A rivalry requires both teams to take successful shots. Shots have been fired for both teams for two years now and a potentially epic battle is on the horizon...
Lisa Leslie, Tamecka Dixon, and DeLisha Milton-Jones all popped the champagne this week as their historic 18 game winning streak from the 2001 Championship season remained in tact. However, the 2014 Phoenix Mercury slid in right behind them.
Losing is never ideal, but in this regard the Mercury can look back historically at what they accomplished.
"We learn from every game regardless of whether we win or lose," Penny Taylor said the other day. The streak was not in their minds publicly, but had to weigh on them as it got closer. These things do that.
For 46 days the Mercury were nearly untouchable. They dominated the schedule laid in front of them defeating everyone that stood in their way winning 11 games by 10+ points or more. Along the way they strung together 16 straight wins that fits them under the 2001 Sparks (18 wins), but above the 1998 Comets (15 wins) for the second longest winning streak in WNBA history.
Who the team they lost to, and how, is more important than the loss itself. Eventually the Mercury were going to lose another game. They had a target on their backs with a grueling schedule heading into the playoffs.
If the Minnesota Lynx had not done it the next four games after would have really tested the Mercury against the 2012 WNBA Champion Indiana Fever, best team in the East Atlanta Dream, the San Antonio Silver Stars, and those same Lynx coming back to town a week later. There are no cupcakes on the Mercury's remaining schedule.They put in the work to earn home court in the playoffs in general, now the goal has to shift to the Lynx for the No. 1 Overall seed in the Western Conference.
Right now the Lynx are just 1.5 games behind the Mercury with a much softer schedule down the stretch. A team can only play the games on their schedule so the Mercury have the advantage with the lead in the standings and control of their own fate, but it will be earned.
"That's playoff basketball," said head coach Sandy Brondello after the loss. "Like two competitive teams going at each other and you know obviously not everyone is happy with all the calls that are out there, but that's just playoff basketball. Sometimes you just have to be able to execute in those situations. I didn't think we executed as well as we could, and play with a little bit more poise."
Staying healthy is a key. At full strength the Mercury are one of the toughest teams in the league without question.
Health has been the theme with the Mercury-Lynx mini-rivalry that has developed over the past few years. On paper both teams are stacked with great players, former No. 1 Overall Picks, All-Stars, youth, veterans, and a blend that can win a championship. On paper, however, there has been a lot of "DNP's" next to key names.
Last season the Lynx owned the Mercury to a tune of seven straight wins, two in the Western Conference Finals, and a total annihilation of a team with championship aspirations.
This year the Mercury took down the Lynx two straight times (the first two wins of the streak) exacting some measure of revenge. Then came this loss. In the seven losses last season the Mercury were without Penny Taylor six times, Brittney Griner twice, and Diana Taurasi for one. They were short-handed and then at full strength, they won. Health is a theme here and for both of those loses the Lynx were without Rebekah Brunson, minus Simone Augustus for one.
These dynamic and talented teams cannot get all their titans on the court at the same time to clash.
"The Mercury are consistently holding teams down," Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve. "We'll have to look at the video and see what we can do better for next time..."
When the Mercury traveled north to face the Lynx the focus and goal was not to extent a potential record breaking streak. It was to measure themselves against a team, the defending WNBA Champions, who have been the measuring stick in the league for past three to four years. They did not do that, which is more of the point of the game than the streak ending.
While this is one loss and at the same time a more important loss than most, which implies it is two things; not important and important at the same time.
On the court there are areas the Mercury can improve on, but the proof is in the pudding that when they are healthy they are a great team. The improvements are isolated to the dynamic and dominant Minnesota Lynx. Coach Brondello does not need to throw everything off her desk, wipe the walls clear of strategy, and reinvent the wheel. Her system works tremendously with a fully healthy roster against 10 other teams. Every team in the NBA improved to beat the Miami Heat. Every team in the NFL once improved to defeat the New England Patriots. Every movie production improves to defeat the box office.
The system is fully engrained into the team as tattooed clues on Lenonard Shelby. They are just jumbled, like they are tattooed for Leonard, when the Lynx are the opposition.
Every year for the past three years the Lynx have been in the WNBA Finals winning two and losing once. They have an MVP Candidate. They have as much (if not more) talent than the Mercury. They have a coach that has maximized the talent on hand.
The Mercury do not need to reevaluate themselves to win a random Tuesday night game against the New York Liberty... Their improvements are exclusively for that team to the north. in the playoffs.
Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver wants to get a deal done, and is ready to negotiate that middle ground. There is still no talk of trading Bledsoe. The Suns want Bledsoe for a long time to come.
Phoenix Suns managing partner Robert Sarver made an impromptu appearance on the Burns and Gambo radio show yesterday evening and shared some insights into the process with Eric Bledsoe.
While he rejected John Gambadoro's notion that Bledsoe needs to find new representation, he did confirm that the Suns still feel their offer of 4 years, $48 million is fair. Yet, Sarver also expects negotiations to continue toward a number that both parties believe to be fair.
"We think we gave him a fair offer, and (we would) be more than happy to sit down with him and continue to negotiate it. We're happy to do that," he said.
--Sarver on Arizona Sports 98.7, Burns and Gambo
The Suns are ready to negotiate, which means they are not currently actively negotiating at the moment. It appears that the Suns are waiting for Bledsoe's next move.
It's good to hear, for sure, that the Suns will move off the $48 million as needed, to make both sides happy. While the Suns feel that $12 million per year is fair, not too high and not too low, the Suns owner understands that fairness is a two-way street.
"We think it's a fair offer. I think you could argue, you know, I mean some would say it's maybe a little high; some would say it's low," the owner said. "What's fair is important to us, and also important to him -- him and his agent. It's not necessarily us to determine what he thinks is fair; it's him to determine that."
"One thing fans have got to remember is: Players, their careers are very short," he said. "And at any given moment, they could be a lot shorter. You don't know. And so, they're trying to maximize what they can make. They're not like movie stars where they can go cut a box office hit when they're 45 or 55 years old like John (Gambadoro) is. They want to maximize what they can make. And that's OK."
--Sarver on Arizona Sports 98.7, Burns and Gambo
That's good that the Suns owner is ready to deal, and is in full understanding that "perception is reality". He knows that both sides have to feel good about the terms, not just the Suns. This is an important realization.
With respect to the latest leaks that Bledsoe and his agent are unhappy with the process, the Suns for their part understand that this is all posturing and once a contract is signed all that unhappiness can disappear in a flash.
"I think Eric's a great guy. And he'll be happy here when he gets here, whether that's for one year or for four years or five years," he said. "I think his agent's trying to do the best job he can, too. And I have a pretty good relationship with his agent. It's just part of the process. I wish it would have been resolved earlier, but it is what it is."
--Sarver on Arizona Sports 98.7, Burns and Gambo
Of course he will be happy when he finally signs. All this "unrest" will be forgotten. Do you remember the summer of 2012 when Nicolas Batum wanted out of Portland? Well, he did. He wasn't crying it from the rooftops like Eric Gordon, but he was ready to find somewhere he could be happier. His agent got Minnesota to make an offer he liked, one that Portland didn't want to make on their own. But when Portland matched, he was all about Portland again and no one remembers the few weeks of unrest.
The same will happen here. Some fans will harp on it, but most will forget this period ever existed. Especially if Bledsoe goes on to play as well as last year, if not even better.
The other interesting point there is the years. Sarver mentioned three possibilities:
Of course, the Suns don't want Bledsoe to take the one year qualifying offer and become an unrestricted free agent in 2015. But Bledsoe shouldn't either. While this is a swaggy move, it's also a silly one. Especially in light of Paul George's freak injury last night (fracture of both tibia and fibula, requiring likely the full season to recover) and Bledsoe's own half season lost to a knee injury last year.
To make out ahead, in terms of more career earnings, Bledsoe would have to make up that $8 million he's tossing away in 2014-15. To make that up and more, even considering a 7.5% increase in the salary cap next year, he would have to get a full max offer AND max raises next summer to top it over these next four years.
When you can't get a max this year, then you have to know the only way to get the max next year is to perform even better - make an All-Star team in a league flush with PGs and play all season as well. That's a tall task. And even then, you're still at the mercy of other teams actually making the offer (which did not happen this summer, from anyone).
From the Suns standpoint, you've got to be happier with four years vs. five years, just in case Bledsoe experiences a career-threatening injury. But still, five years isn't terrible for the best overall guard on the team in terms of offense AND defense. Dragic is ahead of Bledsoe offensively right now, but Dragic is also 4 years older and doesn't play the elite defense that Bledsoe can play.
For a guy who's an injury risk, this is Bledsoe's best case scenario. If you get 5 guaranteed years, you don't have to worry about anything. As Amare Stoudemire once said - "I want an NBA contract, not an NFL contract." Stoudemire is thanking his lucky stars right now for that max, guaranteed offer.
Sarver was limiting himself to the options currently on the table from the parties, but there are myriad other options if they are so inclined.
Both teams seems to want guaranteed years and are only haggling over dollars, but if Bledsoe really wants to bet on himself he can suggest something shorter.
Lance Stephenson signed for three years when he couldn't get the bucks he wanted. Paul Pierce and LeBron James both signed two year deals with player options after one year. This way, Pierce and James can re-asses the market (conceivably) every summer and either keep what they have or go for something better. Now these are starting to look like NFL contracts, except at the player's bidding rather than the owners'.
If Bledsoe really wants to bet on himself, his agent can possibly find a team to offer him something as short as a two-year contract with a player option after year one. That way, he can make more than $3.7 million this year AND still become a UFA next summer if he wants to.
I say they would have to find another team to do this because I don't see the Suns wanting to give up that much control. If Bledsoe really wants to be a UFA next summer, I imagine the Suns won't negotiate over the qualifying offer. Why would they? So, Bledsoe needs another team. But only one other team can offer anything higher than about $11 million this year without negotiating a trade with the Suns or dumping several contracts. Would Philly help Bledsoe like that? They'd simply be a pawn, because the Suns would match immediately.
I could imagine the Suns would settle on a four year contract at their price with Bledsoe getting a player option after year three. That way, Bledsoe can take advantage of the new TV contract and get a higher salary to make up for any money he "lost" in these next three years.
This would not be ideal from the Suns standpoint or Bledsoe's standpoint, but could be a good middle ground to bridge the gap between now and two or three years from now when Bledsoe is more established and could deserve the "max" offer he wants.