An entire segment of the sports industry is built on “what ifs”. What if that call went the other way? What if they drafted the other guy? What if the Suns fans had voted that the team should call tails instead of heads in 1969 for that coin flip? Without these types of questions there’d be no embracing debate, no talking heads, no sports talk radio and certainly no NBA Twitter.
It’s the what if game that has plagued one current Sun’s career. That Sun is Eric Bledsoe and all the what ifs of his career so far add up to him being Phoenix’s lost star. The type of player who should have been the face of a franchise and an era but instead is met with mixed emotions.
Bledsoe’s arrival was viewed as the first great heist of the Ryan McDonough era. The newly minted GM had landed one of the young, athletic and untapped guards in the league with the skills to be an all-star and the smile to be truly marketable. He acquired a star in the making who was simply blocked by a superstar, Chris Paul, from being able to reach his potential and all for Jared Dudley and a second round pick. It had the makings of a Cinderella story.
Through his first 24 games in a Suns uniform it looked like everything was going as planned. Bledsoe burst onto the Valley sports scene averaging 18 points, 5.8 assists, 4.3 rebounds, 1.5 steals in 33 minutes a game and was starting to gel with his backcourt mate Goran Dragic. Most importantly they had a 16-8 record. Not bad for a team Vegas projected to win 19 games all season long. That’s when the first major fork in the road to stardom happened.
“Mini Lebron”, as many around the league called him, had torn his meniscus in his right knee on December 30 and wouldn’t return until March 12. While he’d match his averages from earlier in the season, the damage was done and the Suns would fall just short of a playoff spot.
As a push for the playoffs turned into packing up for the offseason, Bledsoe’s future was as up in the air as the Gorilla during an in-game performance. As a restricted free agent it was anyone’s guess how the summer would play out. One thing was for sure, fans felt Bled was non-committal in his desire to be in Phoenix.
What fans didn’t understand was that what appeared as Bledsoe being aloof about his future was actually more about his personality than anything else. See, the muscular and exciting guard on the court was quiet and somewhat timid when it came to talking with the media. Going from a backup guard on a team with stars to one of the faces of the franchise starving for them was an adjustment for someone who was shy. Having been around him and knowing the person rather than the persona, it was clear he liked the city and the team the entire time.
The summer turned into the fall without resolution to his contract situation, something that would become a hallmark of Rich Paul clients. The fans’ misguided opinion about the young star was nothing but strengthened by a prolonged and, at times, contentious contract negotiation.
The following season brought the exit of Channing Frye, a three-guard lineup that caused more harm than good and the death of what looked to be an up and coming team. Despite the turmoil and seeing more than a third of roster dealt at the trade deadline, Bledsoe stuffed the stat line to the tune of 17 points, 6.1 assists, 5.2 rebounds, 1.6 steals and .6 blocks per game while playing in all but one game that season. It was numbers that kept him in rare company around the league. Unfortunately it was overshadowed by the heated, pun intended, departure of fan favorite Dragic and the sub-.500 record.
The 2015-16 campaign saw his point average jump to 20 but his games played fall to just 31. As Bledsoe rehabbed yet another knee injury the team faltered and rookie Devin Booker emerged as the fans new hope.
Again this year Bledsoe is putting up all-star caliber numbers while proving he’s taken being a team leader and voice of the team seriously. The problem is, he’s helming yet another deeply flawed roster for yet another first time head coach on a team where Devin Booker has stolen fans’ hearts.
What if Channing Frye was resigned after the 2013-14 season instead of adding Isaiah Thomas to an already crowded backcourt? Would that Suns team have become this generation’s version of the late 1980s Suns team, as many suggested at the time, with Bledsoe playing the Kevin Johnson role and Dragic as Jeff Hornacek? What if Bledsoe had overcome his quiet nature and spoke a little bit more that first season about how he liked Phoenix? Would fans have warmed to him faster? Would they have forgiven his injuries the way they always forgave KJ’s? What if he had been given a second star as a running mate like every other Sun of the past? Would he have a better overall record as a Sun?
“What ifs” have littered what should be a much more celebrated Suns career for Eric Bledsoe. If any of these had gone another way he’d be another in a long list of celebrated Suns guards. Instead he’s the face of a lost era of Phoenix basketball and a star in a basketball town that likely will never be.