Brandon Knight's time with the Suns last season could have gone better. A lot better. Now the Suns must decide how to proceed with the restricted free agent after an underwhelming 11 game sample size.
I cheated on this report card.
I actually cheated on the last one (Report Card: The front office floundered) I did, too.
Last time I enlisted the aid of other Bright Side staff writers to do most of the heavy lifting for me. This time I got Frank Madden from Brew Hoop, the SB Nation Milwaukee Bucks site, to answer some questions about restricted free agent Brandon Knight.
Rather than look back at a failed opportunity to see Eric Bledsoe and Knight operate in tandem, I think a broader perspective of Brandon's time as a Buck might be more helpful in assessing what lies ahead.
Hopefully this will elucidate certain parts of this situation, but unfortunately others may be more turbid.
Big ups to Frank for taking time to answer these questions.
Headed into the All-Star break the Bucks were 30-23 and 23 year old Brandon Knight was averaging close to 18 points, 6 assists and 2 steals per game while shooting over 40% from three point range. What was it about Knight that didn't fit into Milwaukee's vision for the future?
I think they liked Knight for the kind of team they were right now -- his shooting and scoring ability compensated well for the team's lack of scorers -- but the idea of paying him $13-$15 million to be a middle-of-the-pack scoring point guard just wasn't something they were too thrilled about going forward. He was also known to be stubborn about his role -- he's always insisted he's a point guard -- and they didn't necessarily see his shoot-first ways meshing with Giannis and Jabari's development long-term. So I think it was just a matter of not being in love with him and seeing the package of MCW, Ennis and Plumlee as too tempting (and cap-friendly) to turn down.
Whether that ends up being a smart move is of course debatable. They certainly weren't better for it this season, though they will be more flexible financially over the next couple seasons while MCW and Tyler Ennis are still on their rookie deals. On the flip side, if the Laker pick ends up in the top half of the lottery and neither MCW nor Ennis pan out they'll be second-guessed on that end as well.
If Knight is retained by the Suns next season he will be asked to play off the ball more. His usage rate plummeted from 26.6 to 22.6 after the trade (it was 26.8 the previous season) and Goran Dragic also experienced a dip in Phoenix's two point guard system. Can Knight be effective in this type of offensive scheme?
I think he absolutely has the skillset for it -- he was a terrific catch-and-shoot guy last season and has been an above-average three point shooter in three of his four pro seasons. But on a fundamental level he's a guy who wants the ball and needs it to put up big numbers, which is why I'd also be hesitant to convert him into an out-and-out shooting guard.
On that topic, he's always been rather resolute in considering himself a point guard, so I'm also not sure how excited he'll be to play second fiddle to Bledsoe much of the time. Is it better for a team to have Knight putting up good numbers in a lesser role, or bigger numbers in a more prominent role? I'm not sure what the answer is, but I'm guessing Knight and his agent would prefer the latter. I'm very curious to see what kind of deal they're willing to take this summer.
Dragic made it clear that he wasn't fond of being matched up against larger shooting guards when playing as the de facto two guard on defense. Will Brandon Knight, with similar physical measurables, be able to succeed in this role?
He was a solid defender in Milwaukee and he's had experience defending both backcourt spots; I think he's better suited to defending point guards because of his size -- he's big for a PG and below average at SG -- but I don't think he'll be victimized most nights either. I would assume you'd prefer to put Bledsoe on whichever guard was a bigger offensive threat and let Knight take the lesser guy.
One of the Suns most salient weaknesses last season was absence of leadership? What are your thoughts on Knight as a locker room presence and leader?
He definitely wants to be a leader -- there's no shortage of quotes from him while he was in Milwaukee talking about it, and he certainly wasn't afraid to make big plays for the Bucks late in games this past season. On paper he's also a good candidate: he's a smart kid, a very hard worker, a good citizen off the court, and someone that was generally liked by teammates. That said, I'd hazard that his confidence sometimes gets in the way of common sense at times. He definitely seems to have a high opinion of his own abilities, and at times that might be to the detriment of the team. That was always part of my concern with his fit in Milwaukee long-term -- would he ever embrace being a third option a la Mike Conley? Or would he always feel like he should be getting his shots? Not a *huge* concern, but something you at least think about it given the sort of money he's looking to get.
Knight is a restricted free agent and the Suns have publicly expressed their interest in bringing him back. Still, price point may be a factor in this decision. Is Knight worth a max or near max deal in free agency (all things considered including the impending salary cap explosion)?
Given the trajectory of the cap going forward, I think he probably would have (begrudgingly) been worth maxing in Milwaukee, simply because the Bucks needed his scoring and benefited from his ball dominance in ways that many other teams (including the Suns) wouldn't have. The Bucks also would have had the flexibility to pay both Knight and Middleton something approaching max deals this summer, and it probably would have been hard to get better value spending the money elsewhere if the Bucks had both as RFAs this summer. Instead, the Bucks will now have a max slot to play with in addition to likely bringing back Middleton.
In Phoenix I'm not sure Knight has the same value, though it's difficult to say given how little we saw of Knight with the Suns. Obviously the Dragic/Bledsoe combo worked to a large extent on the court, so there's precedent for Bledsoe playing well with another ballhandler. But the depth of the NBA's point guard position is something of a double-edged sword -- even if there are 15-20 good-to-great PGs in the league, are you willing to spend $30 million per season on two guys who are good but fall short of being elite? I have higher hopes for Bledsoe being a top 8-10 guy at some point, but I'm not sure Knight is ever going to be better than a top 12-15 type, and he could easily drop further if he's not seeing much of the ball or his three point shooting takes a dip.
All of which should make Knight a fascinating guy to watch this summer. From the outside, I would have to think he'll be back one way or another; considering the price they paid for him in February, it would obviously be a PR disaster if they let him walk a couple months later, and I would have to think they were comfortable with the possibility of maxing him when they made the trade. Still, unless it's a matching scenario there's no strong reason for the Suns to give it to him without a fight, which probably won't thrill Arn Tellem and company. So I could certainly see it devolving into another Bledsoe situation, where Knight's camp eventually tries to play the qualifying offer card in order to coax a big deal out of the Suns. Considering the coming cap explosion that sort of threat figures to have more teeth than usual, especially if Knight would prefer a destination where he's the full-time point guard.
My Brew Crew Breakdown
1. Knight is currently a middle of the pack score first point guard. Is that his ceiling?
2. Knight is adamant about playing as a point guard. Will he defer to Bledsoe?
3. Knight has potential to be a good leader, but his need to be an alpha may be disruptive.
4. Knight is a solid defender, but will be less effective against bigger shooting guards than he is against point guards.
5. Knight's production may suffer without the ball in his hands, although parts of his skill set (e.g. ability to catch and shoot) adumbrate auspiciously.
6. Giving Knight a max or near max contract may be a stretch, especially as part of a $30 million dollar back court.
7. Brandon is the type of character guy and personality the Suns sorely need.
It's pretty pointless to gauge Knight's potential future as a Sun based on the miserable 11 games he suited up for prior to his injury. It's equally pointless to grade him on the sample. Of course, if he had played really well in those games it might be somewhat more comforting.
Brandon Knight remains an enigma.
What kind of money will he demand? Can he coexist in the same back court with Bledsoe? Will we all have Rich Paul/Goran Dragic flashbacks?
Rather than gamble on a big payday for Knight, the Bucks decided to roll the dice on an older, more turnover prone point guard with a TS% below .500, which has to be the NBA version of the Mendoza Line. Not necessarily a ringing endorsement.
Now Ryan McDonough may be doubling up on a system that failed spectacularly last season because Goran Dragic was unhappy playing as a shooting guard.
The new component that is supposed to make the system work... a guy who will likely be unhappy playing as a shooting guard.
Whether it will be a harmonic convergence or dueling point guards part two remains to be seen...