As a member of the Clippers, Eric Bledsoe appeared to be one of this year's extension-eligible players least likely to sign a new long-term contract. After all, the club had arguably the league's best point guard ahead of him, and Chris Paul had been locked up to a long-term deal of his own. Throw in big multiyear contracts for Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and others, and there simply wasn't going to be enough flexibility for the Clips to pay to keep Bledsoe around.
As such, it was no surprise when the Clippers agreed to trade Bledsoe to acquire help on the wing, though the point guard's destination was a bit of a surprise. Despite already having Goran Dragic on a long-term contract and having drafted Kendall Marshall last summer, the Suns nabbed Bledsoe in a three-way swap with the Clips and Bucks.
It doesn't seem as if new GM Ryan McDonough values Marshall quite as highly as the old regime did, considering Marshall's name popped up in trade rumors last month. That doesn't mean the Suns will just give up on him, but it opens up the door for Bledsoe to be a bigger part of the club's long-term plan. Even with Dragic running the point in Phoenix, McDonough and the Suns have indicated that they expect to see Dragic and Bledsoe playing at the same time frequently next season.
If the Suns do plan for Bledsoe to be a primary piece of the team's core, this offseason may be the best time to negotiate a new deal for him. The team will have until October 31st to finalize an extension for Bledsoe, with the 23-year-old primed to hit restricted free agency in 2014 if no agreement can be reached.
While Bledsoe's potential upside is acknowledged by everyone around the NBA, he hasn't accumulated as many minutes and statistics as most typical extension candidates. Because he played behind Paul in Los Angeles for the last two seasons, Bledsoe's career numbers aren't flashy: In 197 career contests, he has averaged 6.7 PPG and 3.0 APG to go along with a 13.6 PER and shooting percentages of .431/.308/.749. By comparison, here are the numbers a few other recently-extended point guards compiled in their first three seasons:
Bledsoe has only averaged 19.6 minutes per game in his first three years, so it's probaby unfair to compare him to guys who earned more playing time when it comes to counting stats like points and assists. Bledsoe was also significantly more effective in his third season than in his first two. Still, even in part-time action, often playing against an opponent's second-stringers, Bledsoe's career PER and shooting percentages don't stack up to the averages posted by Mike Conley, Jrue Holiday, and Ty Lawson.
Conley, Holiday, and Lawson all received four- or five-year extensions that paid them between $8-12MM annually, with Conley signing his deal in 2010, while the others were inked last summer. Given the discrepancy between their numbers and Bledsoe's, it seems reasonable to assume Bledsoe hasn't shown enough yet to be considered a player who should earn $8MM+ annually. That means that if the Suns and Bledsoe were to discuss a four-year deal, the team could propose something in the neighborhood of $26-28MM, or nearly $7MM per year.
That sort of offer would likely be enough to give Bledsoe pause. After all, it's not far off from Dragic's four-year, $30MM pact, and Dragic was coming off a very impressive 2011/12 season (26.5 MPG, 18.0 PER) when he inked his deal. Despite a solid '12/13, Bledsoe doesn't have the same track record, so securing that kind of long-term commitment based primarily on his potential could be appealing.
On the other hand, Bledsoe figures to play a larger role and more minutes in his first season in Phoenix. He's still only 23 years old, which means he has plenty of room to continue to improve, in addition to seeing his numbers increase simply due to a boost in playing time. A breakout 2013/14 season would position him well for a bigger free agent contract next summer, when he's able to negotiate with teams besides the Suns. In that case, agreeing to an extension now could mean leaving several million dollars on the table.
Given how little we've seen from Bledsoe as a first-stringer, it's hard to predict whether or not the team and/or player will aggressively pursue an extension this offseason. It should ultimately come down to whether the Suns and Bledsoe can reach an agreement that balances the risk and reward on both sides. It wouldn't surprise me to see Bledsoe sign a deal in the ballpark of the one Dragic received from the Suns, but the Kentucky product could just as easily decide to roll the dice and take his chances in free agency next summer.