At last season’s All-Star break, the Phoenix Suns were 18-39 with the second-worst record in the league. Seven-and-a-half games and seven teams stood between them and the playoffs despite the fact that their best players had been pretty healthy. To that point, sophomore shooting guard Devin Booker played in all but one game and TJ Warren was staying on the court after missing a month due to a strange head injury.
The biggest development was Eric Bledsoe’s health because after missing 51 games in 15-16 and 39 in 13-14 (with a healthy season in the middle), the 27-year-old point guard had only missed one game and that was for scheduled rest shortly before the All-Star break.
Those factors put Phoenix in an unenviable but still workable situation as a team stuffed with young players not ready to be competitive in a stacked Western Conference. They had avoided spending a ton of long-term money that off-season (just Jared Dudley for three years and $30 million, which has not turned out beautifully but was still comparatively solid for 2016’s spending bonanza) but would have limited flexibility since they still had to pay Tyson Chandler and Brandon Knight through 2019 and 2020, respectively, while some of their young players were moving off rookie scale contracts.
The Phoenix front office had plenty of clear indications about where they were as a franchise. After all, they selected two of the youngest players in the entire 2016 draft after doing well with a very young Booker the year before. Whether or not Booker, Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss and their remaining picks worked out, it was going to take a while.
At that same point, the Suns had a critical mass of veterans ill suited for a process that would take that long. Some would be able to mentor the young players but they did not need established players at every position to fulfill that purpose. Fortunately, the Suns’ books gave a clear guiding light for how to resolve the situation because no team was going to take on Knight or Chandler’s albatrosses of contracts without serious assets and that would have been a horrendous use of resources for a very young team. Dudley was more on the margin but an additional two and a half years at about $10 million per season, though GM Ryan McDonough was smart to have his contract decline each season, was too rich for too long.
That left Bledsoe as the perfect trade piece, an unambiguously good player in or close to his prime on an incredibly team-friendly contract. While teams could never totally wash away Bledsoe’s injury concerns, being healthy for the whole season to that point was as good as he would ever look from that perspective. Furthermore, while point guard has become a very saturated position around the league, horrendous recent seasons demonstrated the necessity of having at least one lead ball-handler on roster.
It was also obvious why Bledsoe was a poor long-term fit with the Suns. They were a construction project in the early stages and he was a finished product ready to be part of something bigger who had already experience the playoffs as a young Clipper. By the time his teammates were ready, Bledsoe would be close to thirty with the chance to leave as an unrestricted free agent in 2019 even if Phoenix wanted to bring him back.
Bledsoe’s contract drove his value even higher. In February, teams would have had two and a half regular seasons and three potential playoff runs on a contract paying him less than $15 million per season, a number that looking almost comically out of scale with the ridiculous contracts signed the previous summer due to the rapidly rising salary cap. Bledsoe was only making $2.5 million more than Jeremy Lin and the newly signed Net was both a clearly inferior player at the same position and one of 2016’s best bargain signings.
While it is impossible to know what offers were on the table in February, it was a superior time to move Bledsoe. After all, trading for him then would have given the acquiring team the rest of the regular season and playoffs if they qualified to figure out Bledsoe’s place and fit before the 2017 offseason, additional value worth paying for in assets. The 16-17 season was also unusual because both conferences had wide-open races for at least one playoff spot so there were more franchises in the mix. That was also before the 2017 draft class added a series of capable and intriguing young point guards to the pool, though that understanding may have kept some teams out of the bidding.
Instead, McDonough kept Bledsoe in February. Less than one month later, the Suns were clearly out of the playoff chase and elected to sit a healthy Bledsoe for the entire final month of the season in a race to the bottom of the standings. That unsurprisingly alienated Bledsoe and set the table for finally trading him in November for Greg Monroe and an eventual first round pick from Milwaukee.
There is not enough publicly known about what the Suns were offered at the February deadline to say definitively that they made a mistake waiting but that choice created a series of events that was simultaneously predictable, damaging and avoidable. Even if moving a talented player on a good contract was unpalatable at the time, it was not a situation that was going to resolve with bringing back the same super young roster plus one high draft pick.
Being a general manager is an incredibly hard job with competing pressures and it is worth remembering that owner Robert Sarver gave McDonough a contract extension this summer and we cannot know if that happens if he trades Bledsoe at the deadline. That said, the Eric Bledsoe situation certainly appears to be a teachable moment about the importance of honesty in self-evaluation for front offices because failure to do so can lead to serious consequences.