Follow the NBA closely enough and for long enough, and there’s a certain trajectory that you come to expect out of each passing year. You learn to love the familiar rhythm of it all – excitement builds around the league up to the playoffs in April and May, it peaks with the Finals in June, then everyone buzzes about the draft at the start of the summer and the major free-agent signings that follow in July. Then, once August sets in, there’s a welcome lull. You catch up on your sleep, binge-watch your new favorite TV show or maybe step outside and get a little sun for a change.
This summer, there was a slight disruption in the pattern. We were all waiting for LeBron James to sign from the moment the clock struck midnight on July 1, and we all assumed that once he made up his mind, the rest of the dominoes would fall. And in many cases they did – after LeBron made his Cleveland announcement on July 11, we saw Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and others fall into place before long. We were on our way to the peaceful August we expected.
As it turns out, there were two exceptions.
We’re now entering what could aptly be termed late August, and shockingly, there are two still two legitimate stars still lingering on the open market. This pretty much never happens, but this summer, we’re treated to a double dose – Greg Monroe, a promising young big man with the Detroit Pistons, and Eric Bledsoe, a breakout star guard for the Phoenix Suns, are both mired in ugly standoffs with their most recent teams. It’s unclear what will happen to either of them.
Both young players are in similar situations – they’re both 24 years old and just finished up the fourth and final years of their rookie contracts, and they’re both more or less expected to return to their current teams. That’s because, as restricted free agents, they don’t have much of a choice. Since other teams largely assume the Pistons and Suns will match pretty much any offer, there’s no reason for potential suitors to waste their time or money. So the players, without anything in the way of leverage, basically just sit and wait.
There was the report from Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press that said the Pistons had reached out to Monroe and offered him five years and $60 million – Monroe countered that on Twitter by insisting that he “can’t reject anything that was not offered to me.” Meanwhile there’s talk of Bledsoe returning to the Suns for his qualifying offer price tag, but Phoenix owner Robert Sarver is telling local media that “We haven’t heard from the guy in four months, so I couldn’t tell you.”
This is all sad stuff. As basketball players, I like both of these guys a lot. Monroe is a promising young big man with solid fundamentals, strong post play and good footwork – he could be the game’s next great offensive center a la Patrick Ewing, but so far he’s had trouble standing out in a crowded Detroit frontcourt. As for Bledsoe, he’s got a wonderfully unique combination of physical tools (speed, agility) and mental ones (efficient shot selection, defensive awareness) that make him a really polished all-around player. It’s unclear at this point how he fits next to Goran Dragic, but there’s no doubting he’s a really, really good young guard.
You root for both of these players. You want them to have productive futures. As a fan of the game, how could you not? It’s gratifying to spend your time watching young good players develop and become big stars. These are two prime candidates.
Unfortunately, though, no one is talking this summer about the growth of Greg Monroe and Eric Bledsoe as basketball players. Instead, we’re caught up in free-agent melodrama, waiting for these holdouts to be resolved. It’s no fun for anyone.
You can’t blame the players for this. You can’t really blame their owners, either (though it’s possible that Sarver’s pathological stinginess, which has been well documented over the years, has played a teensy bit of a role with Bledsoe). I think the greater evil here is the institution of restricted free agency. It’s lame that the players are stuck in this situation – with no freedom of movement and no leverage – and even lamer when you consider that the players negotiated this mess for themselves.
Cap guru Larry Coon pointed out when the players agreed to a new CBA following the 2011 lockout that they’d locked in a handful of small perks in exchange for the massive decrease in their share of basketball-related income (57 percent of the total take in 2005 versus 51.15 percent now). A few of these perks involved restricted free agency – reduced cap holds, higher qualifying offers, a shorter waiting period for teams to match offer sheets. But all of these minor tweaks pale in comparison to the real headline here – that the RFA system still exists, and players are being held captive by teams without any recourse. The changes made in 2011 weren’t much. It’s like the owners said, “We’re still going to chop off your legs, but we’ll let you choose the sword.”
This issue is a tragic one because it affects kids who are 22, 23 and 24 years old. Imagine yourself at that age – you were probably just finishing college, surveying the job market and weighing your future options. The world was your oyster, and you had all the choices in the world ahead of you.
As an NBA player, “choice” is not in your vocabulary. In what should be their formative years as adults, guys like Bledsoe and Monroe are trapped with their current employers, virtually helpless to find a way out.
This can’t be good for the players’ growth. This should be a time of development – but with the two youngsters both still free agents and their futures hanging in the balance, it’s probably hard for them even to think about that right now.
Nevertheless, I’m trying to stay excited about what the future holds for Monroe and Bledsoe both. Will Monroe emerge as the next great center in the long Georgetown lineage? Will Bledsoe live up to his grandiose “Mini-LeBron” moniker and become truly dominant on both ends?
I don’t necessarily require a “yes” to either of the above questions. I just want to reach a point where, once all the free agent nonsense is over and these guys have uniforms on, we get a chance to find out. I want to move past this ugly August and arrive at another hope-filled October.