Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight have contrasting styles of play that beautifully blend together when they share the court. Bledsoe -- for lack of a better term -- is an ox, while Knight is more of the jackrabbit mold.
This was the thinking when Ryan McDonough sacrificed Isaiah Thomas and the Lakers' protected first round pick for the services of Knight back in February of 2015: Take two players with dynamic -- yet different -- skill sets and unite them to form a formidable backcourt that would be the linchpin for everything the Suns do. Who cares if Knight struggles guarding two-guards along the perimeter or spearheading the pick-and-roll? Those are two of Bledsoe's strengths.
Everything looks great on paper, but after a year and a half trial run (less than that really because of injuries), the Suns have fallen to the back of the pack and we still do not know much about whether a Knight and Bledsoe backcourt can translate into wins. Throw in the arrival of Devin Booker as a pseudo cousin of the Splash Brothers that can dual as heady pick-and-roll artist, and things get quite murky.
Booker is about everything McDonough was wanting from Knight, except he is younger, cheaper, and (whispers) maybe even a little bit better already. In a perfect world, all three guards would be able to share the court in super small-ball lineups a la what Brad Stevens does in Boston with Thomas, Avery Bradley, and Marcus Smart. But Smart is much more of a defensive bull, and has the size and moxie to handle his own in the post or against bigger wings. The dude was the go-to option against Paul Millsap when he was shooting flames this postseason.
None of Phoenix's trio has the defensive chops to hold up in that scenario. Bledsoe has muscles coming out of his ears and solid length for his position, but it would be a tall order to pin him on an opposing team's three or four man.
Plus, what would the opportunity cost of asking that much of Bledsoe on defense be? A majority of the offense is reliant on Bledsoe slicing a defense via the pick-and-roll or off the dribble, and gassing him on the defensive end would compromise the ceiling of the offense -- even with Booker and Knight by his side.
Booker and Knight sharing the court last season essentially translated to defensive suicide, letting up a defensive rating of 111.9, per NBA.com. That figure would have accounted for the worst defense in the league, and is a startling realization when projecting the amount of time Booker and Knight should share the court together.
Booker doesn't have terrible size, and is apparently still growing, but he (expectedly) looked out of sorts on defense last season. Playing with Bledsoe more should alleviate some of the growing pains, and steady improvement will come to fruition out of merely taking part in more game action.
Defense is hard, and understanding the nuances of team defense is a struggle for even the most talented of young players. If Booker can hold his own enough to not be a turnstile, all sorts of malleable lineups will be unlocked for Coach Watson depending on the matchup.
There is an obvious redundancy to Booker and Knight's style of play, making Knight a seemingly expendable asset. But he is still only 24 years old (!) and had occasional outbursts last season that showed what he is capable of when he puts everything together.
The point guard market is a wasteland once Mike Conley is off the board, and Knight's contract will look like chump change when guys like Harrison Barnes approach the max this summer. There will be opportunities for McDonough to pounce with teams like Philadelphia, Brooklyn and Utah thirsty for an above average point guard. The problem is that other teams will likely be sour on Knight and try to wring McDonough for Bledsoe instead.
With Bledsoe's spotty injury history, some credence will have to be given to any trade offer, but I would be weary of relying on a backcourt featuring Knight and Booker stopping anyone from penetrating the lane. The front office cannot cough up another strong asset just because there is a glut of talent; the Thomas trade has already shown the ramifications of that practice.
Then again, if Chicago comes calling with a prospective offer of Bledsoe and #13 or Knight and #4 for Jimmy Butler -- wouldn't it be impossible to not at least be tempted to say yes?
There are so many different directions that the front office can go with the amount of assets at their disposal. Options seem great in the aggregate, but it also presents more opportunity for a misstep, and I expect McDonough to not pull the trigger on a deal unless he his absolutely certain that it will result in a net positive for the franchise. One can only hope that there will be no pressure from ownership to rush to make a "win now" move.
If McDonough elects to stand pat with the backcourt as currently constructed, one of the most fascinating subplots for the 2016-17 season will be how Watson goes about the rotation gymnastics of allotting 96 minutes to Bledsoe, Booker, and Knight. Things did not turn out so rosy when Bledose, Goran Dragic, and Thomas were thrusted into the same predicament.
Let us not forget that Archie Goodwin is still incomprehensibly young (he will turn 22 in August) and could insert himself into the minutes conversation at any point without surprise. Something has to give.
The hot stove is coalescing to a boil for this Suns roster -- it feels like a flurry of moves are coming. Let's hope that McDonough and the rest of the front office do not get burned.