No news is bad news when it comes to Eric Bledsoe‘s ongoing free agency negotiations.
On Saturday, some news was bad news as well.
Bledsoe’s first comments to the media about his free agency since the negotiations started came at a Birmingham, Ala., Ball Up event. FOX 10’s Jude LaCava tweeted that Bledsoe told the Birmingham FOX affiliate that the “Suns are using the rules against” him. That initial tweet reads a bit differently than the video from NBC 13 reporter Kyle Burger, who added Bledsoe wasn’t exactly venting but pointing out the obvious while letting agent Rich Paul work through negotiations.
“First off I’m going to let my agent handle it,” Bledsoe said, while attending a “Ball Up” street ball tournament in Birmingham. “I can understand the Phoenix Suns are using restricted free agency against me. But I understand that.”
Of course they are! President of basketball operations Lon Babby said after the season ended that the Suns would be “foolhardy” not to use the rules of restricted free agency. So here we are.
The Phoenix Suns, Bledsoe and Paul have had since July 1 to negotiate a contract for the restricted free agent, and the latest reports indicate they couldn’t be much further apart nearly four weeks later. The team reportedly offered Bledsoe a four-year, $48 million deal, while the Bledsoe camp is pushing for a five-year max offer. While this specific case could be an argument about the power of teams over players (or the lazy criticism of the Suns being cheap) this is also about reality, the market.
People are quick to liken Bledsoe’s free agency, one that followed a failed extention leading into the final year of a rookie deal, to Joe Johnson‘s departure via a sign-and-trade. At this point, that’s a poor comparison for several reasons. For one, Johnson’s one breakout season in Suns didn’t come with a significant injury (we’re not counting that orbital bone fracture that ended his season as a medical issue more than an unfortunate accident). He didn’t have any past injuries before arriving in Phoenix, either.
And then there’s the biggest difference of all: the Atlanta Hawks gave Johnson that big-time offer he was seeking, forcing the Suns into that sign-and-trade. There are rules, markets and relationships, all of which are part of Bledsoe’s lengthy free agency talks. Each one of those things comes with different set of intertwined principles.
Rules are rules, as they say. In restricted free agency, that means the Suns can negotiate a deal with Bledsoe and with Bird Rights can offer him the most money. Bledsoe can sell himself elsewhere in free agency, and Phoenix has the ability to match any contract. The Suns can take three days (plus an extra few days to work on physicals) to match a contract, which in that time would tie up other teams’ salaries to sign other free agents. It appears the Suns did a good job scaring away offers with an adamancy that they would match any offer. Pretty straight-forward.
All it takes is one team to toss a ridiculous offer at a player like Bledsoe, but restricted free agency also acts as a market-checking tool, making teams think twice about his value. Oddly enough, Bledsoe might have become a victim of his own agent. Paul locked up LeBron James‘ new deal in an extended amount of time, but Bledsoe isn’t the type who can afford to take less money over a short period. Timing — which ties to James — hurt Bledsoe in this process, but even so, the fact of the matter is that he hasn’t received the max offer he was hoping for. And now it’s down to a few teams that have money but likely have zero interest in offering him such a large deal. Bledsoe could obviously take the $3.7 million qualifying offer and have more power in unrestricted free agency next year, but another injury-riddled season in Phoenix would potentially make that $48 million look enticing to take now. It’s a huge risk the Suns are betting he won’t take.
This is where the clash between the rules and the market break down. Bledsoe’s comments to the Birmingham media apparently weren’t as aggravated as they came across in LaCava’s tweet — that he “can understand” what the Suns are doing at least makes him seem, you know, not as annoyed by the situation. Still, the Suns’ aren’t budging when it comes to the market price, which is perhaps what upset Johnson when he left Phoenix after the 2004-05 season. If Bledsoe reaches the point of being fed up with Phoenix’s staunch stance, this will get quite interesting.
This is an old-fashioned stand-off, and the final outcome is hard to predict right now. On a grander scale, maybe the most interesting tidbit to come out of this is the future success of Paul, a self-made man who came up through the agency ranks and now is the leader of Klutch Sports Group. Working as LeBron James’ agent is one thing, while handling a more complex negotiation for Bledsoe is another.
Bledsoe is apparently at the Ball Up event with Gilbert Arenas, which is interesting for no reason at all.