Last summer, the Phoenix Suns completed a point-guard trifecta by inking both Eric Bledsoe and Isaiah Thomas to long-term contracts, all the while publicly committing long-term to Goran Dragic in the summer of 2015.
That's three starting caliber point guards on one team. The Suns claimed that a three-point system could work, helping propel them and their unorthodox system into the elusive playoffs. And it almost did, until everything melted down.
Frankly, the system was more a product of opportunity than design.
From Dragic to Bledsoe to Thomas to Knight
Most of us saw that. Most of us knew that if you're building a team from scratch, you don't design a roster with your three best players all playing the same natural position, leaving the other four positions struggling at a mediocre level.
Even worse, you don't pick three similar players who aren't even top-10 at their best NBA positions coming into the season. One could argue that the Suns entered last year with three point guards who would rank somewhere between 10th and 25th best in the league at the point position, while they didn't even have a Top-15 player at any other starting position.
Clearly, this was never the ideal roster makeup GM Ryan McDonough would have envisioned in summer of 2013 or summer of 2014 when the wheeling and dealing took place. In 2013, McDonough was handicapped by an old roster, and in 2014 he was handicapped by drawn-out restricted free agent negotiations of Eric Bledsoe.
To be fair, McDonough didn't help himself by lingering too long around the fringes of blockbuster deals last summer (LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Love) before losing the game of musical teams. Couple those together and summer of 2014 was a disaster.
He went into disaster recovery mode last February, swapping players at a whirlwind rate and hit the reset button on this summer. But the trade deadline is a crapshoot. Some moves are long-term, some are short-term. Almost none of them are franchise-changing.
Down to Knight
The Suns enter the summer of 2015 still boasting an unbalanced roster. Even after committing to Knight to play next to Bledsoe, they still don't have a Top-10 player at any position on the court, and are still heavy at the point guard position.
So it boggles my mind that many are frustrated with the Suns attempts to re-balance the roster into a more self-sustainable model.
Jim Coughenour wrote a couple weeks ago that the Suns "had" to trade Eric Bledsoe, their most talented (yet not an All-Star) player on the roster. Many took exception to Jim's all-in stance, and some of his reasoning for having that stance.
Yet now that the Suns have reportedly agreed on a long-term contract with fellow point guard Brandon Knight, I can safely say that Jim was at least half-right.
The Suns should trade Bledsoe if, and only if, they can acquire a Top-10 player at another position on the court to play with Knight and win more games than a pairing of Knight and Bledsoe could win.
To win long-term in today's NBA you need the following:
- that can play together on the court at a high level
- and is more talented than your opponent
Bledsoe makes just under $14 million this year. To make a trade work with an "above the cap" team - which is likely the only kind of team that would give up a lot of talent for Bledsoe - the other team would need to give back salary comes within either 25% or 50% of Bledsoe's salary. The % depends on how much over the cap the suitor is.
Restricted free agents
Bledsoe's salary comes neatly close to a max offer to a restricted free agent. It's possible that a team won't want to commit $15+ million per year to their restricted free agent and might want to swap said player for Bledsoe. Or, maybe that restricted free agent only wants to sign for a couple years so they can re-enter the market when it's 40-50% higher, and the team would rather have a long-term commitment.
Let's consider Jimmy Butler for a moment. Would you trade Bledsoe for Jimmy Butler? I would. Would the Bulls do it? Probably not. They already have Derrick Rose at point guard, so they don't need another small point guard to pair with him even if they wanted Bledsoe. But let's consider a scenario where Butler only wants to commit for two years and the Bulls just don't want to take the chance of losing him, or having to overpay him in two years. There's already a report to this effect. His agent is even trying to use the Lakers (maybe) as the cattle prod to the Bulls.
What if the Suns were okay with a two-year contract to Butler, and were willing to broker a deal to bring Butler to Phoenix (assuming they could sell Butler on that idea, since he would have to want this to happen) in exchange for the long term commitment from Bledsoe? Or a three-way deal that lands Bledsoe somewhere else?
Now, let's consider Tobias Harris. He is a restricted free agent from Orlando. Could the Suns do a swap here? Probably not. The Magic have Elfrid Payton in the fold. But what if the Magic, whose new coach loves defense, wanted to ramp up their winning chances and would rather the already-developed Bledsoe over someday-developed Payton in the starting lineup the next year or two? They might not want to commit long-term to Harris, so this Bledsoe/Harris swap could be interesting...
Is Tobias Harris, still just 22, worth a swap of Bledsoe at the same money? He's a tweener who isn't a great three-point shooter, but he'd balance the roster a bit.
Another restricted free agent worth Bledsoe money is Draymond Green, but Golden State would have no interest in Bledsoe with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson in the fold long term.
Unrestricted free agents
The new CBA still allows for sign-and-trades, but only at "free agent" prices rather than home-team prices. A sign-and-trade could only be, at max, four years with 4.5% raises.
But if a team knew they were losing their guy anyway, would they consider a swap of Bledsoe? And, if the guy is unrestricted why would the Suns even bother with sending a great talent like Bledsoe back?
All good questions.
Considering Kevin Love for the moment, while the Suns would likely be willing to part with talent to get Love in Phoenix without blowing the salary cap, it's doubtful Cleveland would want Bledsoe while Kyrie Irving is around. Those two would make a really small back court for a Finals contender. The same is true of LaMarcus Aldridge's situation in Portland, who already have Damian Lillard running point. While possible, neither of these swaps is likely.
What of Paul Millsap or DeMarre Carroll? While I think the Suns should sign either or both of these guys once Love is off the table, I don't think there's any good scenario of swapping Bledsoe for either of them. Atlanta has Jeff Teague already, so Bledsoe wouldn't tickle their fancies anyway.
Players under contract
Here's where it gets interesting, and then again not so interesting. The Suns are mre likely to swap Bledsoe for someone already under contract at a salary similar to his. They've stated through sources they'd only trade "up" for an established star, so we have to look at players with salaries at $12 and up whose team might need a point guard in return.
DeMarcus Cousins is the first that comes to mind. He's already well-paid and wants out. Sacramento could use a point guard upgrade, though it's unclear if Bledsoe is George Karl's perfect lead guard. He's a bit better than Ty Lawson, but Lawson knows how to run Karl's fast paced system already and he's available himself.
But Cousins doesn't like fast-paced systems and that's exactly what Hornacek wants to run. Would he be a great get in Phoenix, though? Absolutely. If you can get him, you get him.
A look at the rest of the list yields precious few options for the Suns. The Suns likely wouldn't want a Rudy Gay, or Joe Johnson, or Deron Williams, or David Lee or Roy Hibbert in exchange for Bledsoe. Not an equal swap there.
On the flipside, there's little chance the Suns could acquire the better names on that list, simply because there's no reason their teams would want to trade them.
I do like Danilo Gallinari of the Nuggets, but they already have Ty Lawson and just drafted Emmanuel Mudiay. Why would they commit to Bledsoe, unless Denver trades Lawson and wants to give Mudiay time to grow into his role? But even then, it doesn't seem like Gallinari has the same value as Bledsoe. Gallinari is good, but not a Top-15 player at his position let alone an All-Star.
Of course, the Suns will explore Bledsoe trade options. But they'd only pull the trigger for a win-now deal with a player coming back who is at least as good as Bledsoe that plays another position on the court.
This is not a case of Knight being better than Bledsoe. It's a case of flipping Bledsoe for something really good at another position, while Knight can run point at a quality level into the future.
Keep your eyes open for high-paid players on the trade block along with Bledsoe.
And then expect the Suns to do something totally different, which might even be to keep the pair of Knight and Bledsoe together long term if they can't flip Bledsoe into something better.