As of today, point guard Eric Bledsoe—who is a restricted free agent—has yet to sign a new deal with the Phoenix Suns or receive an offer sheet from another team. He is arguably the most talented free agent available at this point in the offseason, but his restricted free-agent status has clearly worked against him. Very few teams still have significant money to spend on free agents, and only the Philadelphia 76ers are in a position to pay Bledsoe the type of salary that he is looking for (reportedly $80 million over five years).
Bledsoe continues to wait for a contract offer that is not likely to come. The Suns let the market determine how much Bledsoe is worth, and were willing to match just about any offer the talented point guard was set to receive from another team. Other teams shied away from offering Bledsoe any contract knowing that the Suns would most likely match it. Understanding that the Suns have all the leverage in this situation, Bledsoe is unlikely to receive the sort of deal he was looking for entering the offseason.
So the question remains, what is Bledsoe actually worth?
It has been reported that the Suns have offered Bledsoe a four-year, $48 million contract to stay in Phoenix. For a 24-year-old point guard who has played in just 240 NBA games, averaged just 22 minutes per game throughout his four-year career and gone through two knee surgeries at this point, $48 million would seem like a good deal. But Bledsoe is a unique talent, a combination of sheer strength and skill with a ton of potential. That’s a mix of attributes that NBA general managers pay a premium for.
To get a better idea of what Bledsoe may be worth, let’s compare him to the best point guards in the league and their contracts.
The gold standard in today’s NBA at the point guard position is Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers, who played ahead of Bledsoe and mentored him for two seasons. Last season, in 35 minutes per game, Paul averaged 19.1 points, 4.3 rebounds, 10.7 assists and 2.5 steals while shooting 46.7 percent from the field and 36.8 percent from the three-point line. In comparison, last season, Bledsoe averaged 32.9 minutes in 43 games played. His per-game averages were 17.7 points, 4.7 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 1.6 steals, while shooting 47.7 percent from the field and 35.7 percent from the three-point line.
With the exception of assists per game, it seems that Bledsoe stacks up pretty well alongside the best point guard in the league. However, there is a slight discrepancy in the amount of minutes played per game between these two point guards. When you look at the statistics per 36 minutes, you will notice that their per-minute production is even closer than you may have previously thought.
Per 36 minutes, Paul averaged 19.6 points, 4.4 rebounds, 11 assists and 2.6 steals. In comparison, Bledsoe, per 36 minutes, averaged 19.4 points, 5.1 rebounds, six assists and 1.8 steals.
Upon looking at this data, it is clear that Bledsoe’s per minute production on the court is very close (with the notable exception of assists) to his former mentor, Paul, who on July 10, 2013, signed a five-year deal with the Clippers totaling $107,343,478. Over five years, Paul’s salary averages out roughly to $21,468,696 per season. In comparison to the four-year, $48 million the Suns are currently offering Bledsoe, Paul would make roughly $9,468,696 more per season. Consider that $9,468,696 is enough cap space to sign a player as good as Lance Stephenson, who in July signed a three-year, $27 million contract with the Charlotte Hornets.
This is not to say that per game statistics tell the full story, and is determinative of what a player is worth contractually. It must be noted that Paul, age 29, has nine seasons of experience as the starting point guard for an NBA team, is a seven-time NBA All-Star, four-time All-NBA first team selection, four-time All-NBA defensive first team selection, NBA rookie of the year, three-time NBA assists leader and six-time NBA steals leader. However, for all of his individual accomplishments, Paul has never led a team past the second round of the NBA playoffs. But Paul is still widely considered the best point guard in the league for a reason. He is an amazing floor general, and most importantly, has a career average of 9.9 assists per game.
But maybe it isn’t fair to compare a player who was has never started more than 40 games at point guard in a single season to the best point guard of the last decade. Perhaps a better comparison would be point guard Kyle Lowry of the Toronto Raptors, who recently signed a four-year deal worth $48 million, the exact same contract that is reportedly being offered by the Suns.
Last season, Lowry averaged 17.9 points, 4.7 rebounds, 7.4 assists and 1.5 steals while shooting 42.3 percent from the field and 38 percent from three-point line. Bledsoe’s numbers were similar (17.7 points, 4.7 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 1.6 steals, while shooting 47.7 percent from the field and 35.7 percent from the three-point line). Bledsoe, who is four years younger than Lowry, is a slightly better rebounder and shoots better overall from the field (47.7 percent overall versus 42.3 percent for Lowry), although their true shooting percentages are overall closer (57.8 percent for Bledsoe versus 56.7 percent for Lowry). However, like Paul, Lowry averages more assists per game than Bledsoe and less turnovers per game. But it can be argued that Bledsoe would average more assists per game if he wasn’t playing alongside another point guard in Goran Dragic. However, Lowry at times played alongside Greivis Vasquez, who is also a point guard capable of handling the ball and tallying a high number of assists.
Lowry is more of a known quantity than Bledsoe. He does not have the same athleticism, upside or defensive impact, but he puts up similar on-court production at this point. When looking at Lowry’s contract with the Raptors, it seems clear that Bledsoe is worth at least the $48 million contract that the Suns are offering. But, as is often the case in the NBA, teams pay a premium for players whose production could skyrocket as they develop through the early years of their contracts. So let’s take a look at some of the best, young point guards in the league, who have agreed to new contracts with the teams that drafted them and how much they were given.
An interesting comparison to Bledsoe is Washington Wizards point guard John Wall. Wall and Bledsoe were teammates in their one year at the University of Kentucky, where Wall played point guard and Bledsoe played mostly at shooting guard. Both guards are extremely athletic, young (Wall is still just 23) and entered the league with inconsistent jump shots.
In 2013, Wall agreed to a five-year, $84.79 million contract with the Washington Wizards. This contract is right in line with the reported five-year, $80 million contract that Bledsoe is looking for. Last season, Wall averaged 19.1 points, four rebounds, 8.7 assists and 1.8 steals, while shooting 43.3 percent from the field and 35.1 percent from the three-point line. Bledsoe again stacks up surprisingly well against one of the better point guards in the league in Wall, something that not many would have expected when they were drafted in 2010. But again, Bledsoe falls behind in terms of assists per game, which is something that clearly limits him in terms of value in a league full of talented point guards.
Wall got this contract not just because of his current production, but also because he has the potential to be one of the best point guards in the league. But Bledsoe has all the upside that Wall has, and has proven to be a tenacious defensive player; more so than Wall. However, Bledsoe is suffering from a dried up market as a result of his status as a restricted free agent.
Kryie Irving is another young guard who recently signed a near max contract extension with his team. The Cleveland Cavaliers agreed to give Irving a five-year deal that will pay him anywhere between $89 million and $98 million, based on whether Irving is voted an NBA All-Star starter or wins league MVP.
Irving, like Wall, is a former number one overall pick with enormous potential. Last season, Irving averaged 20.8 points, 3.6 rebounds, 6.1 assists and 1.5 steals, while shooting 43 percent from the field and 35.8 percent from the three-point line. However, Irving turned the ball over 2.7 times per game, and is not nearly the defender that Bledsoe is. While a better scorer and overall shooter, both guards are very young (Irving is just 22), and have a ton of room to improve moving forward. Additionally, Irving does not rack up assists at a significantly higher rate than Bledsoe, and plays along a traditional shooting guard in Dion Waiters, as opposed to another point guard like Dragic. However, as is the case with the other point guards mentioned so far, Irving has played many more games as a starter in comparison to Bledsoe, and hasn’t suffered from as significant of injuries in his short career.
Considering all of this, it seems clear that Bledsoe is worth more than the four-year, $48 million contract that Phoenix is currently offering him. He is similarly skilled and has the same potential to improve as players like Wall and Irving, who both signed near max deals. While a player like Lowry puts up numbers similar to Bledsoe, Wall and Irving, he is 28 years old and does not have the same potential for improvement, which shows in the size of his contract in comparison to Wall and Irving. And for a player like Paul, who has been universally considered the best point guard in the league for several years, his value goes beyond his on court production. Paul is able to get other free agents to take less money to join him on the Clippers, offers unmatched leadership and adds credibility to a team that has suffered a long history of futility.
Where does that leave Bledsoe then? He is now in a position where he must decide on either accepting Phoenix’s offer, or playing out next season on the qualifying offer and becoming an unrestricted free agent next offseason, where he will surely earn a deal closer to the ones Wall and Irving received. But, as we saw with Paul George last night in the USA National Team scrimmage in Las Vegas, a player assumes major injury every night he takes the court, which makes delaying a lucrative pay day by an entire season a major gamble; one that almost every player avoids.
The Suns played their cards right and are in a position to sign a talented point guard at a favorable deal. It will be in line with the deals taken by guards like Ty Lawson and Stephen Curry. In 2012, Lawson accepted a four-year, $48 million deal, but soon after averaged 17.6 points and 8.8 assists per game last season, second in the league only to Chris Paul. Similarly, in 2012, Curry agreed to a four-year, $44 million deal with the Golden State Warriors, which kicks in next season. A deal favorable to the Warriors as Curry’s potential was balanced against his unfavorable injury history to that point. Now Curry has stayed healthy and already outperformed that deal as well and as a result will be underpaid for the next four seasons.
This is the risk that Bledsoe runs. He could have a huge season and make himself worth a near max-deal on the open market, or risk injury jeopardizing his ability to sign his first major contract. But, if he accepts the Suns current deal, he runs the risk that Lawson and Curry took, which is being underpaid for several years in order to lock in a long-term deal.
It is an unfortunate situation for Bledsoe. His actual worth lies somewhere in between the Suns’ current offer and the deals that Irving and Wall signed; likely somewhere in the four-year, $60 million range. But what we learned from the recent sale of the Los Angeles Clippers is that assets are worth whatever buyers are willing to pay. As a restricted free agent, all the potential buyers bowed out before there was ever a real bid, leaving Bledsoe in free agency limbo and with a tough choice to make.
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