Allow me to preface this with the following disclaimers:
1. I really like Brandon Knight. The cache of assets that the Phoenix Suns gave up for him is a bit jarring, but I think he's an extremely talented player with a very good head on his shoulders.
2. Jeff Hornacek knows more than me and will make a decision that is much more informed than what comes of my nerding out on a laptop.
Ok, let's begin.
The Phoenix Suns have now won five of their last six games with newly-acquired guard Brandon Knight on the sidelines with a sprained ankle, suddenly vaulting themselves back into the Western Conference playoff picture. They have gone with a starting lineup of Eric Bledsoe, P.J. Tucker, Marcus Morris, Markieff Morris and Alex Len, who has returned from a sprained ankle of his own.
Knight's return to the lineup is rapidly approaching, possibly as soon as their next game Wednesday versus the Sacramento Kings. Therein, the question is obvious: where in the lineup does Knight fit?
The easy (and perhaps correct) answer is to simply return him to his starting slot alongside Bledsoe in the backcourt and pick up where they left off. The problem is, where they "left off" was going 4-5 since the trade and suffering a handful of embarrassing defeats such as losing by 28 at home to the Spurs and getting smacked around in Miami by Goran Dragic's new team.
Knight has had very little practice time with the Suns and is adjusting to playing off the ball beside Bledsoe, so the struggles aren't a surprise and shouldn't be taken as an indication of what caliber of player Knight is, nor how well he fits with this team.
He is also heading into restricted free agency this summer and clearly would want as much time on the floor as possible to show what he can do, so there is a political factor to consider.
However, the Suns have found a new identity in the wake of his absence and need to play as close to perfect as possible if they want to pull off the improbable and steal a playoff seed. Perhaps Knight would contribute the most to this team in the Isaiah Thomas role as a supersub off the bench during these last 11 games?
Here are five reasons why that just might be the case.
#1: The bench is in desperate need of offense
Isaiah Thomas and his formidable scoring punch were traded to facilitate the arrival of Knight. Marcus Thornton is shooting 1-16 on 3PA's and 30.6% overall since landing in Phoenix. Gerald Green ate some viscous peyote a while back and has been wandering the desert barefoot ever since.
Brandan Wright and T.J. Warren are both gifted at willing the ball through the cylinder, but both operate best with someone feeding them the rock at the right time. Archie Goodwin has his moments, but is very much still a project. A.J. Price is A.J. Price.
Once perhaps the greatest strength of the team, the bench scoring is now abysmal. This weakness could easily be turned back into a strength, or at least be brought back to respectability, with Knight added to the second unit. Remember that cozy feeling when IT would enter the game with a 10-point deficit, and you knew there was always a chance that he could tie it back up all by himself?
Knight could fill that role, and it might even add more to his value as a free agent than being overshadowed by the frequent heroics of Bledsoe.
There's a reason why no one talks to the pitcher while he's throwing a no-hitter. While winning five out of six games isn't exactly a herculean effort, in the final days of a playoff race it might as well be a 20-game winning streak. It's wise to tiptoe during such instances; walk too heavily and you might just topple the whole structure.
Since the strength of the Suns during the current streak is clearly coming from the starters, inserting Knight into the bench rather than the starting lineup will have the least amount of ripple effect, and will yield the greatest potential for net gain.
Obviously Knight's return will take minutes from somewhere, but it would be best to take them from the places that aren't currently contributing to wins.
#3: The Morris twins are rolling, and they thrive on chemistry
Ah, those Morris kids. They live to annoy you, even if it's by playing extremely well just when you were ready to drop them down the laundry chute. Are there any players in the NBA that rely on chemistry (or biorhythms, or whatever you want to call it) as much as they seem to? One can almost tangibly see it when things are clicking for them, and when they go cold, they go absolutely frigid.
As touch-and-go as the twins are, when they're playing well just let them do their damn thing. It just so happens that cumulatively, they're playing about as well as they have ever played. Once the team scapegoats for one-dimensional and selfish play on the court, they have become all-around contributors in recent days.
Against Dallas, they both recorded double-doubles with a combined 30 points and 24 rebounds, and Marcus even added seven (7!!!) assists. The night before in Houston, they combined for 34 points, 15 boards and 10 assists.
At home versus the Pelicans they both suffered through dreadful shooting nights as they combined to go 6-26 from the field, but they also combined for 21 boards and seven assists.
A fire has been lit in their shared heart (cause they totally share a heart), and the Suns staff should do everything they can to fan that flame for as long as possible. If it ends up being a flash in the pan, fine. Make the necessary changes at that time. But don't put the fire out prematurely.
Unfortunately, reinserting Knight into the starting lineup might do just that as it would inevitably force Marcus back to the bench.
#4: P.J. Tucker was a 2-guard all along
Let's get this out of the way quickly: If you can successfully defend James Harden and Monta Ellis on back-to-back nights, you can play shooting guard in the NBA. As a bonus, Tucker has been a steady contributor on offense since the break, scoring in double figures in 14 of 17 games.
He didn't skip a beat when moved to the 2, where he suddenly has a matchup advantage in his favor. Generously listed at 6'5, there was little Tucker could do on offense against longer small forwards besides spot up and shoot when open. At guard, however, he can exploit his opponent in the low post and on the boards, and does so with an obvious glee as he makes his poor adversary work that much harder, thus having less energy to expend on offense.
He was already a bonafide badass at the 3. At the 2, he's just wrong.
Bringing Tucker off the bench should never be an option on this current team (missed buses notwithstanding). Running Knight in from the bench to spell either guard position makes abundantly more sense.
#5: Smash & Dash
The Suns have found a new identity recently as -- no, seriously -- a competitive defensive team that works hard on the glass. Rick Carlisle described them as "smash-mouth". Steve Kerr said that playing the Suns was "like a wrestling match".
They have won the rebounding battle in each of their last six games, this from a franchise that hasn't been an above-average rebounding team since the Scott Skiles coaching era. The current dynamic might seem more out of place than Hank Hill grilling with charcoal, but as fun as small-ball can be it's a welcome change.
While the starters are leaving their mark as a bruising unit that battles in the trenches, imagine a bench unit with Wright, Warren and Goodwin being led by the speedy Knight, coming in to crank on the afterburners and push the pace to 11.
Smash & Dash. There's already a name for it, so it pretty much has to happen.
Wrapping it up
Obviously most of the points I attributed are born from a small sample-size of only six games, and those six games could well end up being more of an exception than a rule. But with 11 games left to decide the fate of the season, those games are all we've got.
Even if it has been a fluke, it needs to be capitalized on as much as possible given the short window of opportunity.
For a team that needs every little thing to go right, they need to protect the things that have gone right. A shakeup to the starting lineup, however justified it might be, could be enough to doom the season.
Knight's free agency situation will be handled over the summer. The suggestions posited here only pertain to the remaining part of the season. The Suns owe it to themselves, and to us, to put that first.
I think he'll understand that.