This May Be the Last We See Eric Bledsoe In PHX

Mar 12, 2017; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns guard Eric Bledsoe (left) controls the ball against Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard at Talking Stick Resort Arena. Portland defeated Phoenix 110-101. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 12, 2017; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns guard Eric Bledsoe (left) controls the ball against Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard at Talking Stick Resort Arena. Portland defeated Phoenix 110-101. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

Four nights ago Eric Bledsoe went toe-to-toe with Portland ‘s star point guard Damian Lillard and lost. Unbeknownst to anybody at the time, that may have been Bledsoe’s last game as a Phoenix Sun.

The Beginning

Coming into the season, the questions surrounding Eric Bledsoe centered around the same topics that had been tied to him for the past several years: Was he healthy? Would he stay  healthy? And then due to his incredible start last season before his knee injury: Was the first 31 games of last season a fluke?

Bledsoe answered those three questions with a resounding YES, YES, and NO, turning in his best season yet as a pro. His scoring in particular improved dramatically over other seasons, setting a career-high with eleven 30+ point games including a stretch of six games at the end of January and beginning of February where he scored 40 points once and 41 points twice. He further set career-high’s in scoring (21.1), assists (6.3), free throws made, attempted, and percentage (5.9-6.9 for 84.7%), and three-pointers made and attempted (1.6-4.7).

Not only did Bled prove his health is strong playing in all but one game this season before last night, but that at the age of 27 he is only now entering the prime of his career and has inserted himself firmly near the top of the second tier of point guards in a league stacked full of talent at that position.

The biggest dig on Bledsoe’s performance was his relative inconsistency. It seemed difficult for him to ever string together a long stretch of dominant games, regularly following a 30+ outing with a dud. His shooting in particular was his Achilles Heel as he is finishing the season with a 43.3% field goal percentage, a staggering .02 below where he was last year, and even below his career average of 44.4%. His three 40+ point games were followed up with 18, 14, and 20, and he only once had more than one 30 point game in a row, a stretch of three from 12/9-12/13.

Although he followed up those games with 14 and 12 point scoring lines.

He reached a career-high in assists average though he was never really a regular double-double candidate. Much of that could be attributed to the system, plus Bledsoe has not been a 10+ assist player at any point in his career. Regardless, he only breached that mark six times all season, the last time coming exactly one month to the day that the team announced he would be benched for the remainder of the year. The six times was a career-high for one season,, but for a player growing as much as he is, expectations had been higher.

His final game of the season against Portland proved to be the end of a brief stretch of less than stellar performances. He finished the night with 19p/3r/5a and shot 33.3% from the field. Over his last three games he averaged 14.7p/4.0/5.3a and shot 30.6%. Aside from his shooting percentage, that is not a terrible stat line, it’s just not the stellar numbers he had proven to be capable of this season, and the kind of numbers that a team would be disappointed to see regularly from someone who arguably is the team’s best player.

The Beginning of the End

Last night in replacement of Bledsoe, Tyler Ulis was inserted into the starting lineup and took the opportunity to put on a show. Not cowering from the moment of his first career start (and his first ever start side-by-side with best buddy Devin Booker), Ulis scored 13 points and dished out a career-high 13 assists becoming the first Suns rookie to have at least 12 and 12 in a game since Steve Nash in 1996.

In his rookie campaign Ulis has already shown that he will likely have a high assist rate throughout his career. So far Ulis is averaging 7.1 assists per-36 minutes, a rate higher than Eric Bledsoe has ever averaged. His 13.6 points per-36 is also higher than Bledsoe averaged his first two seasons in the league, although his 41.9% shooting percentage must  improve for him to become a legitimate starter long-term.

Ulis will now probably be given the reins of the offense for the final 14 games (I say probably because John Gambadoro reported that Brandon Knight was asked to play last night in Bledsoe’s absence but declined due to back spasms. Gambo then later implied that Knight was perfectly healthy…) If Ulis takes advantage of the situation at hand and proves that he can average around a double-double consistently during the final stretch (which includes games against nine playoff or potential playoff participants) he will make a strong argument for an expanded role by the beginning of next season.

Whether or not the Suns organization sees Ulis as the potential point guard of the future, his performance right now could at least offer the team reason to allow him to take the reins for a year or two until they can find one that could be the long-term answer – or prove that that answer is him.

The End

Much has been said about the age of the core of the current Suns roster. Not only has the franchise record for youngest starting lineup been set three times  this season, but they have the opportunity to go even younger with Ulis now as the starter if Derek Jones Jr. makes a healthy recovery from the hip injury he suffered against the Kings and starts again at some point.

Eric Bledsoe, only now potentially in the prime of his career, is 27-years old. Although not old by NBA standards, the rest of the core sits at 23-years old and younger. Making approximately $15M for each of the next two seasons, an argument has been made to trade Bledsoe now while his value remains high, and replace him with a younger point guard who could stick and grow with the core for the next decade.

With this summer’s draft featuring two potential franchise changing point guards, and the Suns in

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prime position to possibly land one of the two, that future point guard – if he not already on the roster – may be on his way. Moving Eric Bledsoe at some point this summer would allow that new player to immediately step into the leading role and begin the transitional process right away.

Bledsoe could be traded to a team on the verge of contention who would be willing to give up a first-round pick or two (the Suns have received two first-rounders when trading their last two starting point guards) opening up the starting spot and keeping the backcourt uncluttered allowing Ulis and said second point guard to head up the depth chart (in no particular order).

Depending on Phoenix’s intentions on how they want to continue to rebuild their roster, trading Bledsoe would allow them to remain on track to sign their improving players to long-term contracts when the time comes, as well as save space for the potential of adding a superstar contract via trade or free agency. By sitting him out now, not only does he end his season with career-highs in a bevy of categories that will be enticing to potential suitors, but his knees remain healthy further bolstering his value on the trade market.

I have already written that Toronto could be a reasonable destination should things fall the right way, although this is one of a number of possible destinations.

Good-Bye, Old Friend

If the game against Portland truly was the last game of Bledsoe’s career in Phoenix, it was not the inspiring note that he and fans would have preferred him to have finished on.

Yet the full breadth of this past season is one worth recognizing for it’s rank near the top for point guards in franchise history, and something for all to be proud of when looking back on his career in Phoenix. Bledsoe will finish averaging .2 rebounds below 5.0. Had he reached that plateau, he would have been one of only a hand-full of players in the league this season to average at least 21p/6a/5r, but also only the third  player in franchise history to carry that line.

His four years in the Valley of the Suns have been full of ups and downs, but watching the growth of a player who would have never been given an opportunity to start in Los Angeles playing behind Chris Paul has been fun to watch. The Suns acquired a solid starting point guard in a period when they believed that they were building the next long-term playoff team. Had that worked out Bledsoe would have been the point guard of the future that the Suns are now looking for. But because it didn’t, he now appears to be the odd-man out as the roster aligns itself for the next phase.

Bledsoe’s year ended prematurely. He worked his butt off to put together the best season of his career and deserved the opportunity to play out the remaining 15 games (now 14). But he is not the future. The Suns have to move on and Bledsoe needs to chase a Championship in a different city.

This may be the last we see of Eric Bledsoe in Phoenix. But he will leave a legacy of hard-work and perseverance that will forever live on.