We don’t want our favorite players to leave. One of the richer fan experiences is watching seasons and seasons worth of a player and becoming attuned to their idiosyncrasies and rhythms. Over the years, we familiarize ourselves with their characteristic way of doing things — a habitual batting glove readjustment, their gait as they bring the ball up the court — and those movements become a sort of language to us. We see them in a certain scenario and know what they will do before they do it. As they move, we move along with them. We think, if not like they do, then in some imitative approximation of the way they appear to think. Taking in a game featuring an athlete who is special to us becomes transportative. It’s a thing that makes the sometimes dull and tedious time-sink of following sports worthwhile.
When that sort of player leaves, the connection weakens. This is part of the stupidity of non-liberated fandom, but you’re never quite going to enjoy the player the same way once they’re wearing someone else’s colors. They become someone else’s way into an out-of-body experience.
This might tempt us to want players to be forbidden from moving between teams. Sports leagues had that rule for a long time, but have since rejected it. (At any rate, the players rejected it. It took owners and fans longer to come around on the notion.) Athletes still occasionally get slammed in the media for chasing money or rings, but most of us agree with the principle that they should be able to play wherever they want, for whatever reasons are important to them.
Except we don’t, totally. All of our major sports have drafts — which shackle a player to a certain team for a set amount of time — and most have restricted free agency, which makes it nearly impossible for a great player to make a switch early in their career. Occasionally, this results in something I’m going to call RFA Hell. The underworld’s most notable resident at the moment? Eric Bledsoe.
The bowling ballish guard had his best season as a pro last year, despite missing 39 games with a knee injury. Finally given substantial playing time after spending three seasons as Chris Paul’s understudy, Bledsoe thrived in a system that slotted him alongside Goran Dragic and allowed the two to explore the full range of their talents. Both players did everything you could possibly ask from a guard — handling the ball, spotting up, penetrating, finding teammates, etc. — sometimes all in the space of a single possession. Had Bledsoe not gotten hurt and/or had the Suns been playing in the Eastern Conference instead of the brutal West, they definitely would have made the playoffs.
The Suns weren’t expecting to be as good as they were last season, so narrowly missing out on the eighth seed, while it must have stung at the time, is in retrospect a minor accomplishment to be pleased with. They’ll hopefully build on their relative success in 2014-15. But they need Bledsoe in tow in order to do that. Fortunately (for them), they own his RFA rights, which essentially means he’s not going anywhere. It also means he might get underpaid.
Phoenix is offering Bledsoe $48 million over four years. Predictably, Bledsoe and his agent Rich Paul want the five-year max, which would pay Bledsoe about $80 million. The fair number is somewhere in the middle, but the point is the Suns’ offer is at least a little below market value. Any other team in the league can try to sign Bledsoe, but the problem is, if they do so, whatever money they promise to him counts against their cap as if they had already signed him, while the Suns have three days to match the offer, which they’re almost certain to do. So basically, teams can try to sign Bledsoe if they want, but they’re probably just going to end up tying up cap space for three days with nothing to show for it. Hence the lack of bids.
So, Bledsoe has the option to either accept the Suns’ underwhelming deal or take a one-year qualifying offer that would assure him unrestricted free agent status in the summer of 2015. He’s coming off a knee injury and has made “only” about $7 million throughout his career. One would guess he’s going to take the financial security, perhaps while mumbling something under his breath.
This is great news for Suns fans, who will get to watch Bledsoe continue to develop over the next four years. (On a relatively cheap contract, to boot.) They will eventually learn his body language, and he will belong to them in some sense. This is no small thing.
But you can be happy that Bledsoe isn’t leaving town and also recognize the system that keeps him there as unfair. Bledsoe has never had a say in where he has played, and the odds are he won’t until the contract he’s on the verge of practically being forced to sign has expired, at which point he will be 28. We want our favorite players to stick around, but that they’re coerced into doing so isn’t right. Eric Bledsoe is being hamstrung by rules that keep him from working wherever he pleases and from maximizing his value. He’s in RFA Hell. He won’t be the last player to suffer through it, either.