Free Agent Stock Watch: Eric Bledsoe

April 2 at 1:50pm CDT By Chuck Myron

Suns owner Robert Sarver and president of basketball operations Lon Babby both said even before Eric Bledsoe returned from a torn meniscus in his right knee that they intend to match any offer for the restricted free agent this summer. That doesn’t preclude teams from challenging them to honor their word and making the Suns pay dearly to keep a 24-year-old who’s only started 69 games in his NBA career. Indeed, it appears the Lakers have considered overpaying for Bledsoe this summer to see if they can bring him back to L.A., where he spent his first two NBA seasons with the Clippers.

Overpaying for Bledsoe would almost certainly entail a maximum-salary offer, and even that sort of money might not be too much for a player with his upside. The Rich Paul client is only eligible for a starting salary worth approximately 25% of the salary cap. The precise figure won’t be known until after the July Moratorium, but it’ll likely be close to $14MM, based on last year’s numbers. That would give him more money than fellow point guards Stephen Curry and Ty Lawson but less than elites like Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose. He’d have the same salary as John Wall, who shared a backcourt with Bledsoe in their lone season at the University of Kentucky.

Wall received his max via an extension with the Wizards this past summer. The Suns were wary of handing out a lucrative extension to Bledsoe, whom they’d just acquired via trade with the Clippers. The former 18th overall pick had never been a full-time starter, and so GM Ryan McDonough and company took a cautious approach, even though it seems likely they could have extended Bledsoe for significantly less than the max. The Suns gave him a chance to prove his worth this season, and when healthy, he’s done just that, averaging 17.3 points, 5.7 assists and 4.7 rebounds per game. The Suns give up 3.1 fewer points per 100 possessions with Bledsoe on the floor, thanks in part to his team-leading 1.5 steals per game. In hindsight, the decision not to extend Bledsoe looks like a mistake.

There’s still plenty of room for him to improve, as his 3.1 turnovers per contest demonstrate. Still, it’s about the same rate of turnovers per minute as he’s committed throughout his career, so it’s no sign of regression. He shot nearly 40% from behind the arc last season and is making just 34.2% on such attempts this year, but apart from last season’s small sample size of 78 attempts, he’s never been a top-flight shooter from long distance. His assist numbers aren’t eye-popping because he shares ball-distributing duties with Goran Dragic.

The presence of Dragic complicates matters to some degree. The pairing of two point guards has certainly worked so far this season, but Bledsoe and Dragic have only shared the floor for a total of 716 minutes, or the equivalent of about 15 full games, a sample size that might be too small for the team to draw definitive conclusions. Dragic, not Bledsoe, has been the team’s most productive player this season, and if Dragic turns down his $7.5MM player option after next season, he can become a sought-after free agent in the summer of 2015. Dragic is also three and a half years older than Bledsoe, and the Slovenian has never played nearly as well as he has this season, so a regression could be in order for next year. If Dragic continues his sterling play, the Suns face the prospect of paying nearly $30MM a year to retain both of them.

The Suns have the benefit of cap flexibility if that scenario emerges. They’re tied only to about $23.6MM for next season and less than $1MM in the two seasons that follow. That doesn’t include rookie salaries for the slew of first-round picks coming Phoenix’s way in the new few years, but those are fungible assets that the Suns would have little trouble sending away if they want to pursue a marquee to add to Bledsoe and Dragic.

Plenty of teams would love to forestall the rise of the Suns, who play in an attractive, warm-weather city, as a title contender, and Bledsoe will draw plenty of attention this summer, as he did last year when he was on the trade block. The Raptors, Pelicans, Pistons, Magic, Mavericks and Celtics all expressed interest in trading for Bledsoe this past summer, with the majority of the talk surrounding Orlando. The Magic’s interest might have been overstated, and while the team seems committed to a slow rebuild, I wouldn’t be surprised to see GM Rob Hennigan float an offer to the point guard. The Magic would have little to lose in doing so, since even if Bledsoe signs an offer sheet and the Clippers take the maximum three days to match, Orlando probably wouldn’t miss out on any of its primary targets during the 72-hour holding period.

Sacrificing $14MM worth of cap maneuverability for three days is probably a worthwhile endeavor for other teams, too, but it’s certainly no given that Bledsoe would entertain signing an offer sheet. His contract could run for five years, with 7.5% raises, if he signs with the Suns outright, but he’d only get four seasons and 4.5% raises on an offer sheet with another team. Given the team’s stated intention to match any offer, Bledsoe and his agent have reason to negotiate with Phoenix first. That might be why Sarver and Babby have both said publicly that they’re willing to match offers, though I’d expect Paul to shop his client elsewhere if the Suns don’t at least come in with an offer equivalent to what other teams can make.

Ultimately, I don’t expect Bledsoe to change teams for a second consecutive summer. He’s only appeared in 35 games for the Suns, but his success, and the success of the team, is enough to justify the Suns keeping the No. 4 free agent in our 2014 power rankings around at any price.

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