Another great season from Eric Bledsoe leaves the Suns in a conundrum
Dec 16, 2016, 9:01 AM | Updated: 7:48 pm
(AP Photo/Ryan Kang)
The Phoenix Suns have had Eric Bledsoe in their starting backcourt for four seasons now, and he’s been the best player on the team for three years running.
Two knee injuries forced Bledsoe to play in 155 of a possible 246 games in the past three seasons with Phoenix, and a lack of cohesion with his revolving door of backcourt partners didn’t help his play, which was at an All-Star type level.
This was supposed to be the season Bledsoe came back fully healthy with a concrete backcourt partner in Devin Booker.
His team has failed to hit the ground running and is now stuck in the mud of growing through youth while also trying to win games with its veterans.
Bledsoe is somewhere in the middle, alone in more ways than one, being both in his prime and on a level no other player on the roster currently is close to.
The question for the Suns is what to do with Bledsoe. Considering his contract, age, the roster’s construction and the outlook of this year’s draft class, the answer could be trading him.
He’s 27 years old, is still one of the 15-20 best point guards in the world, depending on who you talk to. For the two seasons he saw significant playing time on at least an average team, he was very, very good.
He’s also the best player on the team by a substantial margin and as we learned last year, a Suns team without their leader is terrible.
Bledsoe’s statistics this season resemble two seasons when he was in the discussion for an All-Star spot, even if such talk was quickly shut down because of the guard depth in the Western Conference.
He’s averaging a team-high 20 points and 5.4 assists per game, along with 5.5 rebounds. He’s shooting around his career average from the field at 44.8 percent from the field.
Bledsoe has been one of the best attackers in the game since he arrived in the Valley. Among players who attempt at least three field goal attempts per game on drives, Bledsoe’s yearly ranks in field goal percentage on drives in a Suns uniform are No. 7, 15, 26 and 4.
Despite the team’s problems with assists and turnovers, that’s not on Bledsoe.
His 1.76 assist-to-turnover ratio is above his 1.72 average in his first three Suns seasons and his 11.6 turnover ratio is the lowest of his career with Phoenix. Bledsoe may not be a traditional point guard, but the Suns knew that when they extended him and it’s on them to do what’s necessary around him to make the offense succeed.
On the negative side, the days of Bledsoe being one of the best defenders at his position are long gone. The traditional line was, “when Bledsoe’s effort is all there, he’s one of the best.” That’s still true, but it’s so rarely seen that it cannot even be said anymore.
His 106.2 defensive rating is the worst in his last four seasons by more than two points and the team’s defensive rating when he’s off the court is 106.5, suggesting his value as a defender on the team is not all that important.
His defensive Real Plus-Minus is 27th among all point guards, a shocking drop from his rankings of No. 1, 3 and 10 in the last three seasons.
To be fair, Bledsoe is 11th in overall Real Plus-Minus among point guards on what has been a poor basketball team 25-plus games into the season.
The reasons to move him are clear.
He’s coming off two major knee surgeries in the past three seasons and is an unrestricted free agent in 2019. The team’s building blocks for the future of 23-year-old T.J. Warren, 20-year-old Booker, 19-year-old Dragan Bender and 19-year-old Marquese Chriss are at least three-to-four years away from being ready to make noise in the postseason. By that time, Bledsoe would be hitting his 30s after two major knee surgeries and ready for a new contract.
With that in mind, Phoenix should be taking any assets not included in that core and exchanging them for ones that can be. They have to do so carefully, however, and Brandon Knight’s putrid start in the sixth man role leaves little to no confidence if he were to replace Bledsoe.
It’s a foggy, muddled picture to try and see from that perspective, but the 2017 draft class makes it easier.
The Suns are likely going to have a top-five pick and are currently near the bottom of the NBA standings with the likes of the 76ers, Mavericks and Nets.
Phoenix’s young core group doesn’t include two positions: point guard and center, depending on how you feel about Alex Len and the team re-signing the soon-to-be restricted free agent. The extremely promising 2017 draft class is heavy with floor generals.
DraftExpress has three point guards in their top four, two more in the lottery and their highest ranked center at No. 15.
Now, it’s not as simple as trading Bledsoe for whatever his value is.
Suns general manager Ryan McDonough isn’t in a position to blow up his team, and with the recent veteran signings, his roster isn’t necessarily either.
Two shiny point guard prospects sit in the top two spots of most early mock drafts: Washington freshman Markelle Fultz, who could be the best point guard prospect since Kyrie Irving, and North Carolina State freshman Dennis Smith Jr., who could be the most explosive point guard prospect since John Wall. Even after those two, Kentucky’s backcourt of De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk and UCLA’s point guard Lonzo Ball could be top five selections.
Maybe trading Bledsoe and effectively sinking the team into a top-three spot for a significantly good shot at Fultz or Smith is the way to go. Maybe it’s playing out the season, seeing how the draft goes and taking it from there. Or maybe it’s saying screw it to the team’s future in this regard for the sake of, without a doubt, the team’s best basketball player.
All those possible future timelines lie between now and the summer of 2019, when Bledsoe becomes an unrestricted free agent at 29 years old. Which timeline the Suns go down will play a vital role in where they are at with their young core in five years, making it a story worth watching from here on out.