Eric Bledsoe and the frustrations of NBA restricted free agency

For NBA players, restricted free agency must sound like an oxymoron.

Sure, they are “free” to find outside offers from interested teams, but beyond setting their market value, the players have considerably less control, as their current teams can match any outside offer.

Of course, the player can sign a one-year qualifying offer — generally for a significantly smaller annual amount — and become an unrestricted free agent the following year, but that option is less common.

The negotiating standstill between the Phoenix Suns and point guard Eric Bledsoe is a prime example of the frustration players can feel in these situations.

“First off I’m going to let my agent handle it,” Bledsoe told Alabama 13, a local news station, while back home for a tournament in Birmingham. “I can understand the Phoenix Suns are using a restricted free agent against me. But I understand that.”

Bledsoe’s aggravation is rooted in the fact that restricted free agency largely benefits the teams, not the players. By being able to match any outside offers, the team can allow the market to dictate the player’s value. Although this can occasionally backfire — see: Parsons, Chandler — because the current team has 72 hours to match the offer, other suitors are often reluctant to tie up their cap space and miss out on other free agents.

According to recent reports, Bledsoe is holding out for a maximum five-year, $80 million deal, while the Suns are offering four-years, $48 million.

Dave King, from SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun, compared Bledsoe’s contract demands to the deals other point guards signed. King looked at the four other point guards that received maximum deals at the end of their fourth seasons.

Eric Bledsoe

Although Bledsoe produced a breakout season last year, you can see why the Suns are reticent to give pay him like an all-star, especially considering his recent knee issues. But, as King points out, Bledsoe’s numbers are a reflection of backing up Chris Paul and playing limited minutes. For that reason, the 24-year-old Bledsoe will argue that his numbers last season are more reflective of his talent.

Part of the delay is because there isn’t an impending deadline. Should neither side budge, then Bledsoe may wind up signing the one-year qualifying offer and become an unrestricted free agent next summer. If the Suns do want to keep Bledsoe — and part of that assessment depends on what you think the Isaiah Thomas signing implies — then alienating Bledsoe this summer could lead to him leaving in a year’s time.

For Bledsoe, an alternative option could be to follow the lead of free agents LeBron James and Luol Deng and sign a two-year deal, with a player option for next season. In that scenario, Bledsoe would become a free agent in 2016, when the cap is projected to increase considerably due to a new media deal. Of course, with this approach, there’s still an element of risk given the lack of guaranteed dollars and it will depend on how confident Bledsoe feels about his knee. Meanwhile, for Phoenix, if it plans on keeping the dynamic point guard, the team has to factor in the projected cap increase, meaning a larger deal will probably take up as much of its salary cap in coming years.

This is proving to be the most important negotiation for the Suns’ first-year general manager Ryan McDonough. How the 34-year-old McDonough steers the discourse will go a long way to shaping early impressions both inside and outside the organization.

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