For the last season-and-a-half, since Jeff Hornacek took over the as coach of the Phoenix Suns and implemented his Hydra-headed point-guard attack with Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, the franchise has been one of the most exciting and most interesting teams in the NBA. The Suns have scored in bunches, ranking in the top-10 for offensive rating both this year and last, and thanks to a very young core, the team has also had a bunch of contract uncertainty, mostly concerning their starting backcourt of Bledsoe and Dragic.
Last offseason, Bledsoe was coming off his rookie deal, and Phoenix played hardball with the young guard, taking negotiations all the way into September before the two sides came to a compromised $70 million sum to keep Bledsoe around.
Suns management was obviously happy to work out a deal with Bledsoe, but they were also concerned about working out a deal with Dragic in summer 2015, since the Slovenian guard was the team’s preferred floor general and fan favorite. Considering how contentious Bledsoe’s negotiations became, along with the fact that Phoenix doled out a $9 million per year deal for Isaiah Thomas last offseason, many questioned how the Suns planned to keep ahold of Dragic the next summer, both from a monetary and leadership perspective, since running a team had long been a desire for Dragic. Still, Ryan McDonough and the rest of Phoenix’s front office seemed optimistic not just about this season, but their future beyond it, including Dragic.
Then, last Tuesday, the Suns’ plans crashed into the sun and destroyed the team, with Dragic not only telling Phoenix he would not re-sign, but essentially demanding a trade as well. Even worse, fans’ fears about the way the front office deals with players were partly validated, as Dragic publicly confessed that he felt he could no longer trust Suns ownership and skipped Wednesday’s practice.
In an attempt to appease the fan-favorite and hopeful franchise player, Phoenix moved quickly and traded Isaiah Thomas to Boston, in essence telling Dragic, “Hey, look, this can still be your team!” By all accounts, that move proved entirely futile, and the Suns were forced to move on, eventually settling on trading Dragic to the Miami Heat for a pair of future first-round draft choices and a pu-pu platter of wing players. They also reworked the Thomas trade to be a multi-team deal that allowed Phoenix to receive Brandon Knight from Milwaukee as a potential replacement for Dragic. The team wound up taking back three first-round picks.
The question is, where does all of this leave the Suns? One month ago, they were sitting pretty in the 8th and final playoff spot, hoping to run down the San Antonio Spurs in the seventh slot; now, the team stands on the outside looking in, down two men in their three-point-guard rotation and trying to retool the balance of the team with new players and new roles for everyone.
While the Dragic trade was clearly a move to safeguard against losing him for nothing in the future, the point guard had tied the Suns’ hands by alerting them of that certainty, meaning they had to weigh the value of an improbable playoff run from the 8th seed in the hyper-competitive West with Dragic versus an improbable playoff run from the 8th seed in the hyper-competitive West with future assets from a Dragic trade. Phoenix made the choice they had to for the future health of the franchise, and they did pretty well for themselves. Although they lost Dragic and a juicy first-round pick from the Lakers, they were able to get back Knight, but also three future first-round draft picks,
Make no mistake, however, the team hasn’t lost sight of a playoff berth this season. Sending out the Lakers pick cements this idea. Remember, the Suns missed out on the playoffs after winning 49 games last season, something that has further fueled the organization’s thirst for a trip to the postseason this year. Another fact to keep in mind, playoff revenue for NBA teams can fall between $1-2 million per game, meaning the Suns’ ownership has even more of a reason to stay in the playoff chase rather than completely retooling before next season.
That’s where Knight enters the picture. The point guard had been benefiting hugely from being both the floor general and main perimeter scoring threat for the Milwaukee Bucks, but he was also in a contract year, meaning Milwaukee’s front office was going to have to pony up some big bucks for the young guard. Kidd never seemed like huge fan of Knight’s score-first game from the point-guard position, and since the team will soon have to pay several other members of their young core––including more-talented players at scarcer positions like SG Giannis Antetokounmpo, SF/PF Khris Middleton, and C John Henson––Knight’s future in Milwaukee was doubtful. The Bucks were wise to get a return for him now.
In Phoenix, Knight won’t have the ball in his hands the same way he did in Milwaukee––this is clearly Eric Bledsoe’s team now. Knight will be expected to play second banana here, moving off the ball when sharing the court with Bledsoe and taking over ball-handling duties as the point guard of the second unit. Having played point guard for more than 90 percent of his court-time according to Basketball Reference, spending half his time off the ball will be an adjustment for Knight, but it’s one he shouldn’t have too much trouble making. NBA Stats says Knight shoots 40 percent from three on all catch-and-shoot opportunities, and while he’ll have to be more selective in his playmaking alongside Bledsoe, he should benefit from less defensive attention that in Milwaukee.
Unfortunately, Knight is a less-than-stellar defensive player, despite his impressive 2.5% steal rate and a 6-7 wingspan. Bledsoe had been guarding opposing shooting guards for the Suns, and if that responsibility now falls on Knight, he could struggle. He has benefited from being a part of Milwaukee’s great team defense, something Phoenix doesn’t have, which means it will be incumbent upon Knight to improve on defense, especially playing in such an undersized backcourt with Bledsoe (neither player stands taller than 6-3).
Still just 2.5 games out of the final playoff spot behind OKC and New Orleans, the Suns are gunning to make the postseason, especially after missing out last season. If they weren’t, they probably would not have traded for Knight. However, given Knight’s imminent restricted free-agency, the team also has a chance to let him walk during the offseason and gain a ton of cap flexibility, as much as $20 million to spend, Bright Side of the Sun points out, an amount Phoenix would not have had in any scenario involving re-signing Dragic.
So while the Knight trade is a sure sign that the Suns have not given up their playoff chase, it also makes Phoenix’s situation a little more fluid: they’ll be able to evaluate Knight’s fit on the team during his 25 games with the team (as well as Archie Goodwin, who’s now the third PG) and make a decision whether to re-sign him during the offseason. While his price will be high, Phoenix paid an awfully high draft-pick price to acquire him, so the team certainly seems to have an interest in keeping him around.
There’s a strong chance the Suns could wind up missing the playoffs this year, but even with Dragic, this team did not have a sure hold on a postseason spot, and his new contract was sure to take up all of Phoenix’s remaining cap space after this season. By holding the team hostage, Dragic forced the team to make a critical decision regarding both their present and future, and the way he did it actually made him look worse than the Suns’ brass.
While the present might be difficult, the future possibilities for Phoenix without having to pay Dragic make this team’s trajectory, once again, one of the most intriguing in the land going forward.