Nine years ago, the Phoenix Suns made a decision that altered the franchise’s future in a negative way.
They decided to allow Joe Johnson leave for the Atlanta Hawks.
Johnson was a restricted free agent that summer who was coming off a breakout campaign where he averaged 17.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game for a 62-win team.
But, for a variety of reasons, Johnson wanted to play for the Hawks. And rather than match the offer sheet he signed with the Hawks, as was their right, the Suns instead decided to work out a sign-and-trade deal. At the time, it was reported that Suns owner Robert Sarver was not willing to pay maximum-contract money to a player who didn’t want to be on the team.
In a way it made sense, but it cost the team.
Johnson went on to play in seven NBA All-Star games as he evolved into one of the best players in the league. The Suns, meanwhile, were plenty good, but likely would have been much better with the 6-foot-7 guard on the roster.
Nine years later, the Suns again have an emerging player set to become a restricted free agent. While Eric Bledsoe has not gone out of his way to profess a desire to return, it’s important to note there have been no rumblings of him wanting to play anywhere else. But even if he did, Sarver and the Suns would have no problem matching any offer sheet he signs and keeping him in purple and orange.
“It wouldn’t make any difference,” Sarver said of what he’d think if Bledsoe did make it known he’d rather play somewhere else. “A lot of that’s agent speak and a lot of that is when you have a good person like an Eric Bledsoe or a Joe Johnson, he’s going to be a good teammate no matter who he is with, so that doesn’t really mean anything.”
Sarver said it’s even easier to match any contract nowadays because a maximum deal is for fewer years and less money in 2014 than it was in 2005.
Back then, the Suns would have been committing roughly $70 million to Johnson for five years. Now, though, a deal with a team other than Phoenix would be for four years and roughly $56 million. The Suns could offer more years and money — just as they could have with Johnson in 2005 — though as has been proven, that doesn’t always make a difference.
But rest assured, the Suns are not going to let another young talented guard leave town.
“The only real unknown for fans is how much money are we going to pay Eric Bledsoe,” Sarver said. “It’s not whether he’s going to be here or not.”
The way Sarver sees it, Bledsoe will have a contract that pays him between $7 million and $14 million per year, and on a four-year deal, the investment isn’t one he’d be leery of.
Bledsoe is coming off a season in which he averaged career highs with 17.7 points, 5.5 assists and 4.7 rebounds per game. In his first year as a full-time starter, he missed 39 games due to injury — including one that forced him to undergo knee surgery in January.
When he was on the floor, though, Bledsoe made the Suns a different team. They went 48-34 on the season, but were a healthy 28-15 with the guard in the lineup.
So the Suns have plenty of reasons to want him back, and Sarver said chances are “extremely remote” that he wouldn’t return.
“I could probably name two players right now that if they wanted to do a sign-and-trade for we’d probably do it,” he mused. “I can’t name their names, but if you look at the MVP list people think, you’ll probably see them.”
It’s a much different approach than the one the owner took nine years ago, when he was willing to let a similarly talented player leave when it didn’t have to come to that. Back then, Sarver was very green as an NBA owner and possibly made a rookie mistake.
“I did learn from the Joe Johnson deal that it’s just part of the business,” he said. “There’s an ugly part of this business in terms of how things are negotiated. But that’s separate and apart from who the individual is, the basketball part.
“We know Eric works well in our system, we know he and Goran play well together, we know Eric’s a competitor, we know Eric’s got big cajones and will take that shot at the end when he needs to. And we know he’s a really good person and a good teammate, so we don’t need to know anything else.”