The Phoenix Suns knew what they were getting when they traded for Eric Bledsoe: an explosive, potential-ridden combo guard who'd spent his career behind or alongside ball-dominant leads like Baron Davis and Chris Paul. But, despite being really damn smart, Suns GM Ryan McDonough and company didn't seem to know quite how that would work out in Phoenix with a roster void of alternative options, outside of perhaps Goran Dragic. So, the Suns and Bledsoe couldn't reach an extension deal before the October 31 deadline.
Bledsoe has been one of the league's best players early on, scoring at will and setting up teammates rather cleanly as Phoenix continues to stun the West. The Sixers are a cute contrarian story likely to fall apart violently when the novelty of the new system and players wears off and opposing defenses clamp down. The Suns will probably fall off a cliff too as the schedule gets more difficult (Phoenix's defense cannot hold up. I won't believe it.)
But with each passing night, Bledsoe and running mate Markieff Morris look like real deal offensive studs. That will get the Suns plenty of wins. Unexpected wins. Every playoff contender in the West counted on Phoenix for three or four likely wins. So much for that. Ask Portland, Denver and New Orleans (twice).
The change in Bledsoe's game so far as been all about aggression. He carried a rather hefty offensive load for L.A. last season, with a usage rate of 22.5 percent. Nearly all of that was in relief of CP3: of Bledsoe's 1,553 minutes, only 186 of them (12 percent) came with Paul also on the court. The bulk of Bledsoe's minutes came sharing a backcourt with Jamal Crawford, a high-volume scorer and creator who had free reign under Vinny Del Negro. That combo allowed Bledsoe to act as a point guard, but it didn't make him a focal point in any way.
In Phoenix, Bledsoe largely is the arsenal. Gerald Green has started next to Bledsoe in the last four games; Dragic missed three with an injury and came off the bench to play 29 minutes on Sunday. If that continues, or if McDonough finds a new home for the Slovenian, Bledsoe will continue to run the show unabated. His usage rate is up to 26 percent this season, which is star-level.
The key thing is that Bledsoe seems to be making the right decisions with the new-found liberty to run amok. Mike Prada investigated the improved moves and strength Bledsoe developed in the offseason (second item). This internal improvement has allowed Bledsoe to improve his efficiency despite the bigger load. Those moves that Prada dissects rely on Bledsoe's confidence in his own ability, and the confidence likely comes in part because of the free rein he's been given. He's not going to be pulled if he commits a turnover or misses a stepback jumper badly. This is his run, for better or worse. Low expectations can be a curse. For Bledsoe, it's serving instead as a blank canvas.
This is great news for Phoenix in that they got a player who looks like a legitimate star for Jared Dudley and the short-lived salary absorption of Caron Butler. But this also complicates things for McDonough. The Suns were counting on a horrid season. The Suns were counting on a top-5 pick. Trading Dudley and Marcin Gortat, picking up Bledsoe, eschewing free agency, hiring a first-time head coach: these moves were made with the intent to lose lots of games while developing some intriguing young players (Bledsoe, the Morrii, Alex Len, maybe Archie Goodwin) and picking up a very high pick in a lovely draft. If the Sixers were Suspect No. 1 in the so-called tankapalooza, the Suns were 1b.
Instead, Bledsoe and Markieff Morris -- plus the few veterans on the club, like Dragic and Channing Frye -- are playing well enough that Phoenix looks obviously better than the Kings and Jazz in the West, possibly better than the Pelicans, Nuggets and Lakers, and better than maybe seven teams in the East (Sixers, Raptors, Bobcats, Magic, Cavaliers, Wizards and Celtics). The Suns might be looking at the No. 11 or 12 pick in June, not the No. 1-4 pick.
And guess what? Bledsoe's payday is July 1, 2014. We don't know what Bledsoe's camp was asking for in October: maybe $12 million a year, maybe less, maybe more. The Suns didn't bite. They (very reasonably) wanted to see what he could in their system under Jeff Hornacek with some freedom. So while Bledsoe's rise has been great for the Suns in that the Suns now have a seemingly great player, it is not-so-great because now the Suns have to pay him like a great player. He's moving quickly toward sewing up a max contract.
Phoenix has basically no long-term salary worries, but if you're of the mindset that every dollar matters, paying Bledsoe $60 million over four years is not as rad as paying him $48 million over four years (let's call this the Stephen Curry Rule.) If Bledsoe's camp was reasonable and looking for a four-year, $40 million extension, and McDonough now has to offer or match a max deal? That's going to sting just a little. For what it's worth, Morris is eligible for an extension in 2014, but can't become a restricted free agent until 2015.
Maybe this will work itself out and Bledsoe's production will ease up, allowing the Suns to lose 55 games, capture a top-five pick and get the guard at less than max salary in July. Maybe Dragic will get traded to a contender and there really won't be enough help to get Ws. But right now, things are not going as planned, and while the wins are nice, the ramifications are really threatening to some marbles in McDonough's rebuilding scheme.