When the Phoenix Suns boldly announced this week the starting back court competition was already over, and that teenager Devin Booker would get the nod ahead of Brandon Knight for evermore, fans and observers alike were pleasantly surprised.
“The best thing for our family and our program is to start Devin Booker,” coach Earl Watson declared on Monday as the preseason began. “And have Brandon Knight come off the bench.”
Most observers expected the move to happen eventually, but not yet. Booker is just 19 years old and entering his second year while Knight, just 24 years old himself, has started 315 of his 328 games in the league. Not only that, Knight’s 13 non-starts were almost exclusively due to minutes-limitations (injury, trade acclimation). Never has Brandon Knight’s “starter” moniker been removed.
“We are not building to be good this year,” Watson said. “Not just for that. We are truly building to put ourselves in a situation with experience to win championships.”
Watson enters his first full season with low expectations on the win-loss column, but high expectations of team unity and effort. After years of turmoil among the roster, most of it self-inflicted and poorly managed, Watson is expected to steady the waters this season.
“We had some rough patches last year where the foundation kinda broke,” center Tyson Chandler admitted at Media Day.
#Roughpatches included a top player underperforming in the worst way, a rash on injuries and a void of leadership. In the wake of all that, Watson stepped into the top job on February first and immediately tamped down all the drama. His first order of business was tell his team to stop making excuses, stop blaming everyone and everything else for their predicament.
His second order of business was to turn his worst player into his best player for a couple of weeks. After months of sulking and disappointing, Markieff Morris posted all-world numbers just long enough to garner the Suns a lottery pick in trade. That lottery pick was eventually parlayed into Marquese Chriss, who already looks like a future fixture at power forward.
Now Watson’s job gets a lot more difficult. It’s easy to fill a leadership void, and his work on Morris only had to ‘hold’ for two weeks.
Now, he must succeed long term where former coach Jeff Hornacek failed miserably. All of the Suns downward spiral from a surprising 2013-14 season can be traced back to mismanagement of a three-headed guard rotation.
The Suns decided to double-down in case of injury. They brought Isaiah Thomas, Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic together to form a highly talented back court that just never liked playing together.
First it was Isaiah Thomas being named the Sixth Man but promised starters’ minutes and the chance to finish games with Bledsoe and Dragic if they were all playing well.
“I'd be lying to you if I said it doesn't bother me that I don't start,” Thomas said in November 2014 to Sam Amick of USA Today. “But I'm going to do what's best for this team and continue to work.”
For Thomas, doing what was best for the team was dominating the ball and scoring like crazy with Gerald Green in the second unit, while trying to force his way into the game-closing lineup. The player most negatively impacted by the three-guard Hydra was, in fact, the incumbent third-team All-NBA Goran Dragic.
"I try to do what is best for the team," Dragic that November. "If they need me to stand in the corner and try to space, I'm gonna do that. Hopefully, I will find that rhythm."
Eric Bledsoe turned out to be the only guy happy with his role. He signed a huge contract, and got all the minutes he could use as the primary ball handler. It was Dragic who was always paired with one of them, never given the reins to run the team by himself.
Obvious at the time, and even clearer in retrospect, the biggest problem that year was a lack of leadership from the coaching staff to manage the players’ personalities. Coach Jeff Hornacek expected maturity, assuming the players would swallow their pride for the good of the team (they started 28-20 and sat in 7th in the West playoff picture). They didn’t.
Now, coach Watson gets his chance to handle a Hydra lineup of his own.
For his part, Watson went into this situation with eyes wide open. He tried to get ahead of the discord as early as May, spending the summer building team unity and brotherhood, using the word “love” more than the entire male Baby Boomer generation has used in ten years.
Already, he’s cashed in some of the chips he built up with that summer of love.
“He’s the first to show and be an example of sacrifice for the family,” Watson says of Knight. “We did a lot of team bonding this summer, not only just to create momentum for our group, but for situations like this.”
When Knight finally did talk to the media about the move 24 hours later, he admitted he doesn’t like it but did not waver in the least on one subject.
“I respect Earl,” Knight said to the media scrum yesterday. “Earl did an excellent job of letting me know ahead of time. Earl is a straight-forward, honest guy and I love him for that. That’s the reason I want to play for Earl because a lot of coaches wouldn’t handle it that way. I appreciate the way Earl handled it and I respect him a lot for that.”
But of his Sixth Man role, Knight is not so appreciative.
“It’s definitely a sacrifice.”
“I mean, we’ll see, I can’t predict the future, I don’t how it will be,” said Knight. “Like I said, I’ll do my best to stay warm, figure it out. You have to be professional about it and remain positive.”
Could this be an incredibly frustrating, franchise-killing reprise of 2014?
Or can Earl Watson get a different result from the same formula?
Some of the details are different this time around, which should make Watson’s job a bit easier.
“One of the big differences two years ago was Dragic’s contract situation was looming,” GM Ryan McDonough said at Media Day. “And that was important and impactful. We feel like we have more time now.”
2016 Knight vs. 2014 Thomas
Knight, the demoted one, already has his big contract and won’t be seeking a new one until after four more seasons have passed. In that respect, he’s like Thomas from 2014. Thomas had just signed for four years as well, grudgingly aware that his role was to be coming off the bench.
Another similarity between Knight and Thomas is that both are/were considered combo guards whose future would be as a third cog on any team, rather than lead dog. So they face each day trying to earn the respect of their team, their peers and the media.
But a big difference could be that Knight is much more circumspect in his personality, and so far he appears much more committed to the coaching staff to give it his best.
“We all have to do it to try to make the team better,” Knight said of sacrificing. “Like I said, this is part of it. As long as I’m going out and remaining positive and trying to lift the team up and we’re winning games, that’s what you want to be part of – a winning situation.”
That doesn’t mean Knight will thrive in his Sixth Man role. In fact, he could easily retreat into his shell and become a lesser player under the pressure. There’s little chance Knight will reprise Thomas’ production, given that while Knight is a ball-pounder he’s not a natural alpha-dog like Thomas.
It’s up to Watson to keep Knight on the level.
“Brandon, he’s the most important player on our team,” Watson said. “He’s given up the most. He’s the most impactful in the things he will be able to do to propel us at all times throughout the game. He gives us firepower that I don’t think a lot of teams can match.”
Hornacek never buttered up his players, either to their face or to the media. Watson is all about that. Maybe the way Knight is handled and supported will result in a different outcome.
2016 Booker vs. 2014 Bledsoe
Booker is now the golden child, which most closely matches Bledsoe’s role in 2014. It appears that Bledsoe and Knight will share playing time, mostly alternating time on the floor, while Booker has the shooting guard position mostly to himself.
Sure, the three guards will see roughly similar minutes. But as time goes by, I fully expect Booker to get the most playing time and the most scoring opportunities. Already, in the first preseason game, it was Booker scoring 19 points in 24 minutes while Bledsoe and Knight both struggled despite being the point guards.
You might think that Eric Bledsoe’s role shouldn’t change in this new scenario. He’s still the starting point guard, giving him the best chance of the three to match his 2015-16 numbers of 20 points and 6 assists per game.
But of the three guards, this time it’s Devin Booker who will be far and away the biggest benefactor of this triumvirate.
2016 Bledsoe vs. 2014 Dragic
Someone will be the biggest loser in this game. Two years ago, that was Dragic. Bledsoe ate first. Thomas ate second. Dragic got the leftovers.
Some of that regression was due to Dragic’s natural attitude and team-first mentality where allowed himself to be minimized by the ball-dominant dynamic around him.
You could argue that Knight’s personality most fits the mold of the biggest loser among the three.
But you have to look closer at the situation to see why I think Bledsoe might be the odd man out.
In the starting unit, Booker is now clearly the focus. Bledsoe is the starting point guard, but his role will be more about facilitating and getting his team into the motion offense, which doesn’t allow for stickiness.
In the second unit, Knight is clearly the focus. He will be leading a unit that lacks scoring chops, especially if Warren keeps his starting job when Tucker returns.
“We’re going to have to be, same thing as the first unit, scrappy,” Knight said of his second unit. “I think defensively we’re going to have to get into guys. Like any second unit, if the first unit isn’t playing hard or if they need a lift, they could be playing hard. Our goal is to come in and set the tempo. If not keep the same, take it higher. Be a lift to the team, whoever is coming off the bench.”
With Booker the focus on the starting unit and Knight the focus on the second unit, it could be Bledsoe that ultimately sees the biggest dip in per-minute scoring production.
Watson has to make it all work.
“It’s really difficult to get three players going on the court at the same time,” Watson said. “But to get two going, and then the third going, then maybe three will be in rhythm where we can play all three at once.”
While Bledsoe might be the biggest loser, what makes Bledsoe different from Dragic is two-fold: (1) Bledsoe isn’t fighting for a contract, and (2) Bledsoe as the point guard has total control of the situation. If he acquiesces, that’s him making the decision not someone else.
Bledsoe, never a born lead dog, might be perfectly fine letting Booker be the team leader while he gets to go back to just playing his game. Bledsoe can fill the stat sheet like very few NBA guards. He could rack up steals, blocks, rebounds and assists without also having to be the team’s top scorer and spiritual leader.
It’s going to be an interesting ride.