After resting Eric Bledsoe Wednesday night in a clear tanking move, are the Phoenix Suns shutting down their best player with a month left in the season?
It was a bad loss for a team that entered the 2016-17 season with loftier aspirations, but an important one for a rebuilding franchise that’s fully caved in to its blossoming youth movement.
Bledsoe was not listed on the Suns’ injury report prior to game time, and no indication was given that he would sit out until rookie Tyler Ulis was announced as the starter. Ulis performed well in his first start, recording his first career double-double with 13 points and a career-high 13 assists, but the big question loomed: Why was Bledsoe out?
After the game, Suns head coach Earl Watson made sure to clarify that it was not his decision to rest the team’s best player, who is averaging 21.1 points, 6.3 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game this season.
“Management decision,” Watson said. “I don’t think any coaching staff would hold Bled out.”
With Bledsoe out, Brandon Knight figured to be a recipient of some backcourt minutes despite being a healthy scratch in all 10 games since the All-Star break. However, unlike Bledsoe, Knight was listed as “out” on the injury report just prior to game time.
“Brandon Knight was available but before the game he got back spasms,” Watson said. “Tyler was going to start regardless, so we went with what we had.”
With no Bledsoe, no Knight and Leandro Barbosa (illness) leaving the game just before halftime, the Suns were severely shorthanded in the backcourt. Devin Booker went 6-for-26 from the field and seven-footer Alex Len rode the bench in crunch time while the shorter, more productive Alan Williams struggled to contain Labissiere’s career night and a 14-11-5-4-4 stat line from Willie Cauley-Stein.
But surely this was just a selective “rest” game for Bledsoe, right? It appears not (and don’t call me Shirley).
When asked if this was a one-time thing for Bledsoe — a player with an extensive knee injury history who was looking a little worn down and had shot 15-for-49 over his last three games — or if it was something we might see again moving forward, Watson replied:
“I think if you talk to a lot of veteran reporters they can kind of tell you the answer to that question. [Laughs] But Bled’s been great, he had a great season, played at a high level, he’s been dominant all year and he took a big leap in the right direction.
“There’s still a lot of room for him to grow, he’s excited about continuing to be a professional and support his teammates, continue to practice, continue to develop — not just the physical tools of being a point guard, but the mental aspect.”
While Watson didn’t explicitly say that Bledsoe was shut down for the season, John Gambadoro of Arizona Sports 98.7 reported that this was the case. The Arizona Republic‘s Doug Haller confirmed the report, adding that Bledsoe had been playing through knee soreness.
Watson had been coy about the team’s shift to the youth movement since the All-Star break, subtly indicating that the full-scale change of focus was not his decision.
He’d implied in the past that while it was great to see the young players develop in extended minutes, it was not necessarily in the best interest of his job security in a league where head coaching vacancies become carousel rides.
However, if Bledsoe really is dealing with knee soreness, it makes perfect sense to shut him down in a lost season, even with four weeks and 14 games remaining.
That’s an awfully long time for the team’s best player to miss, but assuming Bledsoe’s all right as Watson implied, it signifies that general manager Ryan McDonough and owner Robert Sarver are fully onboard with the youth movement and embracing the tank as they try to secure a top-three draft pick.
With Tyson Chandler and Brandon Knight not playing since the All-Star break, it is a little curious, though, why the Suns didn’t deal more of their veterans away at the trade deadline if this was the plan.
At 27 years old, Bledsoe’s value was at an all-time high entering the break, so even though the front office believes he’s still on the same timeline as Devin Booker, it would’ve also made sense to move an injury-prone player for a considerable return — especially when the top of the 2017 NBA Draft class is loaded with point guards and Tyler Ulis is already showing so much potential.
Chandler was given the option to be traded or stay and help foster the youth movement, according to the Arizona Republic’s Doug Haller, and he chose to remain in Phoenix. Knight’s value may have sunk so low that putting together a deal for him would’ve been impossible.
In any event, with Bledsoe done for the season, the Suns currently own the league’s third-worst record — two games “ahead” of the Orlando Magic in the tank race and two games “behind” the Los Angeles Lakers the the No. 2 spot.
Bledsoe’s absence should help the Suns secure at least a top-three pick, keep him healthy for the long-term (or a summer trade) and free up more minutes for Ulis to develop. It’s a ballsy potential move with a month left in the season, but it could be one that signifies everyone is on the same page.
Well, almost everyone:
For a franchise approaching its 50th season without an NBA title — the longest championship drought in the association — this decision represents taking the wiser, more patient path back to contention.
Here’s hoping Bledsoe’s knee isn’t an ongoing problem, and that this is just a cutting-edge tanking maneuver.