Tweets like these worry me, and for good reason. As the summer drags on, it seems increasingly unlikely that the Phoenix Suns bring back Eric Bledsoe – acquired just last summer in a three-team heist – on anything more than a $3.7 million qualifying offer. We all know the situation at this point; after putting up averages of 17.7 points, 4.7 rebounds, 5.5 assists, and posting a 19.6 Player Efficiency Rating in 43 games last year, all for the modest salary of $2.6 million, the 24-year-old Bledsoe entered this offseason as a restricted free agent, he and his agent Rich Paul looking for the maximum five-year, $84 million contract only Phoenix could offer. The Suns countered with a four year, $48 million offer, matching the terms agreed to by Kyle Lowry and the Raptors. Since then, neither side has softened their stance, with relations souring to the point that Phoenix reportedly attempted to hijack the Kevin Love trade in a misjudged attempt to get something for their presumably departing PG.
For every day Bledsoe remains on the roster as an expiring contract, his trade value declines. Because I’m an irrational Phoenix fan, I assume GM Ryan McDonough won’t to be able to move him for anything of value, especially not for assets such as Julius Randle, as rumored. Gone are the days of half season rentals without the promise of the incoming player signing an extension, as the Cavs found out with Luol Deng last year (of course, it worked out alright for Cleveland eventually). Based on his agent choice, I fully expect Bledsoe and his freakish athleticism to become an unrestricted free agent next summer. But where might he land, assuming it won’t be Phoenix?
As it stands today, seven teams* are projected to be over the 2015/16 cap maximum of $66,500,000**. Though crude, for I doubt even Nate Silver could predict the extensions, buyouts, trades, free agent/rookie signings etc. that will inevitably affect the respective payrolls of these franchises over the next 12 months, because of their relative lack of financial flexibility, let’s (for now anyway) rule them out of the Bledsoe running. Similarly, we can probably eliminate teams such as the Pelicans, Raptors, or Lakers, who despite having more salary available to dole out, have far too much invested in their backcourts already (New Orleans have an apocalyptic $41,299,979 tabbed for guards in 2015/16, but exactly $0 going to the center spot).
Numerous other teams have plenty of projected space, but plans for the PG slot already in motion; Orlando, for example, have a boatload of money to spend (their projected cap figure for 2015/16 is just $32,150,587 at the moment), but having selected Victor Oladipo and Elfrid Payton over the last couple of drafts, are unlikely to be interested in acquiring Bledsoe too. And of course, plenty of rosters already feature point guards who are frankly better than Bledsoe; Chicago aren’t going to be moving on from 2010/11 MVP Derrick Rose anytime soon (presuming his knee remains intact), nor are OKC dropping Russell Westbrook. The same goes for Portland and Damian Lillard, who will soon be up for an extension himself.
For a number of reasons then, the market for Bledsoe might not be as hot as Rich Paul is anticipating. Some remaining squads however, while perhaps not as snugly as in Phoenix, would seem to offer fits for the young man dubbed by Jamal Crawford, ‘Mini-LeBron’. Let’s take a look at those few, (and simultaneously steel Phoenix fans’ fortitude):
- New York Knicks – Even counting the recent mega-extension (5 years, $124 million) of Carmelo Anthony, the Knickerbockers figure to be in fine financial shape by the time Bledsoe’s unrestricted free agency rolls around. With the expensive booby prize of the much-ballyhooed 2010 free agency class, Amar’e Stoudemire, finally coming off the books after this season (along with the oddly-acquired Andrea Bargnani), New York are scheduled to shed around 53% of their 2014 cap figure ($90,808,126), and provisionally arrive at a $42,237,033 floor next summer, meaning, as explained by Grantland‘s Zach Lowe, the Knicks could have as much as $23 million or so in cap room to build a team around Carmelo. Obviously that’s more than enough room to cater to Bledsoe’s demands, with the prospect of playing with ‘Melo, for (effectively) Phil Jackson, at MSG surely a situation desirable enough to entice the Kentucky alum, yet still the fit is far from perfect; with $0 committed to the center position and only seven players under contract (including PGs Jose Calderon and Pablo Prigioni), perhaps the Knicks will look elsewhere first – Marc Gasol for instance – or even hoard their cash for The Summer of KD in 2016. Don’t forget, Rajon Rondo, who seems to love playing in Midtown Manhattan judging by some of his ridiculous performances there, is an unrestricted free agent too.
- Philadelphia 76ers – Perhaps it’s a stretch, but couldn’t you at least envision Philadelphia making at least a cursory run at Bledsoe? Sam Hinkie doesn’t intend to tank forever, right? Right?! Thanks to his remarkable demolition of a mediocre roster, Hinkie has blessed the Sixers organization with two things that go hand in hand – money and young talent; Philly amazingly has just a $14,062,328 estimated cap figure for the 2015/6 season, with the majority of that total owed to top draft picks, Michael Carter-Williams, Nerlens Noel, and Joel Embiid (though presumably there will yet be another high pick to add to that bunch next year). The fact that they already have MCW doesn’t necessarily impede the addition of Bledsoe to Brett Brown’s squad either; as demonstrated alongside John Wall at Kentucky as well as with Goran Dragic in Phoenix, Bledsoe is comfortable sharing the backcourt with another point guard. The idea of playing two interchangeable ball handlers additionally seems to be a growing phenomenon across the league as a whole (expect Orlando, Utah, and possibly Boston to roll with the dual-PG look for stretches this season), and the pairing of Bledsoe with Carter-Williams would be as good as any***.
- Sacramento Kings – Rather than re-signing Isaiah Thomas, he of the 20.3 points and 6.3 assists per game averages last season, and eventual 4 year, $28 million deal, Sacramento instead chose to pay Darren Collison $16 million over the next 3 years, their full midlevel exception. There’s a reason – which incidentally, is not being blocked positionally by Chris Paul – why Collison is now on his fifth team in six years; though occasionally he has shown flashes of brilliance (ask Oklahoma City), Collison is maddeningly inconsistent, and a poor defender. Vivek Ranadive, who is perhaps the perfect example of a ‘we must win, NOW!’ new owner, will soon realise his mistake. With Rudy Gay‘s onerous contract coming off the books, the Kings project to have only $42,145,300 committed to the 2015/16 season, and a promising young core (Ben McLemore and Nike Stauskas on the wings, DeMarcus Cousins manning the middle) in place. Long linked to Rajon Rondo, that ship looks to have now sailed, which in combination with Collison’s impending letdown, will leave Ranadive and the Kings shopping for a point guard next summer. A Bledsoe/Boogie Kentucky Class of 2010 reunion would be a pleasure to watch.
- Atlanta Hawks – Yes, they’ll still have 2 years, $16 million worth of positional incumbent Jeff Teague come next summer, and the rookie contract of Dennis Schröder too, but the Hawks remain an intriguing candidate to make a push to ink Bledsoe, a Birmingham, AL native. As evidenced by his deal to bring in Paul Millsap last summer, Atlanta GM Danny Ferry will pounce immediately should Bledsoe’s stock drop to a reasonable value, and worry about the fit later (though as it turned out, Millsap was an excellent match with new coach Mike Budenholzer’s scheme, and ably filled the void left by Al Horford). Though far from coveted as a free agent destination, Atlanta will have plenty of money available (they project to have the 25th lowest cap figure, $39,057,353), and can offer Bledsoe the chance to play near home for a team seemingly on the rise in the woeful Eastern Conference.
All salary figures sourced from the wonderful spotrac.com, a NBA enthusiast’s dream of a site.
* Brooklyn, naturally, head the pile with an estimated total figure (including cap holds) of $80,469,615. Following the Nets, in order, are the Cavaliers, Heat, Clippers, Nuggets, Washington Professional Basketball Team/Bullets, and Warriors.
** The cap maximum for the 2014/15 season, for the sake of comparison, is $63,065,000, while the luxury tax threshold is $76,829,000. The tax threshold is yet to be set for the 2015/16 campaign.
*** They might lack for outside shooting, but imagine the combined wingspan in the passing lanes. Holy Giannis…