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Brandon Knight and the fallacy of the sixth man demotion

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Knight could become the Phoenix Suns’ new sixth man next season, but that does not equate to a demotion

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Los Angeles Clippers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

With there being less than three weeks to go before training camp opens in Flagstaff, Ariz. for the Phoenix Suns, it will not be long before the questions begin anew: How will head coach Earl Watson fit three starting-caliber guards into two spots in the starting lineup?

The NBA offseason tends to tamp down the urgency of such uncomfortable questions, but the unavoidable truth is that, barring injury, one of the three will start games on the bench this season. With Eric Bledsoe all but a lock for the starting point guard spot, that leaves Brandon Knight and Devin Booker in contention to start at shooting guard. And since Booker is not yet a capable enough defender to pass at small forward, there will be no cop out answers like starting all three.

The answer that would seem to suit the Suns best would be to have Knight come off the bench as the team’s sixth man. It eliminates matchup problems on defense in the starting unit, keeps two turnover-prone guards from sharing the backcourt together for heavy minutes, and keeps Bledsoe from spending too much time off the ball while Knight runs the offense, which is a poor utilization of Bledsoe’s game.

However, there’s a catch. As one of the top players on the team, Knight would have to accept a change in role, and his comments at the conclusion of last season suggested he wasn’t inclined to do so.

“My role’s gonna be the same. I don’t see my role changing,” he said back in April. “We’ll see what happens next year as far as roles, but I see my role being exactly the same.”

Knight’s stance softened a bit by July when he said the following at NBA FIT Week in the Philippines: “Something special is really happening in Phoenix, and that’s how we’re gonna make it work, just by being brothers off the court, and on the court, we’ll find a way to make it work.”

That’s an encouraging viewpoint to hear from Knight after the inflexible stance he took a few months prior. Still, it means little if Knight’s opinion of how to make it work begins and ends with him in a starting role.

It can be a difficult prospect to convince an NBA player who has established himself as a starter in the league to accept a role off the bench, even if it is for the betterment of the team. Egos loom large in professional sports, and little affects a player’s ego more than starting versus coming off the bench. It is a belief ingrained in an athlete’s mind from the first day they start playing organized sports — the best players start — and convincing a player of the error in that intransigent way of thinking can be like talking to a wall, even with numerous examples available to prove the point.

John Havlicek, one of the greatest players in NBA history, spent the first half of his career coming off the bench for the dynastic Boston Celtics of the 1960’s. In that span, only Bill Russell was inarguably better than Havlicek on the team, but the lift he provided Boston as a reserve was a major factor in the Celtics winning six titles in Havlicek’s first seven NBA seasons — all as the team’s sixth man. With averages of 19.3 points and 6.2 rebounds, he certainly had the clout to demand a starting role over some of the aging veterans ahead of him, but as Havlicek said on his NBA.com bio, “[Being a sixth man] never bothered me because I think that role is very important to a club.”

When Gregg Popovich and the Spurs coaching staff asked Manu Ginobili to move from the starting lineup to the bench during the 2006-07 season, it was not because anyone believed Brent Barry was the superior player; it was to provide better offensive balance between the starting unit and the reserves. Understanding this, Ginobili selflessly accepted his new role, and the San Antonio Spurs went on to win (somewhat controversially) the NBA title that year.

The 2006-07 season would start Ginobili’s tenure as San Antonio’s resident sixth man, but as Popovich told ESPN’s Zach Lowe in an August article, it never would have happened had Ginobili not embraced the role.

“I don't think I’ve ever admitted this, even to my staff,” Popovich said, “but if Manu decided he was not good with it, he was gonna start. Whatever he said, we would do it. He deserved that.”

As unusual as it was for many — including teammates — to see Ginobili no longer starting games, it was that selflessness that helped mold the Spurs’ team-first culture into the model it is today. And as for Ginobili himself, he found the freedom with the second unit liberating.

“I knew I was going to play less,” Ginobili said in the same ESPN article, “but those minutes I played? I was the main option. I enjoyed that attention. We were winning. We were having fun. I ended up loving the role.”

But of sixth man examples, no one embodies Knight’s present predicament more than Jamal Crawford, the man who has been virtually eponymous with the Sixth Man award in recent seasons.

For the first nine seasons of Crawford’s career, he averaged 18.5 points as a starting combo guard. He even scored 50 points with three different teams in that time. What he didn’t do was make the playoffs. Not once.

Then he joined the Atlanta Hawks for the 2009-10 season and came off the bench for all 79 games he played that season — a stark contrast to his previous seasons.

“I never dreamed of coming off the bench. I had started my whole life, always had been one of the most talented players,” Crawford said in an article on The Undefeated. “But at that point I didn’t want to be known as a good player on a bad team. So I said I’d do whatever it takes.”

That season, he averaged 18 points off the bench — the third-highest scoring average of his career at the time — and won his first Sixth Man of the Year award.

Most importantly, he finally made the playoffs.

“You could put up numbers on bad teams, but it has little impact,” Crawford told clippers.com back in April after winning his record third Sixth Man of the Year award. “I think it’s a selfless act (coming off the bench)…you take great pride in it because you’re like, ‘Hey, I’m doing my part for the team, and it’s about the team winning.’”

This is what Brandon Knight must understand. Being asked to fill the sixth man role does not demote him to sixth-best player on the team. It is a move made with the team in mind, and if the players are forming a brotherhood as Knight said back in July, then doing what’s best for the team should be Knight’s No. 1 priority.

If Knight plays up to his potential, he will get his minutes regardless of whether he starts, and the freedom afforded to him as he leads the bench unit would boost the quality of those minutes tremendously, cutting down on the instances where he just stands on the weak side of the court waiting for the ball to swing his way. If he learns to love exploiting other teams’ weaker players off the bench, he will find that his role maintaining or building leads as sixth man is just as vital to the team’s success — if not more so — than him starting.

Of course, this is mostly conjecture. Watson has not said that he has singled out Knight for a reserve role this season. In fact, just about every role on this team should be considered fair game going into the 2016-17 season. But if Watson does choose to start Booker over Knight, then these words from legendary coach Red Auerbach in a 2002 article should be taped inside Knight’s locker:

“The starting five are those guys playing at the end.”