As the Suns hurtle toward potentially their highest draft pick since 1987 (hello, Armen!), they also must face the biggest decision of GM Ryan McDonough’s career.
Is Eric Bledsoe the point guard of not only the present but also the future?
That might depend on where the Suns finish after the lottery balls bounce. And to be sure, the Suns are angling hard for the highest pick possible.
Bledsoe, along with Tyson Chandler and Brandon Knight, are taking the remainder of the season off at the request of management. Benching Bledsoe initiated what is so far a 9-game losing streak since his benching (10 games overall) to “open” a 5.5-game lead on competition for the 3rd worst league record and initiating hope to sink to the 2nd worst record and 2nd most ping pong balls.
The question is what the Suns will do with that pick.
If the Suns get to take their pick of point guards Lonzo Ball or Markelle Fultz, they signal a decision to move on from Bledsoe.
But if the Suns turn instead to a small forward, such as Josh Jackson or Jayson Tatum or even Jonathan Isaac, then they show a desire to commit to Bledsoe for years to come.
What should the Suns do?
Is Bledsoe a point guard for a playoff team? Can he be a point guard for a conference championship contender?
Let’s take a closer look at Bledsoe.
Before being shut down for the season, he posted career highs this season in points (21.1), assists (6.3), three-pointers (1.6), free throws (5.9) and free throw attempts per game (6.9), plus the second-best rebound average (4.8) and a career-low in turnover rate (15.3%) since he's become a starter.
Think those numbers are pretty good? How about this:
Only THREE players have put up better than Bledsoe's combo of points/assists/rebounds/free throws in the past FIVE seasons: LeBron James. James Harden. Russell Westbrook.
That’s it. Three.
For the season, Eric Bledsoe is tied for 13th in the NBA with 6.3 assists per game. But anyone who watched the games in the middle of this season would conclude that he made significant strides in the area of playmaking and dishing scoring passes he never would have made a year ago.
Here is Bledsoe in October.
Eric Bledsoe with the dish to Marquese Chriss. https://t.co/gAH9fdveOm— Michael Gallagher (@MikeSGallagher) October 6, 2016
The play is in front of him, so a lot of point guards could have made that play.
This one to Devin Booker is also right there, but it takes fast, heads-up thinking in traffic to keep your mind on who is where and to get the ball to Booker without the D knowing it’s going to happen.
Here’s another. Kind of like the earlier pass, but with a tighter window.
A year ago, Bledsoe might not have hoisted this from mid court, instead putting his head down for a one-man drive.
Eric Bledsoe throws the half-court pass to Marquese Chriss for a reverse oop, beauty pic.twitter.com/RVKUs3MTGH— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) January 25, 2017
And another example of Bledsoe’s progression. He used to drive head down into the teeth of the defense with the sole intention of scoring a tough hoop, but these days he’s also looking to set up teammates.
We’re not talking about Steve Nash here, but it’s a lot of progress in a short amount of time.
Amongst his peers
After January 1, covering 32 games before being “rested”, Bledsoe dished 7.1 assists per game, which ranks 10th in assists per game among all NBA players.
Looking at advanced stats, after January 1 Bledsoe is 12th in “potential assists” at 13.1 per game (includes missed shots and those leading to free throws), 10th in adjusted assists (which includes those leading to free throws but ignores missed shots), and 9th in total passes made per game.
Overall, Bledsoe has now pulled himself into being a top-10 passer in this league. But he’s not just a passer. Among those top 10 playmakers in calendar 2017, Bledsoe ranks 6th or higher in several other categories, including:
- scoring (22.3, 6th)
- three-point percentage (37.2%, 5th)
- free throws made (7.1, 3rd)
- free throws attempted (8.2, 3rd)
- rebounds (4.6, 5th)
- triple doubles (1, 4th)
Bledsoe is the first Phoenix Suns player since 2006 to put up at least 40 points and dish 10 assists in a single game (Steve Nash, twice in 2006) and only the fourth in franchise history (Nash, Kevin Johnson, Stephon Marbury).
League wide, only four other players have even posted a 40/10 game this season - James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard and LeBron James.
Lost in the losing
Of the top 10 playmakers since January 1, Bledsoe has the worst team record and is second to last in plus/minus (-0.6), meaning the Suns get outscored while he's on the court for his 34 minutes per game. That’s what happens when your starting lineup consists of two guys not old enough to buy adult beverages (Devin Booker and Marquese Chriss) and another who is closer to retirement than his prime (Tyson Chandler).
Such is the life of being the only in-your-prime starter on a rebuilding team. Bledsoe’s individual plus/minus of -0.6 compares very favorably to the entire team’s overall net negative for that same period of more than -6.0.
Running the offense
Bledsoe has never, by himself, run an above-average offense in the NBA. Since fellow starting-caliber point guards Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas were traded at the deadline two years ago, leaving Bledsoe as the lone playmaker, the Suns have struggled mightily in that area.
We can give Bledsoe a pass for the latter part of 2015, since the supposed replacement for the two-playmaker offense was injured almost the entire rest of the season (Brandon Knight).
Bledsoe began the 2015-16 season on fire, sharing the playmaking duties with Brandon Knight. But the Suns only had the league’s 20th best offense until Bledsoe went down for the season with a meniscus injury (to be fair, they were 14th on offense until a week prior). Bledsoe and Knight combined for 40/11 each night (better than Bledsoe/Booker’s 42/9.5 this season), with a stronger front line than the current 2016-17 team.
This season, Bledsoe helped the Suns to 23rd overall on offense despite being paired with only one consistent scorer (Booker) who has a ton of flaws and barely turned 20 years old after the season started.
Coinciding with his own in-season progression, the Suns offense is going in the right direction. They improved from 22nd overall on offense in November and December to 16th from January 1 to March 12, when Bledsoe was pulled for the season. The Suns’ best offensive month was January itself, where they ranked 8th overall across the league.
To recap, since the IT/Dragic trades, the Bledsoe-led offense has gone from nearly last to 20th to 22nd to 16th in that year and a half.
I know that’s not, like, wow. But it’s progress.
Behind Bledsoe’s leadership, from January 1 to March 12 the Suns were 21st in the league in Effective Field Goal % (which includes threes) and 18th in True Shooting % (which includes threes and free throws). Again, no great shakes but consider the roster.
The Suns got to the free throw line and scored on fast breaks (both in Top 2 of the league), and they got lots of points off turnovers (7th overall), but still didn’t put up nearly enough threes or make enough shots to move into the top half of the league.
So while “16th overall on team offense for a 2.5 month stretch” isn’t anything to be excited about, maybe when you consider the relative offensive talent and/or maturity of the roster, we should give Bledsoe some credit for getting them as far as he did.
As Zach Lowe put in a few weeks ago in a feature, Bledsoe has made himself into a top-10 point guard on offense but if he’s not going to be that bulldog defensively then he might not be as valuable as he once was.
Sloughing some of the creative load off onto Booker should eventually allow Bledsoe to play entire games with peak ferocity on defense. He should be the best point guard defender in the league, but he isn't. That has made him a strangely polarizing player among rival executives, including some with teams who would make good Bledsoe trade fits.
A Bledsoe who pounds the ball and takes possessions off on defense is of limited interest. A Bledsoe who thrives as the second- or third-best player in a motion-style offense and smothers opposing point guards -- that's the guy people want to see. Great defense and passing is how the 8th-best version of Chris Paul becomes a championship-level player on a better team.
When Bledsoe broke into the starting lineup in 2013-14, his calling card was defense. He had a long way to go offensively, but he could get physical and lock up the opposing point with the best of them.
Now, readily available defensive statistics are still terrible. They don’t tell the whole story, even when you combine them all into one. A player’s ranking on defense has SO much to do with the players around him and the opponents on the court that it’s nearly impossible to pinpoint a player’s individual impact beyond the “eye” test.
But let’s start with statistics.
In 2013-14, Bledsoe was BY FAR the best point guard defender in the league. A newly created ESPN stat called ‘Real Plus/Minus’ gave Bledsoe the best defensive RPM among all point guards (3.47).
In 2014-15, he wasn’t quite as impactful but was still 3rd among all point guards (1.85) over the course of his first full season as a starter while posting a 17/6.1/5.2 stat line.
Last year, he dipped to 11th (0.39) and this year he’s fallen all the way down to 56th (-1.03).
As he develops his offensive game, he’s clearly taken a few more breathers than usual on the defensive end. And, he’s taking care of his body to make it through a full season so he's not selling out on every play anymore. #knees
The constant losing and a lacking defense from the rest of his team can’t be helping either.
But defensive instincts are there, and his athleticism is there too. Put him on a playoff team, and let him be just the 2nd or 3rd offensive option, and he could definitely reprise that bulldog defender role again.
It’s there. It’s just dormant at the moment.
Here’s where Bledsoe’s value begins to shine even brighter.
The Suns still have Bledsoe under contract for two more full seasons - through the 2018-2019 season - at a quite reasonable $15 million per year.
That sounds like a lot of cheese, but consider that Jrue Holiday - who’s Pelicans are abysmal - will be free agent this summer and will command at least $25 million per year. Stephen Curry will soon command $35 million per year, as will Chris Paul.
Bledsoe’s contract amount and length are perfect for a player who still needs to prove he can stay healthy for multiple full seasons.
And if you look at the highest paid point guards, you will see a group of players who can carry their teams into the playoffs but cannot solely win a championship without a lot of help from the rest of their team.
Bledsoe is old, by Suns roster standards.
If the Suns are building around some combination of Devin Booker (20 years old), Marquese Chriss (19), Dragan Bender (19) and 2017TopPick (19-20), then having a 28-year old Eric Bledsoe running the point is a generation too old.
By the time those players hit their stride, Bledsoe will be over 30 and likely will have even more problems with his knees - even if it’s just tendinitis that restricts his athleticism.
But on the other hand, every team needs a veteran who will lead the group with maturity and consistency. The Suns are showing these past two weeks the difference between your point guard being a veteran versus a rookie.
Could Bledsoe be that veteran that glues the young guns together into something cohesive, and helps the team win sooner than later?
For a few games after the All-Star break, it sure looked like it. Over a six-game stretch, the Suns very nearly went 5-1 but for some missed free throws by Devin Booker and Marquese Chriss (against the Bulls and Bucks, respectively). Still, Bledsoe led the super-young Suns to wins over the Hornets, Thunder and Celtics in succession, putting such a scare into the Suns front office that they had to bench him to keep that 3rd worst record.
If the Suns take a point guard this summer, they are pushing out the ‘playoff contention’ timeline by at least 2-3 years. Replacing a 21/6 point guard in Bledsoe with a precocious rookie will get people excited, but team performance in the standings will lag. That’s just part of rebuilding.
If the Suns take a small forward instead, and keep Bledsoe, it’s quite possible they get back to playoff contention sooner. But the risks associated with Bledsoe’s health and age might impact the long-term potential of sticking with him.
I don’t envy Ryan McDonough’s job. This draft is the tipping point on the Suns’ future, the biggest tipping point since that fateful 2015 trade deadline.