There has been quite a bumpy set of circumstances surrounding Eric Bledsoe since he was traded to the Suns on July 10, 2013 for Jared Dudley and a second-round pick that eventually became Johnny O'Bryant. When he arrived in Phoenix, he was a athletically gifted point guard blessed with a high motor, but was quite raw when it came to running an offense. He was also entering what was essentially a contract year, further complicated by the presence of incumbent point guard Goran Dragic, who was only a year into his own free agent contract signed during the summer of 2012.
It was in neither the Suns' nor Bledsoe's best interest to agree to an early contract extension, as the 2013 deadline came just one game into his career in Phoenix, so the wheels were set in motion for what would become an infamously stagnant negotiation process, which languished through the entirety of the 2014 summer.
Suspicion was rampant that Bledsoe wasn't comfortable playing in Phoenix, leading to comically melodramatic reports of "ominous developments" and "express lanes to ruin". Bledsoe himself said nothing but a clumsy, off-the-cuff statement about the Suns "using a restricted free agent against me, but I understand that", yet many Suns fans had already made up their minds that he did not want to be a Phoenix Sun, using advanced metrics such as "Smiles per 48" to make their case.
The Tristan Thompson saga in Cleveland has taught us that the Bledsoe stalemate was actually quite tenable for a Rich Paul-fueled situation, but this being a year earlier, it was still difficult for fans to accept a contract negotiation languishing until late September.
By the time Bledsoe and the Suns finally met in the middle, there was now a third point guard added to the mix with Isaiah Thomas, the glowing embodiment of basketball's Napolean Complex. While the Suns stayed in the thick of the playoff race in the Western Conference, Dragic and Thomas both struggled to get comfortable, and both groused a bit about the crowded situation in the backcourt.
Bledsoe's oft-criticized taciturn tendencies were a blessing during this period, as he uttered nary a single complaint. Of course he had just scored big in free agency (which Dragic was hoping to do), settling on a near-max contract (which Thomas didn't even come close to when signing with the Suns just months earlier) so an easy argument can be made that he had the least cause for disharmony.
Still, the Suns needed a chef, as their kitchen was bustling with grumbling cooks. Bledsoe was an above-average starting point guard but, like his teammates, he never looked completely comfortable and his production dipped. He was the obvious choice to be the long-term floor general, since he was younger than Dragic and a much better defender than Thomas, so Ryan McDonough scorched the earth at the trade deadline and found Bledsoe a more compatible backcourt partner in Brandon Knight.
To recap in easy-to-digest bullet points, since Bledsoe has arrived in Phoenix, he has dealt with the following:
- Restricted free agency and a complicated contract negotiation
- An incumbent veteran player at his point guard position
- A third point guard with a sizable chip on his shoulder added to the mix
- A midseason locker-room meltdown, which the Suns used the nuclear option to address at the trade deadline
- All but four of his opening day teammates from 2013 being traded or otherwise leaving the desert
Heading into the 2015/16 season, Bledsoe had finally been given the opportunity to lead a Phoenix Suns team, unencumbered by any complicating circumstances or problematic roster redundancies. Knight was a better shooter than Dragic and had expressed clear enthusiasm for playing off the ball alongside Bledsoe -- leaving no doubt when he quickly re-signed with the Suns without even meeting with other teams.
Ronnie Price, always eager to accept any role he is given, was added for point guard depth and serves as the antithesis to Thomas.
Tyson Chandler was the Suns' first major unrestricted free-agent signing in a decade, and aside from forming a formidable defensive duo with Bledsoe, also gives him a veteran co-captain in the locker room.
Surely it is no coincidence that Bledsoe is on his way to having the best season of his career.
Through the season's first nine games, Bledsoe is posting career highs in PPG (23.2), APG (6.2), SPG (2.1), FTA (6.2), FT% (80.4), FG%(49.7), 3P% (40.0), TS% (59.5), PER (25.6) and USG% (27.9). He has been remarkably consistent, scoring at least 20 points in 6 of his first 9 games after accomplishing the same feat in only 26 of his 81 games in 2014/15.
He has developed into a deadly scorer from midrange, shooting 9/11 (81.8%) from 10-16 feet out and 18/39 (46.2%) from 16 feet to the three-point line.
While some of these numbers are probably not sustainable, the leadership he has shown on the court is another story altogether. During the second quarter of the Suns' blowout win on Saturday night over the Nuggets, Archie Goodwin was preparing to swing the ball on the perimeter to Bledsoe, who hollered and pointed to P.J. Tucker. Tucker had a mismatch in the post, and scored easily when Goodwin complied with Bledsoe's directive.
Later, with the game already well out of hand, Tucker chose to stay spotted up in the corner rather than take advantage of a wide-open backdoor cut. Bledsoe, while play was still going, angrily spiked the ball and admonished his teammate (the two were seen laughing together just moments later).
With no real competition anymore for point guard duties, Bledsoe is appearing more confident and decisive with each passing game. The Suns are now first in the NBA in pace, and when a point guard can play as fast and loose as Bledsoe, well, things like this happen:
Eric Bledsoe just toying with the Nuggets pic.twitter.com/MmZ5wrqPEi— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) November 15, 2015
At the worst, the Suns now have a capable and focused floor general that can take over on either side of the court. But if his early numbers are indeed sustainable, they have finally found their next star player.
It's amazing what can happen when an organization decides to keep things simple.
Thursday, November 12 vs LA Clippers: W, 118-104
Saturday, November 14 vs Denver: W, 105-81
The Suns took full advantage of a couple road-weary, shorthanded teams last week. The Clippers were on the second night of a back-to-back and without Chris Paul, J.J. Redick and Blake Griffin, who was ejected in late in the first half for excessive bitching and whining. The Suns blew the doors off the game shortly after, and entered the fourth with a cushy 20-point lead. They shot 14-30 from beyond the arc and 53.0% for the game.
The Nuggets also came into town on a back-to-back, and the Suns decided this time to just put this one away immediately, going on a 17-0 in the first quarter and leading by 32 points at halftime. Denver simply couldn't hit the broad side of the barn, shooting 6/35 from beyond the arc and 34.7% overall, and quickly decided to save their energy on defense as well. Frankly, no one in powder blue looked like they even wanted to be on the floor.
It's difficult to draw many conclusions from these games given the disadvantages of the opposing teams, but these are the games that you want to see the Suns leave no doubt about. Both contests were put away early, the starters were able to get some rest, and we even had a Cory Jefferson sighting (5 minutes on Saturday, 1/3 from the floor with 2 boards).
A good week by any measure.
Stat Lines of the Week
The Good: Brandon Knight
Knight showed his full array of skills against the Clippers on Thursday night, blitzing them from downtown and also knifing in for a few nifty floaters. He also committed only an eighth the number of turnovers (one) than he did in his previous outing in Oklahoma City (eight), and his performance exemplified what a deadly scorer he can be when he plays under control and finds a groove.
The Bad: Alex Len
While the presence of Tyson Chandler in the lineup means that the Suns don't need Len to develop into a starting caliber center right away, it would at least be nice to see him put up some numbers against a comatose Nuggets squad. The young big man was yanked quickly in the second quarter after a series of lackluster possessions, and couldn't even manage a field goal in the garbage-time second half.
The Ugly: The Denver Nuggets' Starting Five
Dios mio, que malo...
On the horizon
Monday, November 16 vs LA Lakers
Wednesday, November 18 vs Chicago Bulls
Friday, November 20 @ Denver Nuggets
Sunday, November 22 @ New Orleans Pelicans
The Suns wrap up the home-friendly start of their opening schedule against the floundering Lakers, who are basically acting as a Make-A-Wish foundation for ancient relic Kobe Bryant, before taking on the allegedly-revamped-but-not-really Chicago Bulls.
The Bulls transitioned from the slave-driving tendencies of Tom Thibodeau to the more modern approach of Fred Hoiberg, and while the likes of Pau Gasol are now playing less than 92 minutes per game, the offense is still stagnant (26th in ORtg) and the defense is still formidable (7th in DRtg). Eric Bledsoe versus Derrick Rose will probably not be as interesting as it sounds.
Denver will have a shot at revenge back in the Mile High City, and be wary of this game since the Nuggets still have the ability to embarrass teams in the high altitude, putting a 25-point beatdown on the Suns just last season.
The week will be wrapped up on Sunday (because here on Center of the Sun the calendar week starts on Monday) with a visit to our old friend Alvin Gentry, who is overseeing a nuclear meltdown in New Orleans, replete with a rash of injuries and the worst defense in the NBA (111.6 DRtg).
The Pelicans (1-8) were thought to be a key adversary to the Suns' hopes of returning to the playoffs, but perhaps they'll do us a favor soon and just take a mulligan on the season.