“I’ve got us being top five or even higher in the Western Conference, and I believe in that.”
Those were the words of Eric Bledsoe during Media Day in late September, predicting that his Phoenix Suns would be playoff bound when April rolled around and possibly even hosting a first-round opponent at home. Those ideas were no more believable then than they are today, with Bledsoe’s Suns staring up from a 4-11 hole — good enough for the 29th-best record in the NBA.
There is nothing wrong with a player expressing optimism about an upcoming season. After all, it tends to set a negative tone for the months ahead if all 15 players meet with the media and collectively exclaim “We’re gonna suck!”
Here’s the problem, though. If a player goes so far as to claim that a team that won 23 games the previous season can now be the 5th seed — or higher! — in the Western Confernce playoff picture without any meaningful changes to the roster’s makeup, he had better back those words up on the court. To this point, Bledsoe has not done that.
Bledsoe’s numbers on the season are not bad. He’s averaged 18.1 points, 5.1 assists, 5.7 rebounds, and 1.1 steals as the starting point guard for all 15 games. Even though they are off his more encouraging averages from last season (20.4 points, 6.1 assists, 4.0 rebounds, 2.0 steals), the Suns would take that production if they could get it every night. But Bledsoe has not proven capable of stringing together quality games for any real length of time.
Over the first five games of this current road trip, Bledsoe has scored 20, 8, 6, 27, and 29 points. In the second game of the trip against the Denver Nuggets, he took just four field goals, which were fewer than five teammates including P.J. Tucker. And just in case anyone is thinking he’s atoning for his lack of offensive aggression by getting teammates involved, Bledsoe is averaging 4.8 assists on the road trip.
Inconsistency is nothing new to Bledsoe. Back when he posted a stat line of 28 points, 13 rebounds, nine assists, and four blocks on 11-of-16 shooting against Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder on Feb. 26, 2015, many took that as Bledsoe sending a message to the rest of the league about whom he would soon become. Forgotten was the message he sent in his next game against the San Antonio Spurs: 12 points, zero assists.
That type of inconsistency has dogged him his entire career, and when it cannot be predicted which Bledsoe will show up from one night to the next, he becomes as much liability as asset. It is understandable from the young’uns like Devin Booker or T.J. Warren. For Bledsoe, it has to stop.
Bledsoe turns 27 years old on December 9th. This is his 7th season in the NBA and 4th as an everyday starter. He is entering into his prime. He has the experience. He’s gotten the reps. By all accounts, he is healthy. There is nothing more the Suns organization can do for him. Now is the time for Bledsoe to look in the mirror and ask himself who he wants to be. Does he want to be an All Star? Or is he content with being a good, inconsistent player?
The Suns, for their part, need him to be more. General manager Ryan McDonough traded for Bledsoe in 2013 with the belief that he could evolve into the team’s next star and chose Bledsoe over Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas in 2015 with that same belief in mind. But over 3+ injury-marred seasons, Bledsoe has offered only tantalizing glimpses of his full potential, and with the Suns all but assured of a high draft pick in a class loaded with point guard talent, he needs to prove to McDonough that the GM’s faith was not misplaced.
That begins and ends with Bledsoe finding a way to tap into his aggressiveness every game. Every. Game.
The Bledsoe who sacrifices his scoring to get teammates involved is a myth considering he has just 15 career games with 10 or more assists and rarely seems to have much of a plan when he probes the paint. Unlike someone like Tyler Ulis, most of Bledsoe’s assists appear to be of the incidental variety. No, Bledsoe has to attack to be effective. He has to put unrelenting pressure on opposing defenses, has to get players in foul trouble. All of his physical advantages are wasted when he halfheartedly looks to involve teammates or settles for a lazy 3-point attempt after five seconds of dribbling at the top of the arc.
Will it be easy? No. Being a human bowling ball game after game is exhausting. But if he wants to take the next step in his evolution as a player, he must consistently embrace that aspect of his game. He does not have the playmaker instincts to be a Steve Nash or Ricky Rubio or even a Ulis. He does not have the outside stroke (at least not this season) to jack up shots from the perimeter. His greatest strength is attacking the basket. He cannot shy away from that fact.
Until he learns that lesson and finally becomes a consistently good player rather than a sporadically good player, his words will continue to lack heft, conjuring images of a dog barking at the wind — and leaving McDonough with some difficult decisions to make in the months ahead.