33 games he missed, they went 17-16 and slipped out of the playoff standings. He returned to help them make a 12-7 push over the final month, but it wasn’t quite enough, as they finished one game behind the No. 8 seed Dallas Mavericks. They would have made the playoffs if he had stayed healthy - they were 28-15 with him and 20-19 without him.
Just as a comparison, the Oklahoma City Thunder went 25-11 without Russell Westbrook last season and the Clippers went 12-7 without Paul. To be sure, the Suns didn’t have a Kevin Durant or Blake Griffin to pick up the slack in the absence of their star PG, but it shows the impact Bledsoe was having on both sides of the ball. When he was in the line-up, Phoenix was one of the best teams in the NBA, with a winning percentage (.651) of a 54-win team.
His impact goes beyond his stats - you can count the number of guards who can impact the game in as many ways as Bledsoe on one hand. He is one of the best athletes in the NBA and he can beat you as a scorer, shooter, passer, rebounder and defender. He takes what the defense gives him - he can turn the corner and finish at the rim at will, find the open man when the defense collapses and knock down the jumper when they go under the screen.
In Hornacek’s system, with three shooters spotting up on the three-point line and one big man rolling to the rim, Bledsoe’s versatility made him an impossible cover. When he had the ball in his hands, something was always open. On the other side of the ball, his ability to defend multiple positions, pressure opposing ball-handlers and turn them over as well as clean the glass made him a one-man break who could change the tempo of the game by himself.
Bledsoe is the rare PG who doesn’t have any holes in his game. Most guys with his athleticism don’t have his ability to finish from all over the floor and very few guys with his all-around offensive game have his ability to impact the game defensively. Last season, only 6 PG’s had a higher True Shooting Percentage than Bledsoe (.578) - Steph Curry, Dragic, Jose Calderon, Patty Mills, Jimmer Fredette and Paul - and only Paul is in his category as a defender.
Spending two years learning from Paul clearly had an impact on Bledsoe, who plays with far more finesse and control than he did at Kentucky. He came into the league an unfinished product - he played only one season in college and spent most of that time spotting up off John Wall, so he rarely got to play with the ball in his hands. As a result, he slipped in the draft and had to spend his first three seasons in the NBA learning the game while coming off the bench.
Unlike his more celebrated college teammate, Bledsoe didn’t have anything handed to him at the next level. Wall, as a No. 1 overall pick, was given the keys to the offense as a rookie and received a max contract extension before Bledsoe even got a chance to be a starter. However, when he finally got his shot, you would have had a hard time differentiating the two Calipari products - Bledsoe (19.6) and Wall (19.5) had almost identical PER’s last season.
At this point in their careers, perception is the biggest thing separating the two. Bledsoe is just as good an athlete and he’s the better shooter. Once he gets more NBA games under his belt, there’s really no ceiling to how good he can be - imagine Chris Paul’s brain in Derrick Rose’s body. Even if he doesn’t improve going forward, he’s already one of the best two-way players in the league. If the Suns don’t want to give him a max contract, someone else should.