The Phoenix Suns are in a heated race for the playoffs, but it's impossible not to look ahead to what should be an absolutely critical offseason.
First and foremost, the Suns will have a decision to make on Eric Bledsoe, who looks to be every bit of a franchise cornerstone. Because the Suns failed to negotiate a contract extension with him last offseason, Bledsoe will become a restricted free agent this offseason.
While nothing is guaranteed, you would certainly think that Bledsoe will be able to secure an offer sheet worth his maximum salary, which should be somewhere in the area of a deal starting at $14 million a year. Bledsoe's age (24), potential and production at both guard positions on both ends of the floor make him one of the most valuable young players in the league.
Will the Suns be willing to pay up, though? Considering that general manager Ryan McDonough traded for him this year and that Bledsoe's played a big role in Phoenix being competitive while most thought it would be stuck in a rebuilding season, the answer seems pretty simple.
To wit, Suns President Lon Babby assuaged some of the fears about the Suns losing Bledsoe to free agency. Here's what Babby said on the Doug and Wolf Show on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM when asked if they would match any offer on Bledsoe, as transcribed by Adam Green of ArizonaSports.com:
I think our answer to that is yes, that we know enough about Eric as a player. Even more importantly, we've lived with him now for almost a year as a person. We like everything about him. Like him as a teammate, like him as a representative of our franchise and everything that he stands for.
McDonough echoed that later on in the season to ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne:
Obviously we don't have a whole lot of money committed for the future, we don't have a lot of long-term contracts on our books. So we'll have no problem stepping up and paying Eric whatever it takes to keep him.
We can safely assume that the Suns will keep Bledsoe, whether it's through negotiating a deal on their own or matching any offer. There are some injury concerns given his past, but that's not enough for the Suns to simply let him walk.
With Bledsoe on board, the Suns should have about $44 million on the books, not including P.J. Tucker's qualifying offer. That leaves the door open for Phoenix to easily sign another smaller max player (up to six years experience in the league) to play with Bledsoe and Goran Dragic, which should be one of the best young backcourts in the league for quite some time.
With restricted free agents like Gordon Hayward and Greg Monroe out there, Phoenix can force the hands of quite a few teams and hope for the best if there's no unrestricted free agent it wants.
The Suns might have to stretch a bit to sign a true max veteran player like Carmelo Anthony, but that isn't out of the equation by any means. Phoenix can be a major player in free agency if that's the goal.
That's the interesting thing, though. The Suns may wait for the perfect star to become available via trade instead, as they'll have plenty of assets to offer up at that point. Phoenix technically has four first-round draft picks this year, although Minnesota's pick won't be conveyed. Here's what McDonough told NBA.com's Scott Howard-Cooper about the plan for those picks earlier this year:
I think one of the things that’s important for people to realize is that we may not draft four players even if we have four picks. Our preference would probably be to maybe package a few of them. We’re obviously all looking for stars and we feel like we can put together a package as good, if not better, than any other team in the league if and when a star becomes available. That’s kind of generally what we’ve wanted to do, not only with our draft-pick situation but also with the cap space that we’ve acquired.
It's rare that a general manager lays out his plan so clearly, but McDonough has the pieces to execute it. Although all of Phoenix's picks will be outside of the lottery (unless the Suns themselves miss the playoffs), this appears to be a pretty deep draft class that plenty of teams wouldn't mind having extra ammunition for.
Acquiring a superstar now may be difficult, but when you remember that Phoenix also has last year's lottery pick Alex Len and other promising young players like Miles Plumlee to potentially offer up, Phoenix should be a prime sign-and-trade destination in addition to being a great free-agent destination. Guys will want to play in this system for a really strong coach like Jeff Hornacek.
It's hard to say how patient Phoenix will be in bringing on a star to play with Dragic and Bledsoe, but there's reason to strike within the next calendar year. Dragic has a player option worth $7.5 million for the 2015-16 season, which he'll almost certainly decline in the 2015 offseason to get a much larger long-term deal.
The Suns will also have to decide on Markieff and Marcus Morris next offseason, which could take up some cap space. There's a good chance Phoenix can't be much of a free-agency player after this offseason given its current status.
With that in mind, going hard after Carmelo Anthony would make sense. You can say the same for LeBron James or Chris Bosh if either end up becoming available. Aside from those players and the younger restricted free agents, though, the Suns probably shouldn't feel the need to settle. They'll have a whole season to try and pry away any stars who might want out of their current situations, like a Kevin Love. We've seen teams like the Los Angeles Clippers have success acquiring a superstar by using that "stockpile" approach, so this isn't a new concept.
If there's one thing that's abundantly clear, it's that the Suns will have plenty of different options to explore and lots of assets at their disposal. The decision on Bledsoe isn't much of a decision at all, but after he's brought back, there are plenty of different paths the Suns can follow to find another star.