The Phoenix Suns had the worst season in franchise history since their inaugural campaign as a ragtag expansion team. One of the primary reasons the Suns fell from middle of the pack to bottom of the barrel was losing point guard Eric Bledsoe after only 31 games.
No Suns team in the last 47 years had fallen apart so badly, not even the previously ignominious 2012-13 team. But at least this 2015-16 team can blame some of the problems on injuries. Tyson Chandler (hamstring) missed a chunk of games early. Then Eric Bledsoe went down for the season before Brandon Knight and T.J. Warren went down - all before halftime of the season.
The biggest loss was Eric Bledsoe who - while he doesn't have the floor vision you want in a perfect point guard - has the most positive influence on games of any player on the team. Bledsoe is a true two-way athlete who can shut down the opposing point guard and score on him on the other end at the same time.
Let's review Bledsoe's season and give him a final grade.
Career best start
Bledsoe was in the middle of the best season of his career. He posted at least 20 points in 20 of 31 games. He also had 21 games of 5+ assists against only 10 with less than five.
He was one of only four players in the entire league - along with Russell Westbrook, Kyle Lowry and Stephen Curry - to average at least 20 points, 6 assists and 2 steals per game through Christmas.
Bledsoe had the second best net rating (points scored vs. points surrendered while on the court) among starters on the team - second only to P.J. Tucker - during their 12-19 start. After Bledsoe went down, the Suns became the worst team in the league from just about every angle and finished the season 9-40 without him.
The Suns had problems, but Eric Bledsoe was not one of them. Before Bledsoe was injured, the Suns had the league's 19th best offense and 18th best defense. After his injury, they ranked dead last on offense and 27th out of 30 on defense.
Remember how he played? Maybe not, considering it's been five months since he took the court.
Here's some early-season highlights...
And here is Bledsoe's near triple-double against the Clippers - 29 points, 10 rebounds and 9 assists.
Five of those 11 games where Bledsoe posted fewer than 20 points occurred in his last six contests. That last one should not count, as Bledsoe was injured in the first half of his final game. So let's make it four of his last five. As the Suns were spiraling down into the depths of a lost season, Bledsoe was beginning to careen with them. As the head of the snake, he had begun to suffer under the weight of the rest of the body.
Of course, we are only talking about a couple of weeks here. Five games. One good (29/9/4), one mediocre (18/1/1 in a 6-point loss to the Bucks) and three really bad (avg. 7.7/4.5/4 - all losses). Maybe it was just a momentary slump. The team died under the spectre of a potential Markieff Morris trade, and Bledsoe - one of Keef's closest friends - was beginning to show his dislike for the situation.
Then, something even worse happened...
Bledsoe got hurt during one of the lowest points of the season. Just as the Suns were fashioning their most embarrassing loss of the year, Bledsoe's season ended in disaster with his second torn meniscus in three years.
Only watch this if you're a masochist.
That makes two of three seasons with the Suns where Bledsoe has missed about half the season. He's only been healthy for the 2014-15 season.
At this point, can he be trusted to stay healthy? A better question: can he trust his own body to stay whole?
With a long term contract in hand - and a quite reasonable one after this summer passes - you can expect the Suns to plan for him to run their offense for a long, long time. Giving him better weapons can only help. The Suns had the league's 8th best offense in 2013-14 and 8th best again before the All-Star break in 2014-15 when his best weapons were traded away.
2015-16 Player Grade
The easy way out would be to give him a grade of Incomplete.
The bright side way would be to give him a grade of B+ or A because he played better than ever when he was healthy, and was the brightest spot of the season before Devin Booker had to take over.
The grade I will give Bledsoe is a C.
He once again failed to finish a season, isn't the best leader on any team, and had allowed the distractions around him to bring him down to a precipitously low level right before the injury.
Those negatives outweigh the positive impact he had on the scoreboard, beyond the stat lines.
Imagine, if you will, the perfect compliment to young star Devin Booker in the back court. I'd make this fictional player taller than the 6'1" Bledsoe, I'd make him a visionary savant with the ball in his hands, and I'd make him a better shooter.
But we don't get to build a teammate in a chemist's laboratory. I'll settle for a player whose whole game is a polar opposite to Booker - a bowling ball driver and slasher who can take the opponent's best offensive wing and shut him down.
On offense, Bledsoe is a hard-driving slasher who draws defenders into the paint for kick-out passes to the perimeter. Bledsoe's ability to finish at the rim through contact, draw fouls and alternately stop and pop at the free throw line forces the defense to key on him when he's got the ball. If one or two defenders are focused on Bledsoe every time, Booker can get free on curls and/or just floating around making himself available for outlet passes.
On defense, the Suns can hide Booker a bit by switching Bledsoe and P.J. Tucker onto Booker's man if he's scoring too much. Booker can be hidden on a good, disciplined defense, which will allow him to thrive on offense where he can be one of the best in the game.
I like the idea of Bledsoe and Booker sharing a back court. The Booker/Bledsoe back court could have the highest ceiling of any Suns back court since 2010.