Splash Bros 2.0: After numerous attempts Phoenix have formed a deadly backcourt duo
The Phoenix Suns should go into this season with a starting backcourt pairing of Eric Bledsoe and Devin Booker. After four preseason games of exactly that, that much seems certain.
Bledsoe was acquired remarkably cheaply by the Suns back in 2013, obtained for only the cost of Jared Dudley and a second round pick. (Dudley, always thoroughly decent but never getting much beyond that in his career, is now back with the Suns anyway after signing as a free agent. That’s how little of a price they paid.) Phoenix acquired Bledsoe at a time that they were trying to move on from Steve Nash - they had signed Goran Dragic the previous offseason to play the same position as Bledsoe, but they lacked for star power anywhere, and the price for Bledsoe was so cheap that the justification of trying to pair him and Dragic was an easy one.
Isaiah Thomas later joined the fold, acquired from the Sacramento Kings in a sign-and- trade deal for the rights to Alex Oriakhi (who hasn’t played in the NBA and who never will) for a bargain-basement price of $27 million over four years. The fit was again not ideal, another talented but score-first point guard on a team that already had two, but the price paid was sufficiently small that the move was easy to justify.
The Suns have been mostly asset-building since 2012, and even if they played the same position, all three players were acquired so cheaply that their value as assets made it worth it. However, as is already clear from the above, there has been an overkill of point guards. Even after those moves, on the same day that they dealt away both Dragic and Thomas, the Suns still acquired Brandon Knight, who, if he isn’t a true point guard, is nevertheless built like one. However justified the individual moves were, being paired with other point guards of some ability and reputation may have had a knock-on effect on Bledsoe.
Although he was traded so cheaply by the Clippers – and, before that, the Oklahoma City Thunder – Bledsoe showed very early in his career that he was an exciting and possible future star point guard, even prior to the Dudley trade. The $70 million he later received in re-signing with the Suns (back when that money got you true stars, not Kent Bazemore) confirmed that. But in always making him fight for his spot, paired with those (let’s not forget) acrimonious contract negotiations, Bledsoe has likely not often felt entirely empowered as a Sun. His desire over the last three years to share more and more of the offensive load may have its origins in a need and/or desire to constantly prove himself. “I am the best point guard on the team. Here, let me show you. Please stop bringing in new guys, I got this.”
Injuries, too, have had an effect on his career. Indeed, they have ended multiple seasons early, and put a real dampener on his career. You can’t look like a star from the bench. Bledsoe has played only 155 out of 246 games as a Sun, one full season and two half-seasons in which he has struggled with the health of his knees, while also looking over his shoulder and paired with players he should never really have been paired with.
That last part may no longer be the case with Booker, however.
Acquired via the draft last summer, Devin Booker is the kind of player who can be paired with anybody. Booker is a shooter, a wing player who does not need to dribble much to be deadly, and whose smoothness, confidence and poise for one so young is strikingly nice. He needs only about two feet of space and 0.8 seconds to score three points – he is long enough to get shots away, quick enough in his release to be tough to effectively contest, smart enough to know where to run to, and consistent enough to turn heads. And he is certainly not just a shooter. The threat of the shot makes everything else possible. Booker’s off-the-dribble game is equally smooth – his IQ, instincts and skills are all very well developed already. As an opposing coach, you already need to focus your game plan on Devin Booker.
The main knock on Bledsoe has long been that for all his strength, athleticism, ability to change direction and ability to make plays out of the pick-and- roll, he does not make enough shots. This seems perhaps odd to say of a player who scored more than 20 points per game last year, but it is true, and while his driving game collapses and confuses defences with regularity, Bledsoe has never been the most effective at utilising those collapses to pass back out to the now-open man. Nor has he always had the best options to pass back out to.
Enter Booker. For all of Bledsoe’s streakiness in his shotmaking, Booker is a constant. Every shooter ever apart from maybe Reggie Miller and Kyle Korver has been called streaky, yet Booker has been remarkably consistent in scoring in his young career. The three point jump shot itself is not yet to those levels, but the overall scoring package is already better, and the threes will nudge if not surpass 40% in due course. There is no reason that it won’t.
Booker’s ability to score quickly and seemingly effortlessly – combined potentially with the development of Knight into the Jason Terry or Jamal Crawford-style sixth man that he should always have been – might mean less offensive pressure on Bledsoe to make it all happen in the halfcourt.
He has struggled with this burden at times in his career. Nevertheless, the added help (and help finally not coming in the form of another ball-dominant guard) could change that. Mediocre assist to turnover ratio notwithstanding, Bledsoe has a much improved steadiness about his halfcourt floor general game these days – that ratio, plus his own scoring efficiency and hopefully his defense (no more plays off!) will all improve when paired with a player who can score anywhere from 11 to 32 on any given night while making everything easier for everyone else.
When he doesn’t need to take as many shots, Bledsoe will likely start making more for them. (For the purposes of this point, we will conveniently ignore his 37% shooting in preseason thus far.) He only played the first third of last season, but the Bledsoe who played in those two months was a more relaxed, composed and steady hand than any previous Bledsoes have been. It helped that he finally seemed to know he wasn’t fighting for his spot. Because of his injuries last season, Bledsoe and Booker have yet to have a good long run in the backcourt together, but the offensive potential of the elite slasher and the uber-efficient wing is deeply exciting.
Knight is far from insignificant here, too. Last season, he averaged 36.0 minutes, 19.6 points and 5.1 assists per game, most of which came alongside Bledsoe (Knight also suffered from injuries, playing only 52 games compared to Bledsoe’s 31, but in that span they started together 29 times). Knight has taken the combo guard position behind Bledsoe and Booker thus far in preseason, and has not said much on how he feels about that – going from 36 minutes and the ball in your hand every trip to a bench spot is probably tough to swallow. Pride is always in play. It is, however, the best move for the team. And if Knight can embrace it like Crawford and Terry once did, it will be best for him too.
Booker’s sharp and quick ascent into a high scoring wing and potential if not likely All-Star has once again meant that Bledsoe is not even the most exciting storyline in his own team’s backcourt. But so be it. He has what he needs now – the keys to the team, and the sidekick to take it places. The two can make each other better, and Knight can be the perfect third wheel.
In a roundabout, wonky, wouldn’t-advise-it-but- it’s-happened-now way, the Suns have assembled what could be a phenomenal backcourt duo. As long as both players (and especially Bledsoe’s knees) stay healthy, and make marked improvements on the defensive end (especially Booker, although Bledsoe’s off-ball defensive effort can be straight up bad sometimes), the future is bright.
It’s not The Splash Brothers, but it could be the closest impression of it that we will see for a while. If not? Well, the shuffle will continue, Knight is waiting, Tyler Ulis is waiting, and this time it will surely be Bledsoe’s turn to be moved on.