Suns blow up roster at deadline, get Brandon Knight
PHOENIX — The Suns emerged from Thursday’s trade-deadline melee with Brandon Knight replacing Goran Dragic as Eric Bledsoe’s sidekick in a full-attack, point-guard backcourt.
But this bottom-line read isn’t nearly that simple.
While ultimately exchanging Dragic — a 28-year-old, third-team All-NBA choice last season — for a 23-year-old, rising hotshot in Knight, the Suns also jettisoned fan-polarizing point guard Isaiah Thomas. And when all the dust and players had settled, the Suns had shipped off five players and a highly coveted first-round draft pick in exchange for four replacements and three first-round picks — though none of the picks fall into that coveted range.
So, one day after Dragic’s trade-me ultimatum — officially inspired by the presence of too-many ball-dominant point guards — Phoenix general manager Ryan McDonough and crew now have created an even younger core of very talented (but not elite) pieces.
The Suns also converted a seeming doomsday crisis into a reason to believe the future remains ignited.
Instead of having a disgruntled Dragic still on board while attempting to hold off the Oklahoma City for the eighth spot in the Western Conference playoffs, they were able to remove Dragic for assets without absorbing a bad contract. Whether that’s enough to prevent Oklahoma City’s championship-level roster from making up a half-game in the standings remains to be seen, but it looms as a major longshot.
In exchange for the Dragic and brother Zoran leaving the Suns for the Heat, Phoenix will receive veteran small forward Danny Granger, Miami’s 2017 first-round pick (top-seven protected) and the Heat’s unprotected, first-round selection in 2021.
The other players coming Phoenix’s way are two-guard Marcus Thornton (from Boston) and small forward John Salmons (New Orleans).
Thornton doesn’t figure to score at the rate Thomas provided this season but could provide more two-way balance.
The biggest deadline triumph, however, is the acquisition of Knight.
He’ll be a restricted free agent this summer and turned down an offer from his old team — the Milwaukee Bucks — that started at $9 million per year.
Knight — like Bledsoe a one-and-done player from the University of Kentucky — was giving the Bucks 17.8 points and 5 assists per game while burying 41 percent of his attempts from beyond the 3-point arc.
Based on player-efficiency rating, he’s ranked 12th among NBA point guards (three spots behind Bledsoe). Knight is averaged 0.82 points per pick-and-roll possession, slightly lower than Bledsoe and a bit higher than Dragic this season. His turnover frequency on ball screens is higher than the league average, but less than both Bledsoe and Dragic.
Based on the chronology of his entry into the league, pay-scale limits should enable the Suns to keep him for less than retaining Dragic would have required. To land Knight, the Suns had to surrender rookie point guard Tyler Ennis, valuable backup center Miles Plumlee and — this is the tough one — the top-five protected first-round pick the Los Angeles Lakers owe Phoenix from the Steve Nash trade.
That nugget, which would slide to top-three protected next season if the woeful Lakers remain in the top/bottom five this June, could have been one avenue leading Phoenix to an elite-level talent.
Only time will tell if that particular selection yields a player of Knight’s caliber.
It now belongs to the Philadelphia 76ers, who allowed Milwaukee to part with Knight by sending 2014 Rookie-of-the-Year Michael Carter-Williams to the Bucks. Ennis and Plumlee are also part of the Bucks’ haul.
Thomas is going to Boston in exchange for the aforementioned Thornton, a free-agent-to-be who averaged 18 points per game for Sacramento three seasons back.
The Celtics also are sending the Suns a 2016 first-round pick that originally belonged to the Cleveland Cavaliers. The pick is top-10 protected for three seasons, but presuming LeBron James doesn’t get restless, it should be Phoenix’s late in the first round next year.
With the point-guard herd dramatically thinned, the Suns now only have Bledsoe and Knight. They did receive Kendall Marshall from Milwaukee as part of the Knight deal, but are expected to waive him.
What matters to the position-blurring Suns is having two talented, young players who can create scoring opportunities off the bounce and compete on defense.
This whittling leaves second-year shooting guard Archie Goodwin as the closest thing to a ballhandler if Bledsoe and Knight sit at the same time.
The backcourt still has plenty of off-guard types, with Thornton joining a crowd that includes Gerald Green, Goodwin and Reggie Bullock.
There’s also a crowd (for now) at small forward, where Granger and Salmons join holdovers P.J. Tucker, Marcus Morris and rookie T.J. Warren.
Granger, whose rise to stardom as an Indiana Pacer was wrecked by a knee injury, averaged 6.3 points per game in limited minutes with the Miami Heat.
For salary-matching purposes, the New Orleans Pelicans were included in the Suns-Heat deal. Their contribution to Phoenix’s return is Salmons, a 35-year-old small forward who saw limited action with the Pelicans.
Although McDonough last week admitted a roster imbalance needed to be fixed, it didn’t exactly happen Thursday. With rebounding and rim protection still an issue, the Suns passed the deadline by subtracting Plumlee.
That leaves the Suns with second-year center Alex Len (whose injured ankle isn’t expected to keep him out of Friday’s game with the Timberwolves in Minnesota), power forward Markieff Morris and recently acquired post player Brandan Wright as their inside presence.