Have you ever watched the Usual Suspects?
*This is the part where if you haven't you should go watch it. Trust me.
Rich Paul might just be Keyser Soze.
I mean, didn't he just pull off acting the role of a small-time con artist? You know, the kind that sells jerseys out of the trunk of his car?
How else do you explain it? After all, he just limped through a summer where he was derided and maligned. Where his intelligence, qualifications, competence and motives were all questioned and often mocked.
Last week he limped into an office with the Suns crackerjack negotiating team. Oh, to be a fly on that wall...
What transpired there? How did the session unfurl? Did Paul adopt the role of a raconteur and tell quippy anecdotes? Maybe #Klutch Sports had formed a barbershop quartet in
Skokie, Illinois Akron, Ohio? Did he fool the Suns into thinking he had another offer from a team whose name was emblazoned on the bottom of a coffee cup?
We might not ever know. But what we do know is that Rich Paul didn't limp out of that room.
So how in the hell did all of this happen?
How did the sides get to $70 million? What was the path that led from the "fair deal" to a contract that seems to be largely a pantsing of the Suns organization? These negotiations just seemed to go sideways...
The Suns had already inked P.J. Tucker to a fair contract early in free agency. Then they signed Isaiah Thomas for pennies on the dollar. After more than holding their own at the bargaining table in these situations, how did they manage to get boat raced by team Bledsoe?
It turns out they had quite a few things working against them.
In the end, the threat of the qualifying offer turned out to be leverage. What would the fallout have been from the Suns holding firm on their line and letting Bledsoe enter next season playing on a qualifying offer? What kind of image does that portray to the public and other players around the league? Not one the Suns want.
The Suns (largely undeserved) reputation of parsimony turned out to be leverage. If the sides had reached a stalemate over the original reported figure it would have fueled more discussion to traduce the ever frugal Banker Bob. I recently wrote on this subject, noting that the Suns hadn't signed a contract larger than $34 million since 2006.
Bledsoe's relationship with LeBron James turned out to be leverage. It's tough for the Suns when the most famous and powerful player in the game is lobbying against them in this type of situation. When LeBron asked the Suns to share the wealth (#breakbread), what choice did they have but to acquiesce?
And Rich Paul knew all of this. Paul wasn't backed into a corner. He had the Suns surrounded.
The Silent Treatment
This turned out to be the successful negotiating tactic that team Bledsoe implemented. It would seem this would be a counterproductive practice in most cases. After all, compromise is often difficult to achieve without communication.
But Paul used it to perfection.
Even though the sides never sat down to discuss the contract parameters until last Wednesday the contract had been negotiated through the media all summer. Paul used his sycophantic henchmen to leak rumors and "information". Bledsoe (probably) innocuously fired a shot at the Suns about their tactic of using his restricted free agency status against him. That was the extent of what slipped through their embargo.
Robert Sarver, meanwhile, went public and decided to try to negotiate Eric's contract on the radio. Considering that he very publicly and very explicitly stated that the Suns thought the four year $48 million dollar deal was fair, what does that make the five year $70 million deal? Wouldn't that have to be a monumental fleecing? You can't have it both ways...
So Bledsoe held his breath until he turned blue in hopes of getting the Suns to cough up more green.
What did this gamesmanship accomplish? Did the very public nature of the situation make it even more difficult for the Suns? Surely, their handling of Bledsoe was under the microscope. Article after article scrutinized every new development... even though, interestingly enough, there were really very few real developments.
The Suns even seemed to be winning the court of public opinion, to a certain extent. Four years and $48 million was overwhelmingly considered a fair deal. A group of NBA general managers even confirmed this in an anonymous poll. People scoffed at the notion of Bledsoe being worth a max contract.
But Rich Paul got the Suns to do more than budge. If the $48 million dollar deal was fair and the max was ridiculous, I guess the eventual deal falls under the category of fairly ridiculous.
How about some syrup with that waffle?
The Suns claimed they would match any offer that Bledsoe received in free agency... and then gave him a contract with more guaranteed money than he could have possibly gotten from another team. If the most possible money was the goal, Eric was better off NOT getting a contract offer from another team in free agency. Even if he would have gotten a max offer sheet it would have only netted him $63 million. Instead the Suns gave a player with a history of knee injuries a lucrative five year contract.
Rich Paul was able to get the Suns to bid against themselves. There was no other offer. Not one. The Suns $48 million dollar deal was worth $48 million more than the next nearest suitor.
They said they wouldn't do this. But they did. Rich Paul cajoled them into an extra $22 million of compromise. Of course the Suns can't come out and say they got pistol whipped in the deal. Of course it will be proclaimed a win/win deal for both sides.
But Rich Paul won more.
The Suns, meanwhile, took on all the risk. No matter what happens Bledsoe gets his $70 million. If he can't stay healthy or underperforms the Suns will get stuck holding the bag. That's part of the gamble of paying for hopeful future production with no valid track record.
Paul must have sold the Suns on this hopeful future, because if they were willing to go to $70 million back in July this seems like it would have gotten done a lot sooner.
The Greatest Trick
People claimed Eric Bledsoe needed to fire his agent, that he was giving him bad advice. He wasn't. Despite his somewhat unconventional, and at times bizarre, tactics he was able to produce the desired results. Being an agent is all about results.
People who denigrated Paul's qualifications as an agent can now bask in the glory of their own ridicule. Paul is an excellent agent and I can give you $22 million reasons why.
If the goal of the negotiations was to get Eric Bledsoe the most possible guaranteed money then Rich Paul probably did as good as any agent working for any player in the NBA could have done.
Maybe unrestricted free agent Kyle Lowry, for instance, would have been better off with Paul... Considering he was both better and healthier than Bledsoe last season it seems like he left money on the table by accepting the terms (four years/$48 million) of Bledsoe's "fair" contract. Then factor in he was actually an unrestricted free agent...
I'm sure the Suns wouldn't want to deal with Paul on an ongoing basis. Just imagine if Goran Dragic, the Morris brothers and Gerald Green all decided to sign up with Paul after seeing what a good job he did for Bledsoe... What kind of circus of horrors would next summer become?
So Rich Paul may have limped into Phoenix looking bungling and amateurish, but he walked confidently out of that room knowing that he had negotiated the best damn contract for his client that anyone could have possibly imagined.
It was a misdirection of epic proportions. He completely blindsided public perception and surely the Suns, to at least some extent.
And despite all the criticism Rich Paul received throughout the Bledsoe drama this summer when it came time to get the deal done he was #Klutch.