EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns’ returns for Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragic looking better with time

May 1, 2018, 2:24 PM | Updated: May 2, 2018, 9:22 am
(AP photos)...
(AP photos)
(AP photos)

There is no need to argue the circumstances surrounding the Phoenix Suns trading two good NBA point guards in Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic.

It began when the Suns acquired Isaiah Thomas from the Sacramento Kings on July 12, 2014, and signed him to a four-year contract worth $27 million.

At the time, Thomas was seen as a starting-caliber NBA point guard who could provide a serious offensive punch to any lineup. On that deal, he was a bargain, so if the addition of another guard who needed the ball in his hands was a failure, the Suns could easily move on and also get some value back in the process.

That thought process — whether it was right or wrong — is exactly what has left the Suns in this current situation.

Suns general manager Ryan McDonough eventually traded him to Boston, and it didn’t help that, you know, Thomas turned into an MVP candidate the season.

Let’s move past that, though, and look at the other two guards instead.

Bledsoe and Dragic were both unhappy and wanted to leave, and that twice placed McDonough in a precarious position.

The value of those players dipped further when Dragic’s camp leaked a list of teams he would consider re-signing with on an expiring deal and when Bledsoe expressed his absolute dismay with being at a hair salon.

While those were unfortunate twists in the tale and McDonough did the best he could, it was a position he was heavily involved in creating. He has no one to blame but himself, even with those additional obstacles to climb.

The trades were frowned upon from both national and local perspectives, more for the circumstances the Suns found themselves in rather than the return. Dragic brought back one protected first-round pick and another without protections on Feb. 19, 2015, while Bledsoe yielded a first-round pick with protections and tank connoisseur Greg Monroe on Nov. 7, 2017.

With more time to let the deals simmer and the performances of the two guards in this year’s playoffs, we can confidently say the Suns received good returns in both deals.

Let’s start with Dragic.

He signed a five-year, $90 million extension with Miami in the 2015 offseason. The Heat hoped with that extension that Dragic would be able to replicate his form from the 2013-14 season that earned him Third Team All-NBA honors.

So far, he has not.

Dragic has struggled to get back to that 50 percent shooting from the field and lethal scoring at the rim that made him so special in Phoenix. After putting up 63.8 percent finishing around the rim in that 48-win season, Dragic has declined the last three years from 59.4 percent to 57.5 percent and all the way down to 54.1 percent this year.

He’s still a good player who can be great some nights, but putting a well-balanced roster like Miami’s around a centerpiece like Dragic is only going to bring a bottom-four seed in the Eastern Conference. Dragic was the worst best player on a playoff team this postseason.

Yes, Dragic is at least getting a team to the playoffs. He also averaged 14.1 points, 4.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists while shooting 42.4 percent in the team’s six-game win over the Charlotte Hornets in Round 1 of the 2016 NBA Playoffs.

He drastically unperformed in the Heat’s most recent loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, a series in which a strong string of games from him likely could have been the difference.

After a mediocre first two games, there was a dash of hope when Dragic scored 17 points in the first 25 minutes of Game 3, but he fizzled and scored six in the remaining 23 minutes when the Sixers blew the Heat off the face of the Earth in front of Miami’s home crowd.

In a crucial Game 4, Dragic had 20 points in the first three quarters but scored zero in the fourth quarter of a very competitive home loss for the Heat. They went on to lose the series in Game 5 when Dragic shot 6-of-16.

The Suns’ return for Dragic was a pick that will land at No. 16 this year in a very good draft and the valuable, unprotected 2021 first-round pick.

For a player like Dragic, who was never going to agree to a contract extension and held Phoenix hostage at the trade deadline, the Suns did remarkably well in that moment and the deal has aged even better with time.

While the Heat have pull in free agency, the players on their roster under the age of 26 that hold any real stock are Josh Richardson, Tyler Johnson, Justise Winslow and Bam Adebayo. There’s a long, long way to go before making any guarantees on the pick, but using what we can today to see ahead, the unprotected 2021 first-round pick looks really good.

The return from the Bledsoe deal, on the other hand, is much more cut and dry.

A player the Suns surely had no interest in re-signing after the 2018-19 season likely had mutual feelings.

Like Dragic, the Bucks were hoping to see some of that 2013-14 magic that made Bledsoe look like a future All-Star before his serious knee injury with the Suns. He was one of the best defensive point guards in the league, and a fearsome scorer and attacker of the rim.

The mystery and enigma with Bledsoe in the NBA essentially cut down to this: On a winning team, do those floating performances when his aggression disappears and he plays awful defense go away for the most part?

The answer, as the man who Bledsoe can not name — Terry Rozier — knows better than anybody, is “no.”

Even in the NBA Playoffs, Bledsoe played that frustrating brand of basketball.

While he did have a stretch during the season where he seemed to figure it out, the Bucks didn’t trade for him to have just a stretch.

Show up when Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton need you in the playoffs.

Show up when, oh, I don’t know, those two guys shoot a combined 23-for-31 in Boston in Game 2 and they just need something from you.

Bledsoe was brutal all series, and even with a great three quarters in Game 7, he went back to snoozing off the ball defensively and turning the ball over in the fourth quarter. That won the Celtics the series.

If Bledsoe was even a slightly below average version of the player he was in Phoenix, the Bucks would still be playing basketball right now.

Milwaukee traded for a guy who was supposed to be one of the 12-16 best point guards in the NBA. Look at what Jrue Holiday has been doing for the Pelicans. While not on that elite level, maybe, Bledsoe was supposed to contribute something like that. Instead, he can’t even be the third-best player for a young superstar like Antetokounmpo and another great player in Middleton.

As someone who defended Bledsoe a lot in Phoenix and thought he was going to be great in Milwaukee, you might be able to sense my frustration just a tad.

Grading the Suns’ return requires more time, but the time we’ve been granted thus far shows them as the clear winner of the deal.

Yes, there’s uncertainty on where that first-round pick lands.

Yes, Monroe’s salary was only about flexibility for this summer.

But Bledsoe’s playoff performance was overflowing with clarity on the player he is.

Could the Suns have used a player like Bledsoe this season? Sure. Could they have used a player like Dragic this season? Absolutely.

Either way, circumstances of the trades aside, the Suns are the winners of both deals heading into their most important offseason in decades.

With hindsight, that has to matter, especially when you look back on the critiques.

What’s that? The other deal involving the Bucks and another point guard, you say? Sorry, it looks like we are out of time this week!

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