The 2015-16 season marks the third year of the dual playmaker system in Phoenix under coach Jeff Hornacek. While the look has undergone some changes since its inception in 2013, the principle remains the same — have two playmakers in the lineup so the defense cannot load up against one offensive initiator. Now it's Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight sharing the back court.
The idea seemed novel in the beginning, but now, with the Suns in the midst of a 5-year playoff drought and staring down the barrel of infamy if they make it six, the rumblings for a more traditional backcourt have begun.
Despite that, coach Hornacek and the Suns have shown no inclination to move away from the project, even doubling down on it the past two seasons.
"I think when teams look at us, they go 'how do we stop Eric,' " coach Hornacek says. "Okay, go ahead and try that. The ball's going to get swung over to Brandon's hands, and now you've got to deal with Brandon on the other side or vice versa. It puts a lot of pressure on the other teams defensively. I think it will work great."
It's no surprise Hornacek feels so strongly about the dual playmaker system; he's coaching what he knows. The majority of his career was spent in just such a system, first in Phoenix alongside Kevin Johnson and then in Utah with John Stockton — the latter incarnation getting him to the NBA Finals twice (although having two future Hall of Famers on the floor and a third as head coach might have helped). He has seen it work firsthand as a player and is looking to resurrect the same magic now from the sidelines.
Besides, Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight are the team's best guards, so running the two point guards together for extended stretches is his best option. Hornacek doesn't have a James Harden or Klay Thompson to put alongside Bledsoe or Knight.
That won't silence the critics, though. Just because Hornacek experienced success doesn't mean it can be replicated on a whim. Perhaps that success was an anomaly. Perhaps it needs Hornacek — the player — to work.
But if any team in the NBA is qualified to speak on the efficacy of having two playmakers sharing a backcourt, it is Phoenix. With close to 600 games played with dual playmakers in the starting lineup over its history, Phoenix has been a veritable proving ground for the system over the years.
Jeff Hornacek and Kevin Johnson (1987-88 to 1991-92)
When Phoenix acquired rookie Kevin Johnson midway through the 1987-88 season, he and incumbent point guard Hornacek had to figure out how to mesh their games. For that matter, coach John Wetzel had to figure out how to best utilize the duo. The process wasn't a smooth one, and Johnson and Hornacek only started six games together that season, going 3-3.
However, after beginning the 1988-89 season 0-2 with only Johnson starting, new coach Cotton Fitzsimmons decided to alter his starting lineup and play Hornacek alongside Johnson. The team would go 48-24 that season in games the pair started together. That was followed by 37-15 in 1989-90, 49-22 in 1990-91, and 50-27 in 1991-92.
Those teams didn't just win in the regular season, either. Phoenix made it out of the first round of the playoffs three of those four seasons, including two trips to the Western Conference Finals. Of course those teams were still missing that one piece to push them to the next level (Charles Barkley), but Hornacek and Johnson had proven two playmakers could excel in the same backcourt.
Kevin Johnson and Jason Kidd (1996-97 to 1997-98)
After Hornacek's departure, Johnson found himself as the lone playmaker for four years until Phoenix traded for Dallas' Jason Kidd in December 1996. Unfortunately, Kidd broke his collarbone during his first game in Phoenix and would miss a month and a half. When Kidd recovered, he joined Johnson in the starting lineup in February, and after a bumpy adjustment period, the duo would propel the Suns to a 15-7 record in the games they started together, including a 10-game winning streak down the stretch that pushed the Suns into the playoffs.
The following season would see Johnson limited by injuries, but the two still went 9-3 when Johnson was healthy enough to start. The Suns also gave a few starts to another point guard that year — Steve Nash — and saw the team go 7-2 when Nash started alongside Kidd. Phoenix even started Kidd, Johnson, and Nash together for a game that year, although they lost to a Houston squad that started three players 6-10 or taller.
Those teams did not fare as well in the playoffs as the Johnson/Hornacek Suns, each year being eliminated in the first round.
Jason Kidd and Anfernee Hardaway (1999-00 to 2000-01)
The Suns' grandest experiment with the dual playmaker system came with the move to acquire Penny Hardaway from Orlando during the summer of 1999. Many don't remember Penny as a playmaker, but he averaged 6.3 assists per game in six Orlando seasons before joining the Suns, along with 19 points and 4.7 rebounds per game.
Hardaway would team with Kidd for a 33-12 record that year when both were healthy enough to start. However, injuries prevented the pairing from ever reaching the heights some predicted for them, with Hardaway starting just four games alongside Kidd during the 2000-01 season before Kidd was traded that summer.
Stephon Marbury and Anfernee Hardaway (2001-02 to 2003-04)
These are the dark years of the dual playmaker system. Hardaway remained healthy enough to start 55 games alongside newly acquired Stephon Marbury in 2001-02, but the team went just 27-28 in those games. Yet it should be noted that being a game below .500 was an improvement over the alternative, as Phoenix was 9-18 when Hardaway didn't start with Marbury.
The following season saw an upswing, with the Marbury/Hardaway pairing combining for a 31-19 record as opposed to a 13-19 record without the two together. Even with improvement and a trip to the playoffs, that team still fell to the San Antonio Spurs 4-2.
Then 2003-04 happened. The Marbury/Hardaway pairing was going nowhere fast, piling up a 2-8 record when the two started a game. There was only one move left for the two to make together, and they made it — to New York.
Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe (2013-14 to 2014-15)
The dual playmaker system went on hiatus for about a decade while a future Hall of Famer handled the reins, but it returned when new GM Ryan McDonough brought in Clippers guard Eric Bledsoe to play alongside Goran Dragic in the backcourt. The similarities to Phoenix's most successful pairing (Johnson and Hornacek) were obvious from the start, and the early returns seemed to confirm the hypothesis. The Suns went 23-11 that year with Dragic and Bledsoe in the lineup, earning the Suns' fourth-best winning percentage of any dual playmaker lineup (min. 30 games started together). While Phoenix didn't make the playoffs in the brutal West, the prospects seemed bright for the duo with a bit better fortune.
That would never come to pass. The addition of Isaiah Thomas as a third point guard in 2014-15 threw a wrench into the works — at least chemistry-wise. Record-wise, Phoenix still went 29-22 with Dragic and Bledsoe in the starting lineup, but the 2014-15 Suns were a failed chemistry experiment, like a Mentos dropped into a 2-liter of diet Coke with the lid screwed on, which led to the departures of Dragic and Thomas.
Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight (2014-15 to present)
Brandon Knight, the major return amid the trade-deadline flurries, started just nine games alongside Bledsoe last season, and the team went 4-5 in those games before Knight was lost to a sprained ankle.
What can we learn?
As with any team running any system, much has to go right to experience success, but three points do stand out.
Number 1: The players must complement each other.
In the case of Johnson and Hornacek, they were almost a perfect match. Johnson, at 6-1, possessed speed, quickness, and raw athleticism that he used to fearlessly attack the basket but was more slasher than shooter. Hornacek, at 6-3, lacked Johnson's athletic gifts but made up for it with a deft shooting stroke that kept defenses honest. On the defensive end, Johnson took the more daunting defensive tasks, but Hornacek's tenaciousness and headiness ensured that the small backcourt never became a real liability.
Kidd and Hardaway also fit together well, and for a brief, fleeting moment, this appeared to be the best dual playmaker backcourt yet. Both Hardaway (6-7, 215 lbs) and Kidd (6-4, 212 lbs) possessed the size necessary on defense to negate any advantage by the opposing team while also possessing the elite playmaking skills necessary to run the system. And even though neither were particularly proficient shooters, the game was less predicated on floor spacing at that time. Instead, Kidd and Hardaway routinely took their defenders into the post to exploit their mismatches that way.
Bledsoe and Dragic possessed similar complementary games, with comparisons to Johnson and Hornacek not hard to see. Unfortunately for the experiment, an overcrowded backcourt short circuited the production and led Dragic to express his intent not to re-sign in Phoenix. Which leads to point number two...
Number two: The players must accept their roles.
With a system that asks players to move outside their comfort zone, there has to be 100 percent buy-in for it to work.
When Johnson joined Hornacek in Phoenix, neither player had to take a backseat to the other. During their time together, both players evolved into All Stars, with Johnson averaging 21.2 points and 11.1 assists while Hornacek averaged 17 points and 5.3 assists. Their numbers and recognition came because their team was successful, and their team was successful because both players bought in to the premise that the team was bigger than either of them. Neither player would have better individual numbers after Hornacek was traded in 1992.
In contrast, things never felt that way between Bledsoe and Dragic. There appeared to be an uneasy truce between the two even in the best of times. Scenes where both players would come back for an outlet pass from the rebounder were common, suggesting a power struggle between them for the role of point guard. However, with Bledsoe's meniscus tear in 2013, the tension never had time enough to build that first season. The next season epitomized the spectacular implosion that can occur when "I" becomes more important than "we" in the locker room.
Number three: The players must stay healthy.
This one may seem obvious, but that doesn't make it any less true. Many of Phoenix's most promising dual playmaker lineups have been beset by injury, leaving their promise unfulfilled. It doesn't matter if you find a way to stick Chris Paul next to James Harden. If they can't stay healthy, the experiment will fail.
Finally, it is important to remember that in all the examples above of starting dual playmakers, there was an adjustment period, especially for combinations put together midseason. Hornacek and Johnson had one; so did Johnson and Kidd. But in each case, increased familiarity with the other translated into success on the court.
What does this mean for Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight?
Bledsoe and Knight definitely complement each other's games. Whereas Bledsoe's strength is crashing through the paint and attacking the basket, Knight spends more time from 16 feet out and was shooting over 40 percent from 3-point range during 2014-15 before arriving in Phoenix.
"With their familiarity with each other," Hornacek said, "they will know when one guy needs to get the ball a little bit more. It's not just going to be one guy handling the ball. I think they'll work together great in figuring that out."
Neither player sets their teammates up as well as Johnson and Hornacek did, but if Knight can return to form with his shot in 2015-16 and fight more on defense, he could easily play Hornacek to Bledsoe's KJ.
Where chemistry is concerned, neither player has fired off any quotes that raise alarm. Both have also been working out diligently in Phoenix this summer as each tries to acclimate himself to the other, and both came together in their failed pitch to lure LaMarcus Aldridge in July. Things can change once the games start, but as of now, both players are saying and doing the right things.
"Throughout my career I've always played with another guy that can handle the ball," Knight said after signing his $70 million contract. "So it's not anything that I'm not used to. And me having such a great relationship with Eric, it made that decision kind of easy for me. We're gonna make it work."
As for injuries, Knight is on the mend after offseason ankle surgery while Bledsoe's history of knee issues is a concern. However, since injuries cannot be accounted for reliably, all anyone can do is hope for the best.
The nine games Bledsoe and Knight started together are hardly indicators of how they will jell this season. Being thrown together in late February is not a fair way to judge their compatibility. According to prior history, when Bledsoe and Knight were put together midseason, they were almost destined to struggle. However, history also suggests that 2015-16 — their first full season together — will bring the kind of on-court success that fans (and Hornacek) have been waiting to see.
Let us hope history holds true.