The first sign of life for the Phoenix Suns’ 2013-14 campaign came in mid-July when they landed Clippers’ backup point guard Eric Bledsoe in a three way deal with the Clippers and Bucks. For the low price of fan-favorite Jared Dudley and a second-round pick, new GM Ryan McDonough landed one of the most coveted assets on the market. In Bledsoe, the Suns added a player with clearly evident talent and well-hyped potential who had spent the previous two seasons going to Chris Paul University. But potential is not production in the NBA, and Bledsoe’s addition did little to bolster the Suns’ chances of contending in the eyes of fans and pundits across the league.
To be fair to those negative voices, of which I was most certainly one, talent is never a guarantee that a player’s per-36 numbers will translate into actual production in added minutes. Some players, no matter how great they look in limited time, only have 20 good minutes a night. It’s dangerous when analysts assume that efficiency is always scalable in the NBA. The NBA Draft Lottery is ever full of teams who bet on the wrong player’s potential (thanks for taking the bullet, Pelicans) and paid dearly for it in the loss column. Much of that same fear infested the Valley of the Sun at the outset of this season, but from his very first regular season game in a Phoenix uniform, Eric Bledsoe squashed that fear like a bug and helped make the Suns the most surprising team in the league.
To call Bledsoe’s start to this season auspicious would be putting it mildly. He kicked off the year with 22 points, seven rebounds, and six assists in a surprise double-digit win over the Blazers at home. He followed that by scoring the Suns’ final 14 points in a win over Utah, including this:
That shot is highly reminiscent of the buzzer beater Jeremy Lin hit over Jose Calderon that sent Linsanity into full overdrive. In that same way, Bledsoe’s opening month – where he averaged 19.4 points, 4.2 boards, and 5.9 assists per game while shooting 50% from the field and getting to the free throw line six times a night – helped Phoenix send a message to the rest of the league that the Suns were legitimate contenders, and Bledsoe himself was a legitimate star.
“Definitely fun and exciting to prove a lot of people wrong” Bledsoe said after the season. “Everybody had a lot of doubts about me coming into the season…me by myself running a team. It definitely put the icing on the cake for me.”
That first month set the tone for the year in more ways than one, however. Bledsoe missed six games with a bruised shin, and the Suns went 3-3 in his absence. Injury ultimately became one of the predominant storylines for Bledsoe this year as a meniscus tear, which required surgery, limited him to just 43 games total. The Suns went just 20-19 without Bledsoe in the lineup this season (28-15 with him.) So considering the fact that Phoenix missed the playoffs by one game, it’s safe to assume that a little more Bledsoe would most certainly have put the Suns in the postseason.
“The way we lost the last couple of games, to the Spurs and Dallas, it definitely put a little taste in my mouth,” Bledsoe said. “As individuals … we wanted to make the playoffs. It was a failure we didn’t make them. We got a little bit of experience going into next year knowing what it takes.”
When he was on the court, Bledsoe did whatever it took to make an impact at both ends of the floor. A quick glance at his shot chart will illustrate where he did his damage offensively.
Bledsoe was most effective in the middle of the floor. He shot just over 60% within eight feet of the hoop and 64% in the restricted area according to NBA.com’s stats site. Despite standing just 6’1”, Bledsoe is an elite finisher at the rim. The guards he trails in points per game near the rim are some of the elite finishers in this league including Monta Ellis, Dwyane Wade, and backcourt mate Goran Dragic. Bledsoe was top 15 in drives to the hoop per game and had the 8th best FG% on drives of any player regardless of position. All these stats add up to one fact: when Bledsoe put his head down and drove, he came away with points more often than not.
As a jump shooter, Bledsoe was most effective in the middle of the floor as well. He shot nearly 50% on twos from the top of the key and straight-away three pointers. Just for reference, both of Bledsoe’s marks are at least five percentage points better than Stephen Curry’s in the same area. As he drifted out to the wings, Bledsoe was significantly less effective. When contrasting his shot chart with Goran Dragic’s, it becomes clear that both players were more effective when Bledsoe was in the middle and Dragic was off the ball on either wing. But we’ll dive deep on Dragic and Bledsoe’s partnership a bit later.
Because he established himself as such a reliable scorer so early in the season, Bledsoe, when he was in the lineup, became the Suns’ go-to scorer in the clutch. Late in close games, Bledsoe shot 46% from the field and averaged the most shot attempts (2.2) and free throw attempts (1.2) of any player on the roster. His ability to score in a variety of ways, get to the free throw line, and distribute the ball made him an ideal clutch player for the Suns.
Where did he grow the most?
“Having poise, being a smart player every night, going out there, even in the fourth quarter,” he said. “Keeping my composure, it rubs off on everybody else.”
Bledsoe’s other major impact was on his teammates. According to 82games.com, the Suns’s preferred starting lineup of Bledsoe-Dragic-Tucker-Plumlee-Frye, was by far their best 5-man unit. They were +12 points per 100 possessions as a unit and were +116 in the 436 minutes they played together.
Examining the Suns’ splits with and without Bledsoe, the biggest beneficiaries of his presence were Markieff Morris and Miles Plumlee, both of whom got more easy baskets to finish when they played with Bledsoe. One negative I found in doing this comparison was that most of the Suns’ outside shooters – Goran Dragic, Channing Frye, PJ Tucker, and Marcus Morris – shot a significantly better percentage from downtown when Bledsoe wasn’t on the court. Some of that could be due to how many games Bledsoe missed, but it’s certainly a trend that calls into question his ability to find shooters beyond the arc.
The only other thing worth mentioning about Bledsoe’s offense this year is what effect, if any, the injury had on his game. Bledsoe’s jumper was not as quick to come back as his athleticism and speed. In the month of March he shot just 40% from the field and 32.5% from three. But by the time April rolled around, his game was back to firing on all cylinders. Over the final eight games of the year, he shot better than 55% from the field and 45% from deep. So what was Bledsoe struggling with and how did he correct it? According to NBAWowy.com, after returning from injury, Bledsoe shot just 16% on attempts from 4-to-9 feet (he shot better than 48% on those attempts before his injury.) He corrected this deficiency by taking fewer jumpers overall and getting to the rim more. This trend put defenders on their heels, giving him more space to shoot in April and allowing his percentages to skyrocket.
Defensively, Bledsoe was one of the most impactful guards in the NBA. ESPN’s Real Plus/Minus has him rated #1 among guards in defensive plus/minus. His 1.6 steals per game were Top 20 in the league. With Bledsoe on the court, the Suns gave up 103 points per 100 possessions. Without him, that number rose to 108. The starting lineup with Bledsoe in it gave up only 96 points per 100 possessions. Subbing Green in for Bledsoe in the starting lineup, the Suns gave up 113 points per 100 possessions, a massive difference that accounts for the Suns deficient winning percentage in Bledsoe’s absence.
According to Synergy, Bledsoe was Top 20 in the league at defending spot up shooters and dribble hand offs in terms of points per play. Synergy also indicates, however, that there are some areas where he can improve defensively. Bledsoe was very average defending in isolation and defending in the pick and roll. Now a great deal of that can be attributed to the quality of team defense the Suns played as well as the quality of player Bledsoe was called upon to defend every night. Playing in the Western Conference and always drawing the opponent’s best backcourt player is no easy job. Bledsoe’s tenacity, quickness, and defensive desire were on display every night, but that didn’t stop some of the league’s elite guards from carving him up from time to time. The amount of effort Bledsoe expended each game was incredible, especially in his first year as a starter. With another year under his belt, he should be in better condition and have an even greater impact on the defensive end of the floor.
As great as Bledsoe was as an individual performer, it was his partnership with Goran Dragic that not only fueled the Suns’ success, but also pushed both players to heights they had never played at before.
When asked if he liked playing with Dragic, Bledsoe was quick to respond despite being hesitant to discuss his upcoming free agency.
“Oh, no question,” Bledsoe said. “Goran though, he’s an unbelievable competitor. He goes into every game wanting to win. Me and him both. That’s all you can ask for from two point guards.”
Coming into the year, no one knew how well the two would play with one another. There were discussions of Dragic getting traded despite his production and extremely favorable contract. While playing side-by-side was going to be a big adjustment for both players, it was always going to be more difficult for Dragic who had already spent a year as the full-time starting point guard. But what could have been a nightmare of ball hogging and toe stepping became a spring board that launched both guys into their ideal roles. Bledsoe latched onto the more tradition point guard roll, bringing the ball up the floor and getting teammates involved, while Dragic flourished playing off the ball and being Phoenix’s primary scorer. Goran’s assist rate went down from last year, but his shot attempts and percentages came way up across the board. He flirted with an All-Star bid and was named the NBA’s Most Improved Player, an award he would not have contended for if Bledsoe hadn’t come along to set the Dragon free.
As a duo, Goran and Eric ranked among the best tandems in the NBA in terms of point differential per 100 possessions. Here’s how they stack up against some of the premier backcourt duos in the NBA.
Golden State’s Splash Brothers, generally considered the best young tandem in the league, were just a fraction of a point better than Dragic and Bledsoe, a fact which really puts the impressiveness of their instant chemistry this season into perspective. Just for fun, here’s how they stack up against All-Star, non-backcourt duos around the league.
Once again they trail a Pacific Division tandem, but the fact still remains that if the Suns retain Bledsoe this summer, they will have one of the best 1-2 punches in the league moving forward.
Speaking of this summer, it’s impossible to recap Bledsoe’s season without talking about his future and whether or not it lies in Phoenix.
“I’m just going into the summer getting 100 percent healthy and just doing my thing,” he said during exit interviews. “I’m going into this summer just working hard, getting better for next year, enjoying my family.”
After failing to reach an agreement to extend Bledsoe before the season, Lon Babby and McDonough said repeatedly during the year that the Suns would match any offer Bledsoe received. Whether they were being truthful or just trying to scare teams off from signing Bledsoe to a max-offer sheet remains to be seen. The fact is, Bledsoe is a restricted free agent, so the Suns will have the opportunity to match any offer he gets. But how big will that offer be?
According to Larry Coon, the salary cap is expected to rise to $63.2 million next season. That’s a significant season-to-season increase which means teams will have money to spend, more money than they previously thought. So the reality is this: Eric Bledsoe is getting a max contract. Unless the Suns can swoop in early and sign him for less, some team is going to hand him a max-offer sheet. With info provided by CBA FAQ and the projected cap increase, Bledsoe’s first year salary on a new deal could be as much as $15 million. With 7.5% raises each year, the four year deal he is eligible for could pay him more than $67 million total. That’s a significant investment, and one the Suns will not just blindly match, despite what their front office might say publicly.
For all of Bledsoe’s success in Phoenix this year, there are still legitimate concerns to be addressed before committing nearly a quarter of the salary cap to him for the next four years. The biggest concern is obviously injury. Bledsoe missed 39 games this year, and meniscus injuries are fickle. While he opted to remove rather than repair his meniscus, there is no way to predict how likely it is to be damaged in the future — the same injury had been repaired in October of 2011, after all. The Suns have a top-notch training and medical staff to evaluate and rehab Bledsoe. They will be able to give the front office the best possible clarity on his recovery and injury risk going forward.
The other concern is whether or not Bledsoe is a true point guard. He and Dragic have still played less than 40 games together, so while they were excellent in a small sample, will theirs be a happy and productive marriage for the next few years? Will Dragic be alright playing alongside Bledsoe if he’s making half of what Bledsoe makes? Is Bledsoe OK with sharing the spotlight after playing in the shadows of Chris Paul and John Wall? These are all questions McDonough will have to ask before the Bledsoe contract situation is sorted out.
All that is clear right now is that Bledsoe’s arrival kicked off one of the most memorable seasons in Suns’ history, and if he remains in Phoenix for the foreseeable future, then this team may very well light the league on fire for years to come.