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Phoenix Suns situation with Eric Bledsoe has shades of Joe Johnson all over it

With no deal on the table to keep Eric Bledsoe with the Suns long term, fans may be feeling a bit of deja vu this morning. Joe Johnson played his way into a max contract and trade. Will Bledsoe do the same?

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Nine years ago, in the fall of 2004, the Suns failed to reach an extension with young Joe Johnson, who ultimately left the next summer after playing his way into a max contract while the Suns rose from the bottom to the top of the heap.

Years later, managing partner Robert Sarver confessed that failing to resign Joe Johnson that summer was his biggest regret.

Sound familiar?

Now the Suns have decided to roll the dice on young Eric Bledsoe, who will get every opportunity to play his way into a max contract extension of his own. Bledsoe's value is difficult to assess, much like Joe Johnson's was in the summer of 2004. Lots of talent, but little body of evidence to prove a huge contract.

Recalling Joe Johnson

While most fans remember the summer of 2005 when Johnson begged and forced his way to Atlanta on a max contract, the die was cast the summer before in a contentious extension negotiation gone bad.

Coming off a 29-54 season with rookie coach Mike D'Antoni leading a ragtag group of kids, new managing partner Robert Sarver decided to go "almost all in" to buy a quick winner in 2004. He committed more than $115 million dollars to two free agents before July was out: point guard Steve Nash and small forward Quentin Richardson.

Nash was a former All-Star with major pedigree but a balky back, while Q was coming off a 17-point, 6-rebound per 36 minute season in which he made 35% of his threes.

The contracts were lucrative. Much bigger than their incumbent teams, Dallas and the Clippers respectively, ever wanted to offer. Big spenders indeed. Nash and Q would supplement a talented young core of Amare Stoudemire, Shawn Marion, Joe Johnson and Leandro Barbosa to hopefully make the playoffs.

That summer, 22-year old 6'7" shooting guard Joe Johnson was eligible for an extension beginning the next season.

The 2003-04 season, Johnson's third year in the league, saw Johnson start 77 of 82 games and produce 14.8 points, 4.2 rebounds and 3.9 assists per 36 minutes. A solid all-around player, Johnson made only 30% of his three-pointers and hadn't yet to show superstar abilities.

The way the Suns saw it, Q gave them more production (more points, rebounds, shooting %) for less money ($6 million per year) than Joe Johnson wanted ($10 million per year).

With Shawn Marion already making $12+ million a year, $115 million invested in Nash and Q, and young buck Amare Stoudemire waiting impatiently for a max extension the next summer, the Suns decided that Joe Johnson was just not an eight-figure player.

The Suns reportedly offered only $9 million per year that summer - still a very good contract - but Johnson was reportedly offended by the nature of the negotiations as well as the dollar amount and rejected it. He later stewed and simmered his way off the island, all while the Suns surprised the league with a 62-20 record and WCF appearance as one of the league's youngest teams.

Despite being the team's 4th-most talented player even a year later, behind Nash, Marion and Stoudemire, Joe Johnson was offered a max contract by the desperate Atlanta Hawks while Q was traded to the Knicks for Kurt Thomas.

In the end, the Suns should have left Q in LA and signed Johnson to $10 million per year, but you can understand how that wasn't so clear in 2004. Back then, Q promised more productivity for less money while Johnson hadn't yet scratched the surface of his superior talent. Plus, he would only be a restricted free agent the next summer. What could go wrong?

Fast forward: Eric Bledsoe

Now the Suns face the same dilemma again, albeit under completely different collateral circumstances.

While Eric Bledsoe compares favorably to the Joe Johnson summer-of-2004 situation (uber-talented but not yet proven as a star), the Phoenix Suns didn't just back the Brinks truck up the driveway of each of his teammates.

Bledsoe could very well have a season in 2013-14 like Joe Johnson did on 2004-05, where he ascended from pretty good to pretty great during his fourth season as he enters restricted free agency.

  • Bledsoe's per-36 in his third year: 14.9 points, 5.2 rebounds, 5.4 assists
  • Johnson's per-36 in his third year: 14.8 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.9 assists

The only difference was that Johnson played twice the minutes that Bledsoe played, giving Johnson's numbers a lot more substance.

Still, their situations are quite similar. And the Phoenix Suns apparently made the same decision each time - don't offer too much money to a guy not guaranteed to be worth it. Plus, they are just restricted free agents the next summer, so what could go wrong?

The difference

The biggest difference between Johnson's situation and Bledsoe's is the tangental circumstances.

Johnson tried to negotiate a projection-based deal (otherwise known as potential overpayment) in the middle of a cash-storm where the owner was staring two max contracts (Shawn Marion, Amare Stoudemire) and two high-dollar contracts (Nash, Q) in the face while they were coming off a 29-54 season.

That's nearly $300 million committed to four players not named Johnson to play for a team hoping to win more games than they lost.

The Suns of 2013-14 have no such surrounding talent. While $10+ million per year is still potentially an overpayment to Bledsoe, it's not like the Suns couldn't match a max offer this time if Bledsoe earns it.

When Johnson got his max offer in 2005, Sarver knew he was still just the 4th best player on the Suns roster.

But if Bledsoe gets a max offer in 2014, there's no such hierarchy. And other teams know it.

Back in 2005, Atlanta knew they had a good chance to get Johnson, and still even gave up Boris Diaw and two #1 picks to seal the deal.

But in 2014, other teams know the Suns have no better place to put their money than 24-year old Eric Bledsoe. That will limit the offers, considering that ties up your free agent money for three long days. And even if someone rolls the dice, the Suns have more than enough room to match.

So while Eric Bledsoe's situation compares to Joe Johnson's, there is less of a chance of this one ending badly.

More importantly, the Suns need to make sure Bledsoe is still on the same page with them, rather than stewing over failed negotiations.

"It was completely professional, not acrimonious," Lon Babby said to Paul Coro last night. "Everyone understood the task was a difficult one because of the nature of the circumstances and the context of restricted free agency."

That's a good start.

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