When Should An NBA Team Stop Rebuilding And Start Competing?

  • Eric Goldschein

eric bledsoe suns

A report from Phoenix-area reporter Jude LaCava (via SB Nation) says that the Suns are trying to trade restricted free agent guard Eric Bledsoe. The Suns and Bledsoe have spent all summer not coming to a deal, and rumors have swirled that their relationship is “irreparable.”

This is unfortunate for the Suns, even though they signed Isaiah Thomas away from the Kings as an insurance policy against this sort of thing. When healthy, Bledsoe and Goran Dragic were a tenacious and explosive backcourt — Dragic and Thomas, not so much. The Suns had a chance to lock up Bledsoe long-term, but were unwilling to commit max dollars to him — instead, their best possible scenario now is getting Bledsoe to sign a qualifying offer for one season and then watch him walk away next year.

Bledsoe, meanwhile, is taking a major gamble: He (and agent Rich Paul) believes he deserves the max, but he only played 43 games last year, his fourth season in the league after spending three on the Clippers’ bench. A year on a qualifying offer will pay dividends if he reaches an elite level; it will ruin him if he regresses or sustains another injury.

So perhaps a trade is the best thing for both sides. But trading Bledsoe forces the Suns to answer an intriguing question: When should an NBA team stop considering itself a “rebuilding” team and start thinking as a competitive one?

Bright Side Of The Sun notes that Phoenix has plenty of assets already — if they’re going to trade Bledsoe, it needs to be a trade “up,” for pieces that can contribute right away. The team already has seven guys age 24 or younger, four first round picks in the next two years and Bogdan Bogdanovic waiting overseas. It’s time for a little veteran experience.

But who’s out there that makes sense for the Suns? They need a power forward, so maybe a sign and trade with fellow RFA Greg Monroe? Maybe Kenneth Faried? David West? None of those names scream “good fit” or even “equal value” if Bledsoe’s ceiling really is “top-20 player.” In this league, guards are plentiful — good big men are hard to find.

If the Suns end up taking back lesser value for Bledsoe, or signing him to a one-year deal and letting him walk in 2015, where does that place them in the Western Conference? Without Bledsoe for half the season last year, they ended up a 9-seed. Even if Dragic continues to ascend and the rest of the team gels around surprisingly excellent coach Jeff Hornacek, what’s the best case scenario? They’re not better than the Spurs, Thunder, Blazers, Clippers, Warriors or Mavericks, at a minimum. In the still-stacked Western Conference, the best the Suns can hope for at this point is a playoff berth and quick exit.

Ask GMs around the league: There’s nothing worse than barely making the playoffs. No one wants to do that. The Hawks did it last season, seemingly, just to spite GM Danny Ferry, who publicly stated that it would be better if his team didn’t claim the 8th seed. It’s an especially tough draw in the West, where the 8th-seed Mavericks gave the Spurs a tougher series than the Heat in the Finals.

So as fun as the Suns are to watch, even with Bledsoe, they’re probably nothing more than water-treaders at this point. A few other teams are in this position — after spending years of rebuilding, they’re still outside of true contention. Are the Grizzlies really going to get out of the West? How about the Raptors in the East? And don’t even ask about the Knicks, Nets, Nuggets or Pelicans.

At some point, the rebuilding phase has to end — no more flipping players for draft picks, cash considerations or cap relief — and true competing has to begin. Whatever your product is, you have to roll with it. The Suns are at a crossroads now, and only by getting something of real, tangible value for Bledsoe will they be able to move beyond the periphery and into the championship picture. And even then, they might fail. That’s a risk that they’ll eventually have to take. That’s the point of this whole “National Basketball Association” thing, anyway.

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