On Thursday, Ryan Weisert made a very strong case for keeping the backcourt combo of Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic together. What is most pertinent to his case is that the Phoenix Suns, who might be interested in trading for Kevin Love, should absolutely avoid gutting their roster a la the 2011 New York Knicks. Prior to that blockbuster, the Knicks were finally turning the corner, but they traded young, talented wings Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, two players unafraid of the spotlight in Madison Square Garden. New York also dealt a first round pick and center Timofey Mozgov, a player who fans took to quickly.
Anthony will test the free agent market this season and during his time with the salary-strapped Knicks only mustered a single successful season. New York not only dealt all their pieces for him but weren’t able to find him help because of the financial situation.
The argument for the Suns to avoid such a drawn-out and risky trade for Love is probably not lost on anyone. Minnesota hasn’t won much with him, after all.
Let’s say the Suns believe they need a maxed-out star to take them back to the postseason. Saying that also assumes they can’t get stuck in a tight financial spot.
If it comes at the cost of deciding that one of Goran Dragic or Eric Bledsoe will need to be moved, Bledsoe might need to be the one on his way out, whether he’s part of a trade for Love or otherwise. A Bledsoe max would get in the way of what the Suns expect to do in free agency next summer, when there will be plenty of stars on the market.
The qualifier for keeping Dragic over Bledsoe assumes the Suns can’t keep both, but here’s why the Slovenian point guard might be the one sticking around Phoenix long-term.
Will Dragic be a better value?
All sign points to Bledsoe earning max money this summer that pays him close to $15 million, if the projected $63.2 million salary cap holds up. All signs point to Dragic making more than his current $7.5 million annual deal if he opts out following this 2014-15 season, as expected. He’s clearly loyal to Phoenix, meaning he probably won’t go hard after the biggest offer (he didn’t take the big money last time around in free agency).
Dragic will be 29 years old next summer, and even with another stellar season won’t be breaking Phoenix’s bank. He could possibly earn a deal in excess of $10 million, which would still save the Suns bit of cash — that compared to a Bledsoe max might be the difference in keeping P.J. Tucker, if it’s deemed worth doing.
Like the Oklahoma City Thunder or Houston Rockets, Phoenix wants its back-end of the roster to be built in two ways; draft picks and value diamonds in the rough. Saving even a few million helps in either case, be it set aside for an Ish Smith on a deal less than $1 million or a $3 million annually for a talented player on a rookie deal. Playing some sort of money-ball, Dragic over Bledsoe at the least gives Phoenix more flexibility.
None of this is to say Bledsoe isn’t valuable and deserving of a max contract in today’s market. His defensive plus-minus is off the charts for a guard as one of only six perimeter players in the top-40 of the league. It ranks 13th overall in the league, and third among perimeter players.
I asked Weisert to crunch the numbers using his model of the NBA Skills Market piece he’s done two years running, and both the values of Dragic and Bledsoe measure around $9 million per year. Taking the more proven and less expensive of the two — especially if the Suns succeed in landing a big name post player — is the best bet to win now.
This is win-now mode with a caveat
The caveat: the win-now mode in today’s NBA is not the financial hemorrhaging like that of the Knicks or the ridiculously spend-happy Nets, who under owner Mikhail Prokhorov might as well have an asterisks beside their salary and tax totals. Teams like the Thunder and the Spurs can win and do it frugally.
Phoenix management says it’s in win-now mode, and it’s arguable whether that’s an imagined truth stemming from Ryan McDonough’s comments, or not. This past season’s success leaned the evidence toward it being a reality.
All season long and into the draft process, coach Jeff Hornacek has been open about acquiring a low-post offensive threat.
Obviously, the Suns haven’t decided if its two stars can take them to the promised land. Most can agree Hornacek’s squad needs an upgrade to Dragic and Bledsoe, or an addition if they can pull it off. Of any NBA teams, the Suns might most represent the Thunder, who likewise have two elite perimeter stars. Oklahoma City similarly earns criticism as a ball-dominated offense for simpltons — give it to Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook — but the bombs lofted Scott Brooks’ way should be directed perhaps more toward general manager Sam Presti, whose management of the frontcourt options hasn’t given Brooks much offensive flexibility to work with.
Phoenix has realized this is its own situation, and that might make one of Dragic or Bledsoe expendable.
Why Dragic over Bledsoe? While the ceiling is lower, the risk-factor is less. This is a Jabari Parker versus Andrew Wiggins choice. The sure-fire pick is Dragic but the future could be Bledsoe. Hornacek and McDonough saw Dragic’s leadership in the EuroBasket tournament last season, and that’s something that has its own value. If winning is the key now, Dragic is more ready to do so.
The business side counts
Informal Twitter polls lend a sense of how Phoenix fans value Bledsoe and Dragic. It’s the Most Improved Player who has grabbed Suns fans with his kind-hearted nature in an interview and the cold-blooded killing on the court. At the same time, those who have watched the Suns can easily gauge Bledsoe is important to the team, but it might be difficult to presume what he can be down the road. He’s shy off the court, and his personality on it flips seamlessly between ephemerally brilliant to focus-lacking.
Dragic returned to Phoenix last offseason as the man who took Steve Nash’s locker. The storyline felt a bit forced, though it’s hard to say it wouldn’t have been the case for any other point guard the Suns brought on (we were saying it about Kendall Marshall when he was drafted, after all). Yet, Dragic’s All-NBA season made him truly deserving of the heaps of expectations place on him.