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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.

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

No player benefitted from a change of scenery last season more than Monta Ellis. After seeing his career spiral downward in an ill-fated stint with the Milwaukee Bucks, Monta found a new home with the Dallas Mavericks, where he was surrounded by three-point shooting and installed in a system that suited his talents. He averaged 19 points and 6 assists per game on 45% shooting and was one of the main catalysts for the Mavs return to the playoffs after a one-year hiatus. 

Monta went from laughingstock to cornerstone, the latest in a long line of guards to benefit from playing next to Dirk Nowitzki. His slashing ability was the perfect complement to Dirk's ability to stretch the floor and their two-man game became one of the most indefensible combinations in the league. However, for as well as he played, the holes in his game that haunted him in Golden State and Milwaukee are still there and it's unclear how he fits long-term in Dallas.

Last season was only the third time in Monta's nine-year career he made the playoffs and that's not entirely a coincidence, as he has a unique combination of strengths and weaknesses that make it difficult to build an elite team around him. Very few players can successfully share a backcourt with him - he didn't fit next to Steph Curry, Brandon Jennings or Jose Calderon. A team with Monta as a primary option has to pound a lot of square pegs into round holes.

At 6'3 185 with a 6'3 wingspan, he's a SG with the size of a PG. While he is a much better passer than he's often given credit for, he's an inconsistent decision-maker who needs to be paired with another ball-handler who can initiate the offense and control the tempo of the game. Monta is a SG who can't shoot 3's or play defense, which puts a tremendous amount of pressure on both sides of the ball for the other starting guard, regardless of which position they play.

Since Monta can't stretch the floor, he can't play with another guard who needs the ball in his hands and since he can't defend his position, he can't play with another minus defender. Monta's ideal backcourt partner should be able to defend both backcourt positions and shoot the ball at a high level while still being able to handle and take care of the ball like a PG. Here's the problem - if you look around the NBA, there are not many guards with that skill-set. 

As a rule, the type of guard that makes sense next to Monta on offense doesn't make sense next to him on defense. Calderon is a perfect example - at 6'3 210, he's a big PG who is one of the best shooters (45% from 3) and decision-makers (4.7 assists on 1.3 turnovers) in the NBA. Not only was he an elite floor spacer in Dallas, which opened up a ton of driving lanes, he rarely turned the ball over, which created a ton of possessions for Monta to do his thing.

The problem came on the other side of the ball, as a starting backcourt of Calderon and Monta was bleeding points defensively. When you add a 35-year-old Dirk to the mix, you had a starting unit regularly directing conga lanes to the front of the rim. As a result, Shawn Marion, the Mavs' small forward, was forced to defend four different positions, far too much to ask of a 34-year-old. When you have to cover for Calderon, Monta and Dirk, you don't get many nights off.

As versatile as Marion was on defense, his offensive game started to decline in his 15th season in the NBA, so the Mavs decided to upgrade the SF position this offseason with the signing of Chandler Parsons. And while Parsons is a decent defender, he's not capable of locking down an opposing team's PG or SG. That's the problem with building a team around multiple players with holes in their game - it's hard to create a line-up that works on both sides of the ball.

Parsons isn't the only new starter on the perimeter next season, as the Mavs brought in Jameer Nelson to replace Calderon at PG. Nelson is a good shooter and passer and is a much better defensive player than Calderon, but he's an undersized PG (6’0 190) in his 30’s. He will have to guard the opposing team's PG, which means that with Marion gone, Monta will spend a lot of nights guarding guys like Kobe Bryant, James Harden, Klay Thompson and Goran Dragic. 

In order to combat those defensive issues, Dallas will likely close games with Devin Harris, their best defensive guard, running point. That, however, opens up a whole different can of worms, as Harris shot only 31% from three last season and a back-court of Monta and Harris will struggle to space the floor for Dirk and Parsons. Rick Carlisle is a great coach, but there's only so much he can do - if he plugs a hole on offense, it opens one up on defense and vice versa.

Going forward, the big question in Dallas is how to best maximize Dirk's remaining years in the NBA. As great a combination as him and Monta are, you don't pay a guy like Parsons $15 million a season in order for him to be third option. And if Parsons and Dirk are going to be your top two options, you want as much defense and three-point shooting next to them as possible. So while the Mavs improved this offseason, but there's still a ceiling on their roster.

Dallas is committed to Parsons and Dirk for the next three years, but Monta has a player option in his contract and could hit free agency next summer. At 29, he would be looking for one last long-term deal, which would lock the Mavs into a core with a number of defensive issues. From there, it's hard to see the guard who makes Monta-Parsons-Dirk work. That's what it comes down too when trying to build an elite team - what a guy can't do is as important as what he can.

Finding Terrence Jones In Morey's Disappointing Offseason

Things didn't exactly go according to the plan for the Houston Rockets this offseason. In the span of a weekend, they went from having Chris Bosh and Chandler Parsons to neither, all while clearing out their bench. After a disappointing first round exit, the Rockets lost Parsons, Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin and have only Trevor Ariza to show for it. With Daryl Morey's hot streak the last few offseasons coming to an abrupt halt, the Rockets seem like a prime candidate to regress.

Losing Parsons is a blow not only to their chances next season, but to the odds of getting a third star like Kevin Love. The mechanics of trading his contract would have been difficult, but he's exactly the type of young piece a team like the Wolves would want in a trade. Without 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. 

Jones has slipped under the radar ever since his sophomore season at Kentucky, when he took a backseat to Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist on a team that won a national title. With his stats depressed in a smaller role, he fell to the Rockets at No. 17 in 2012, the last in a long line of young PF's they drafted in the first round. After barely playing as a rookie, he carved out a spot for himself in the starting line-up as a second-year player, averaging 12 points and 7 rebounds a game on 54% shooting.

Those numbers hardly forecast future stardom, but they were excellent when you consider the role that he had on the team. Jones was the fourth or fifth option on the floor, playing behind Dwight Howard, James Harden and Parsons. As a result, he rarely got to play with the ball in his hands - most of his points came from cutting off the ball, crashing the offensive glass and running the floor. If Parsons had stayed, Jones would never have had the chance to be anything more than a role player in Houston.

If Morey had signed Bosh and pulled off a Big Four, Jones would have been fighting for minutes on the second team, if not shipped away in order to clear salary cap space. Instead, without either Parsons or Lin, there's a huge role in the Rockets offense that will need to be filled. Those two averaged almost 24 field goal attempts a game and Ariza only averaged 11 in Washington last season. Jones, who averaged 9 a game last season, is a logical option to soak up more possessions. 

At 6'9 250 with a 35' max vertical, Jones has the physical measurements and athleticism of a lottery pick. If he had come out after his freshman season of college, he likely would have been taken in the Top 5, which would have dramatically altered the perception of him around the league. His numbers as a freshman weren't much different from those of Julius Randle. Jones has elite ball-handling ability for a player his size, a quick first step and the ability to finish at the rim or find the open man off the dribble.

Jones is more of a combo 4 than a stretch 4, so he's not a natural fit with a center like Howard who wants the ball on the block. At the same time, the two form one of the longest and most athletic frontcourt duos in the NBA and they are more than skilled enough to figure things out on the offensive side of the floor. There should be plenty of opportunities for Jones to push the ball in transition as well as attack the lane with the other three perimeter players spotting up on the three-point line. 

As is the case with most young players, Jones has a lot of room to grow on the defensive side of the ball. That was made clear in the playoffs, when LaMarcus Aldridge tore him up in their first two games, averaging over 40 per night. Jones isn't quite as long as Aldridge, but he still has a 7'2 wingspan, so he's more than capable of holding his own at the PF position. Along with Howard, he gives the Rockets two big men capable of defending the two-man game, a huge advantage in a spread pick-and-roll league.

Just as important as any maturation on defense, Jones should have the opportunity to attack guys like Aldridge on the other end of the floor next season. That's one of the best ways to go at a big-time scorer - attack his legs and make him work on defense. With Jones hardly ever being featured in the Rockets offense, Aldridge didn't have to work all that hard against him. People tend to confuse opportunity with talent, especially with young players. There's only so much a guy can do with a usage rating of 18.

If Jones can handle a role as a third option and a featured player on the second unit with a usage rating of 22-23, there is a scenario where the Rockets end up improving without Parsons. With Ariza giving them a second lockdown defender on the perimeter, they would have four elite athletes around James Harden, all on the right side of 30. The bench is an issue, but one of the strengths of Houston's front office has been their ability to unearth NBA-caliber players from all types of unlikely places 

For all the hubbub around Morey's philosophy and approach to roster building, few can doubt his eye for talent. While it looks like he outsmarted himself this summer, his ability to find guys like Patrick Beverley in Europe and Terrence Jones in the end of the first round has left him with room to maneuver. That could end up being the great irony of the Rockets seemingly fruitless search for a third star - they've been frantically looking under every rock when that player has been on hand the whole time.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Marcus Smart: Why College Coaching Even Matters For Top-5 Picks

Marcus Smart just lived through the worst possible timeline at Oklahoma State, but he's an ideal player for a rebuilding team because he can be successful next to any type of guard.

The OKC Window Has Barely Begun To Open

The Thunder Big 3 are still two years away from being the same age as LeBron, Wade and Bosh were when they united and they didn't have 2-3 lottery picks entering their prime to serve as a supporting cast.

Scott Brooks' Anti-Meritocracy

Instead of going with the players who earned the right to be on the floor, Scott Brooks went with veterans who had more playoff experience. Playing Derek Fisher over Jeremy Lamb is the canary in the coal mine for Brooks.

Draft Report: Adreian Payne Of Michigan State

Adreian Payne is a stretch 4 with elite athleticism and prototype size for the position. He has a lot of Serge Ibaka in his game. Payne is one of the most complete big men in the country and his skill-set can improve every team in the league.

The Logic Of The Prokhorov/King Model

As soon as Mikhail Prokhorov bought the Nets, he began pouring money into the roster with seemingly no regard for costs. Billy King pushed their payroll to stratospheric levels and they're no closer to The Finals, but it remains a sound business decision.

The Clowney Conundrum For The NBA

If a player like Jadaveon Clowney was in the NBA draft, there is little chance he would go No. 1 overall. When it comes to evaluating prospects, NFL teams don't seem to be as much in the thrall of individual statistics

Breaking Down The Rookie Seasons Of The 2013 Lottery Class

In a society where patience has gone out the window and only instant gratification matters, the poor play of the 2013 rookie class has many ready to write them off entirely. But while there isnít an Anthony Davis in the bunch, this yearís draft had plenty of good young players who, for a variety of reasons, were simply not ready for the NBA.

Draft Report: Joel Embiid Of Kansas

Unless you have LeBron James or Kevin Durant, you're not getting anywhere without a good center. Joel Embiid is the one guy from this class who brings instant credibility to the team that drafts him.

All Stars Must Pass

If Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker arenít scoring, they have a hard time impacting the game. While they were eliminated, Julius Randle is in the Sweet 16 thanks to his career-high six assists against Wichita State.

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