It has been just over a year since the Phoenix Suns turned the 2015 trade deadline into a point guard carousel, with Goran Dragic, Isaiah Thomas, Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Knight all finding new homes after Dragic flipped over the applecart in Phoenix and set it ablaze.
Ryan McDonough infamously declared that although he shipped out Dragic AND Thomas AND the coveted Lakers' pick while receiving only Knight in return (in addition to 9 games of Marcus Thornton trying to blast the rim off of the backboard with his long-range shooting, and oh yeah, a late-first rounder courtesy of the Cavaliers), the Suns had landed "the best player coming or going."
The past year has fallen somewhere between disastrous and disappointing for Dragic, Knight and Carter-Williams, while Thomas has fit in beautifully with the upstart Celtics en route to an All-Star selection, so it is quite clear who the best player coming or going has been. Bagging Thomas for salary-filler and a late first-rounder was far and away the biggest win of the deadline -- the kind of move of which we were expecting McDonough to not be on the wrong side.
The Suns' activity at the trade deadline proved to be the antithesis of the McDonough regime's mission statement, which was (we assumed) to collect assets, identify overlooked talent, and above all, don't sacrifice the future for the present.
Not only did McDonough low-ball himself on Isaiah Thomas, who produces far beyond his modest contract, he also released a potential top-5 pick for Knight, who was fast becoming a "known commodity" and, while overall a success in the NBA, never seemed to possess the star qualities one would expect under such a price tag.
About that price tag, it should be noted that the Lakers pick will likely never look better than it does right now. A smarter fellow than myself once opined that draft picks are like new cars: they lose value as soon as they're driven off the lot. "TOP FIVE PICK" sounds a lot better than "raw prospect that can't dribble or shoot but DAMN lookit that wingspan."
Still, even if the pick ends up being a player of a lower caliber than Brandon Knight, the chances seem to be decent that said player would have provided more things that the Suns actually need, since shoot-first combo guards from Kentucky fall more into the category of what they want (for some strange reason).
All wingeing aside, the Lakers pick is gone forever and it is now up to the Suns front office and whoever the coaching staff ultimately consists of to find the proper role for Knight, and the emergence of Devin Booker as a prototypical shooting guard should make this an easier decision.
Knight's tenure as a Sun has been a mixed bag so far, but let us first establish that he has shown glimpses of being worth that darn Lakers pick as well as every cent of his $70 million extension -- such as the five-game stretch in November in which he registered three games of 30+ points, including a 30/15/10 trip-dub on the Lakers and a 38-point, 11 assist game against the Nuggets.
How to turn such performances from Knight into something resembling consistency is the task at hand for the Suns.
Off the ball
Despite the pesky narrative about he and Eric Bledsoe being a poor fit, he has done his best work with Bledsoe accompanying him in the lineup. During the 2015/16 season, Knight shot an eFG% (that's FG% with freethrows factored in) of .504 with Bledsoe in the lineup. Without Bledsoe that number sinks to .463.
Knight is also shooting .671 at the rim with Bledsoe on the floor, and .608 without him. The obvious difference is that without Bledsoe, Knight is usually the premier ball-handler on the floor, resulting in only 29.2% of his shots coming off of assists as opposed to 41.8% when Bledsoe is there to handle the ball (and in case you're curious, Bledsoe also shoots better when the two are on the court together).
In fact, Knight's tendency to shoot well when paired with a point guard goes beyond Bledsoe and the Suns. During the 15-win 2013/14 season in Milwaukee, he posted a sparkling .571 eFG% and .383 3P% with Luke Ridnour on the floor, versus .460 and .316 with him off. The following season under new coach Jason Kidd, the Bucks played a number of non-traditional lineups with their unorthodox stable of rangy athletes, often taking the ball out of Knight's hands.
41.6% of Knight's field goals were assisted that year, and he was putting up career numbers almost across the board.
At the point
There are a some glaring issues with Knight's ability to play the point. First, he uses a lot of offensive possessions without producing much offense. There are currently three players in the NBA with a USG% equal to or higher than Knight's with a lower PER (minimum 20 MPG).
That's two players in Rose and Bryant that are withered shells of their former selves, and Burks, who has suffered two major injuries in just over a year. Well wait a tick, hasn't Knight been battling injuries as well? Perhaps Suns fans have yet to see him at 100%? Jeff Hornacek said as much back when it looked like there might actually be a season, and we certainly haven't seen Knight do stuff like this in Phoenix.
While a clean bill of health would undoubtedly make a positive difference, the problems unfortunately extend beyond any physical limitations. Such as this:
Knight needs to stuff these shots in a trash can and light it on fire. https://t.co/VHZZXIPSDU— Rollin Mason (@StrummerVillage) November 30, 2015
The Suns' coaching staff -- either the current lame-duck regime or the one that will be installed after the season ends -- needs to make it a priority to purge this kind of play from Knight's system. Whether it's through coddling, tough love, hypnotherapy, blackmail, or all of the above, this is a fixable problem that has apparently been ignored during Knight's career.
Possessions like this happen far too frequently with Knight on the floor, and he'd be better served to simply fling the ball at the peanut vendor 22 rows back since that would at least force the opposing team to take the ball out of bounds.
Aside from his poor shot selection and iffy passing skills, Knight also has a dreadful time at attempting to stay in front of opposing point guards on defense. I'll forgo any statistical analysis out of a simple case of mistrust; just watch the dude yourself and when you begin wondering where he got that pair of invisible rollerblades, you'll get the point.
Finding a role
It's fairly conclusive that Knight is at his best when playing off the ball, due to a variety of reasons. He has considerable talent as a microwave scorer that can, and has, put up monster numbers when he's able to put the opposing defense on its heels. His best traits lie in his ability to push the tempo and attack before the defense is set.
This should sound familiar to Suns fans who enjoyed watching Leandro Barbosa go nuts off the bench en route to a Sixth Man of the Year award as a key cog on the trailblazing SSOL teams. And with Devin Booker surpassing expectations as a rookie and giving the team a traditional shooting guard that could theoretically pair well with any type of point guard in the NBA, the point I'm humbly making here should be obvious.
Bring Brandon Knight off the bench.
This isn't meant as a punishment for failing to immediately fulfill our expectations, but rather an attempt to put him in the best position possible to become an impact player on future Suns squads. It's okay to admit that he isn't going to be the next James Harden; guys like Jamal Crawford and Lou Williams have had quite successful careers as well.
And like Crawford and Williams, when a talented scorer has trouble keeping up with anyone defensively and lacks the basic fundamentals typically applied to either guard position, they tend to come off the bench. And that's okay. Knight's breakneck style and shoot-happy tendencies would be much more appropriate against opposing bench units, where his defensive assignments would be less imposing and his scoring outbursts more impactful.
Should Knight make a return before the season is over, perhaps the Suns should decide immediately what kind of role they expect him to play. As the dramatic tailspin following the injury to Bledsoe suggests, starting point guard is not the ideal place to put Knight. It doesn't have to be about the Lakers pick or the $70 million extension, but it does have to be about making the right decisions with the personnel at hand.
The Suns have struggled mightily at experimenting with different players at unnatural positions. In their attempt to create "positionless basketball," they have succeeded only in demonstrating why the positions exist in the first place.
Hopefully the plan soon will be to put each player in the spots where they can be most effective, and there is no more important player to start with than Brandon Knight.