While the Phoenix Suns have a big decision to make on Eric Bledsoe next summer, they have an equally important decision to make on Goran Dragic a year later. Can the Suns afford to pay up to $30 million per year for a non-All-Star back court?
Since the day the Phoenix Suns acquired Eric Bledsoe from the Clippers, GM Ryan McDonough has said that he plans to keep Bledsoe for the long term. Even knowing he's already got a starting caliber point guard in Goran Dragic.
But are they the long-term answer in the back court?
Some doubted McDonough's statements because Bledsoe had not yet proven himself as a starter in the NBA, yet would want starter money to stay with a struggling franchise. Others doubted the Suns would go all the way into "max" territory (about $14 million to start, for a 5th year player) to keep a guy that might never be better than their incumbent point guard Goran Dragic, who makes a measley $7.5 million per year for two more years (with a player option for another).
Even now, with Bledsoe playing better than most anyone thought he would in his first season as a starter, most insiders and dialed-in fans would say that Goran Dragic is the better player at the moment. Both average about 18 points and 6 assists per game on roughly the same minutes. Both drive to the basket often, and have a high conversion rate at the rim.
"What he's done so far is what we thought he could do," McDonough said to ESPN.com earlier this week.
But while Bledsoe gets slightly more steals and rebounds in his minutes, Dragic runs the team at a faster pace with fewer turnovers. The Suns are better team with Dragic on the floor than with Bledsoe, when the other is resting.
Yet, McDonough is still committed to signing Bledsoe long-term, knowing that the price will be high.
"We'll have no problem stepping up and paying Eric whatever it takes to keep him," McDonough told ESPN.com, referring to the Suns enormous cap room.
Whatever it takes?
"Correct," he said. Then he at least gave himself some wiggle room by tacking on "any reasonable offer."
"We have some advantages," McDonough explained. "We're able to give him another year, five instead of four if we choose. We're able to give him higher-percentage increases than other teams too. And then if another team does make an offer, we can always match that. So we feel like we're holding the cards with Eric, and more importantly, I think Eric's had a good experience here so far. He's played well and the team has played fairly well. I think he kind of likes what we're doing."
Which is code for 'we'd like to get him for less than $14 million per year because he loves us and doesn't care about money, but if push comes to shove we'll pony up. But if we let someone else make an offer, we can give less raises and fewer years'.
Indiana did that with Roy Hibbert. Portland did it with Nicolas Batum. New Orleans did it with Eric Gordon. And so on. None of those guys were unhappy. In fact, only a handful of guys have gotten the full five years and 7.5% raises in the past few offseasons. Teams use the new CBA to control costs, and this is a good way to do a little of that.
Still, $14 million in the first year with 4.5% raises for the next three is a lot of dough.
Why would you give Bledsoe nearly twice the money of Dragic? And, where does that leave Dragic, who we all know is the better player right now?
Regardless of what happens with Bledsoe, the Suns only have guaranteed themselves eighteen more months of Dragic. Dragic is under cheap money this year and next ($7.5 million each). After that, he's got a player option for 2015-16 at the same salary in his pocket. If he declines that option, he could be an unrestricted free agent in July 2015.
Over this season and next, the two point guards will make about the same amount of money in total. Dragic will make $15 million ($7.5 million this year, $7.5 million next) while Bledsoe would make about $16 million ($2.65 million this year, max of $14 million next). If Dragic somehow plays himself onto the All-Star team this season (a longshot), he will get another $2 million over these two years.
It's in 2015-16 that the salary gap widens considerably for two players performing on equal levels, unless Dragic gets a raise.
No matter what happens with Bledsoe, Dragic is playing at a higher level than $7.5 million per year anyway. So expect Dragic to opt out in the summer of 2015, regardless.
That doesn't mean Dragic will go anywhere. He loves it in Phoenix, considers Phoenix his home. When given the chance to return here last year, he jumped at it. Now, with the team winning games, he can't be happier. He loves working alongside Bledsoe. Remember, he was begging for another playmaker all last year to play alongside him. He's not threatened by Bledsoe, but inspired by it. And they're WINNING.
Dragic could pick up his player option for 2015-16 next spring at $7.5 million and then sign an extension after that for roughly the same money. But why would he? If his counterpart is making nearly twice that money, why just take it without testing the market?
Likely, what will happen is that Dragic opts out in 2015, but gives the Suns first dibs to re-sign him. San Antonio has done this dance successfully for years. Who knows what the going price will be at that time, but it would certainly be more than $7.5 million.
Could the Suns afford to pay their starting back court $25-30 million a year? Most likely, they could afford it. It's quite possible that, with all the draft picks, the Suns will still have plenty of room in their salary structure a year from now to pony up for both Bledsoe and Dragic, using their Bird Rights to exceed the salary cap and maybe even pay the luxury tax.
But is it a smart business decision to commit half of your salary cap to two guys who may never become multi-time All-Stars? Maybe not. The luxury tax is a lot more oppressive these days, and very few NBA teams are willing to venture into that territory.
Dragic and Bledsoe are such a good story this season in part because they only make $10 million between them (Bledsoe makes $2.65 million). Will we feel differently about their 18/6 numbers if their income triples that number?
That's why the Suns are taking their time here, because they hold all the cards.
Handle Bledsoe this summer, without regard to Dragic. When you've got the rights to one of the best point guards in the game, you pay what it takes to keep him. Bledsoe is young, healthy and will only get better. Already, he's improved since last year and over the course of this season. Pay up.
And then 18 months from now, figure out where Dragic fits. If he's a Ginobili type, then you pay him accordingly to stay. If Dragic is still outplaying Bledsoe and wants to stay, then you look for takers on Bledsoe if there's a cap concern.
In each case, the Suns are in the driver seat.