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Why Eric Bledsoe's Max Contract Awaits

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.

Kyrie Irving's Transformation Starts With Admission He Needs LeBron, Cavs' New Vets

CHICAGO – Everywhere now, people probe into Kyrie Irving and his intentions as a leader. They tell him he’s been a leader on the Cleveland Cavaliers, that now is his time in the sport, and these people keep speeding the clock on his maturity beyond reality. Cleveland lucked into Irving in 2011, a franchise cornerstone to replace another, but the locker room lacked guidance and accountability and unveiled flaws of an unrefined twenty-something.

Across the NBA, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant heaved praise on Irving at such a young age, as such a genius scorer and wizard of the ball, and only he understands the truth. He knows he’s been no leader, no influence for players, but just a one-and-done collegiate athlete given apprentice status and ownership of an underdeveloped program.

“I haven’t been a leader – not at all,” Irving told RealGM.

Team USA’s practice ended the other day at the Quest Sports Complex, and Irving sat in a chair near the back of the gym, taking photo requests as a Nike representative hovered nearby. His arms tugged around surrounding seats, his knees prepared for icing, and his mind synchronized with Mike Krzyzewski’s approach in this World Cup.

He swears he’s unconditionally focused on USA Basketball, but away from here LeBron James has long since returned and helped bring Mike Miller, Shawn Marion and James Jones to Cleveland. Kevin Love is coming, too. The Indiana Pacers pushed hard for Marion, and sources say they laid out a $1.7-plus million offer and an outline of a significant role in discussions with the free agent veteran.

Irving is an unquestioned talent, and he admits his ongoing lessons about turning personal accolades into team success – knowing how desperately he needed this roster upgrade, in talent and professionalism.

“Everybody asks me if this is my year to be a leader … I haven’t been so far though, not at all,” Irving said. “I’ve just been a kid trying to figure it out. There’s no perfect way to be a leader, and coming in as a 19-year-old kid and having everything bearing on your shoulders, there are a lot of ups and downs. Now it’s about being the best every single day and not being afraid.

“I’m more than excited with our new veterans. I’m really excited just from the standpoint of how the locker room is going to go and how to really be a professional. I’m not saying that the veterans that we had weren’t professionals themselves, but we didn’t have enough. Given the right and wrong things to do in the league, I’ve had to learn on my own and that’s what some of us been doing.

“Now, we have guys who’ve been in the league for years, guys who’ve won championships and have had to give a piece of their game for the greater good of the team. It’s something I admire and something I’m going to learn from.”

Moving past the vision under the old management regime, the Cavaliers essentially will have replaced Anthony Bennett and Andrew Bynum for James and Love in one summer, replaced a top-heavy bench for capable shooters ready for the game’s clutch moments. Irving has tremendous respect for Luol Deng, but Deng arrived too late and too unproductive in January and left as a free agent.

And out went Mike Brown; in came David Blatt, a creative offensive coach abroad. When hired, Blatt reached out to Irving and swiftly laid out an initial game plan. “My offense is tailored to you, to all my players, and what your strengths are,” Blatt told Irving.

Irving says his decision to re-sign with Cleveland on July 1 was simple, and yes, a five-year, maximum-salary deal brings ease to that choice. Yet, Irving is adamant: “I had nothing to do with the [coaching search].” No input and consultation needed, he says, and David Griffin had been entrusted with the hiring process.

Blatt is unproven in this league and must gain fresh trust, but this is unmistakable: The Cavs’ most critical relationship will lie between their best, James and Irving, and the depths to which both push themselves forward or push apart.

James has traveled the world for training and promotional events, and Irving’s committed to Team USA, so dialogue hasn’t progressed about ways they’ll blend on the court next season. After the FIBA games, Irving plans to exchange more calls and texts with James and engage in workouts together. They’ll need a quick course in chemistry, because an NBA title could be had out of the Eastern Conference, not just a retooling year.

For now, Coach K drills his former Duke point guard for better efforts on both ends and Irving insists everyone else receives the same treatment. For now, some of Blatt’s old games light up on a video screen for Irving.

Irving has studied those Russian national teams pass and cut in past World Championships and Olympics, has studied the crispness of recent Maccabi Tel Aviv clubs, searching for strategies to become more efficient in scoring and passing next season.

“I didn’t know [Blatt] before, but I’ve watched plenty of film on him,” Irving said. “When I watch tape of coach’s offense, he gives his guards freedom. I’m just going to learn from him and our veterans, and put everything into my game. [Blatt] gives a lot of freedom to make plays. That’s what you want from a coach.

“You want a coach that not necessarily will roll the ball out and tell you to go get it, but somebody who’s going to have some structure and let you make it happen instead of him trying to make it happen.”

Surely, Irving viewed the transformation of John Wall once former NBA champions and conference finalists took charge of him and challenged his capacity to lead last season. This duty came too swift for Irving in the NBA. He wasn’t ready. He wasn’t a leader of men in his first three pro seasons, and he had erratic moments as an A-list star. And suddenly, here come LeBron James and Kevin Love, future Hall of Famers arriving into a defective locker room, and no one needs them all more than Kyrie Irving.

15 Most Anticipated Games Of 14-15 NBA Season

The release of the NBA schedule lets us put some dates on some of the more compelling matchups that will take place during the 2014-15 regular season. These are the 15 that I am most looking forward to (no repeats allowed): 

Knicks @ Cavs (October 30): The easiest call on the list. LeBron James returning to Cleveland will be the story of the season until the Cavaliers' season ends and possibly even after that.

Thunder @ Clippers (October 30): While maybe more symbolic than anything else in a season where the team has to deal with a hard cap, the first game for the Los Angeles Clippers without a certain former owner who will remain nameless holds great importance for the franchise and the league as a whole.

Kings @ Suns (November 7): Isaiah Thomas has been an amazing success story who ended up being basically cast aside by his former team and replaced by a guy he should be able to torch. I am already excited for this one.

Hornets @ Pacers (November 19): This lost more than a little luster with Paul George’s injury but still brings the intrigue, especially if the Hornets have a better record a little less than a month in.

Mavericks @ Rockets (November 22): While I am not sure a player gets a revenge game against a team that did him a huge favor by declining a cheap team option, it will still be fun to see former role player Chandler Parsons battle stars Dwight Howard and James Harden.

Cavs @ Thunder (December 11): Despite being early in the season, this has to be the front-runner for the loudest MVP chants of the year. Oh yeah, Durant vs. LeBron too.

Thunder @ Warriors (December 18): Despite not facing each other after mid-January, these teams played two of the best games of last season and a Thursday tilt on TNT just a week before Christmas could continue the streak.

Trail Blazers @ Rockets (December 22): Damian Lillard and the Blazers’ first game in Houston since the most memorable shot of the playoffs.

Cavs @ Heat (December 25): Even though it should not be anything too groundbreaking, LeBron’s first game against the franchise he won two titles with merits inclusion.

Warriors @ Clippers (December 25): While not nearly as vicious as rivalries in decades past, these two teams legitimately do not like each other. It will also be a nice test of how the Warriors will be different under new coach Steve Kerr.

Timberwolves @ Bucks (January 9): A game that should have been on Opening Night pits two of the more entertaining young cores in the league featuring the top two picks in this year’s stacked draft in Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker.

Cavs @ Warriors (January 9): You heard it here first: If healthy, Kevin Love drops 40+ in this game.

Thunder @ Wizards (January 21): I bet this makes a whole bunch of people in Oklahoma sick to their stomachs. Get ready, folks.

Cavs @ Bulls (February 12): The two best teams in the East playing after a few months to gel.

Spurs @ Pelicans (April 15): In what could be a beautiful touch, the best Power Forward of all time finishes what could be his final regular season against the current player most likely to eventually take that crown.

Grading The Deal: Cavaliers Trade For Kevin Love

Kevin Love was the best procurable player in the NBA for the Cavaliers, a top-10 talent at the age of 26 who will excellently complement LeBron James and Kyrie Irving.

Why Monta Ellis Could Soon Be Searching For Next Change Of Scenery

Monta Ellis went from laughingstock to cornerstone, the latest in a long line of guards to benefit from playing next to Dirk Nowitzki. But the holes in his game that haunted him with the Warriors and Bucks are still there and it's unclear how he fits long-term in Dallas.

An Economic Argument For NBA Expansion

When considering in the benefits of a substantial up-front payment from the expansion fees (including factoring in the time value of money) and the threat of bubble in relation to team values, it would behoove the owners to reincarnate the Sonics and a second franchise.

Finding Terrence Jones In Morey's Disappointing Offseason

Without Chandler Parsons, the Rockets don't have much room for internal improvement left on their roster. They have only one young player they can dream on - Terrence Jones. The good news for them is that he can really play.

How Lance Stephenson Will Make Everyone In Charlotte Better

Lance Stephenson's new contract wasn't one of the bigger ones handed out this offseason, but it was one of the most important. The Pacers are going to have a tough time replacing him and the Hornets look like a team on the rise.

Daryl Morey, Major Markets & The Fierce Urgency Of Now

Daryl Morey and the Rockets created a good but not perfect enough situation to lure Carmelo Anthony or Chris Bosh. His strategy of flexibility and asset accumulation would work in one of the NBA's major markets.

Grading The Deal: Carmelo Decides To Stay With New York

The presence of Carmelo Anthony is unlikely to bring a star from the younger generation to the Knicks. Despite his status as a famous and talented player, a franchise in a massive market should have understood the gigantic advantages given to them in the current CBA and aimed higher to build a championship foundation.

The Most Mutually Beneficial Loan Of All-Time

LeBron James needed to leave to win a title and the Cavaliers needed that departure for him to return to win one for Cleveland. Nothing is mapped out for LeBron right now as it was when he joined the Heat, but he returns unburdened with two rings and with youth around him.

Buying Low On Meyers Leonard

The NBA is full of 7'0 who didn't start to blossom until their mid 20's with Tyson Chandler as their patron saint, which is why it is too early to give up on Meyers Leonard.

Re-Signing Kyle Lowry As The Final Piece For Toronto

With Kyle Lowry under contract for the next four years, the Raptors have every one of their two-way playing starting five locked up for the indefinite future. This is a team on the rise, regardless of how much star power they have.

Grading The Deal: Warriors Sign Shaun Livingston

In signing Shaun Livingston, the Warriors fixed their single largest flaw from last season with a player who makes complete sense with their best player.

Team-By-Team Analysis Of The 2014 NBA Draft

With the new CBA magnifying the importance of the draft and one of the most talented groups of prospects in recent years, what happened on Thursday night will have significant ramifications on the balance of power in the NBA for the next decade.

Leroux's 2014 NBA Draft Review

Breaking down which teams had Great, Good, Enh and Bad drafts with Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Joel Embiid going in the top-3.

2014 NBA Draft: The Underrated

The key to finding sleepers once you are out of the lottery is identifying players with the ability to do multiple things, which allows them to impact the game without the ball in their hands. That means guys with the physical tools to be impact defenders or the all-around offensive games to contribute in a variety of roles on offense.

2014 NBA Draft: The Overrated

Doug McDermott, James Young, Jerami Grant, Mitch McGary and Cleanthony Early are five players we expect to be selected too early relative to the value of their contributions in the NBA.

Top-13 Of The 2014 NBA Draft

The 2014 class could end up rivaling 2003 based on its depth. If the Top 3 players in this yearís draft ever got on the same team, it would be something.

Draft Report: Aaron Gordon Of Arizona

Aaron Gordon might never be a guy who averages 18-20 points a game, but he does everything else on the court that helps you win. Heís the ultimate teammate, a guy who plays elite defense at multiple positions and moves the ball on offense.

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