To acquire Brandon Knight at the trade deadline, the Phoenix Suns gave up a lot of valuable assets. That much is clear.
First, the Suns were apparently offering Goran Dragic straight up for Knight. There were rumors of a Dragic/Knight trade offer last summer as well as this one at the 2015 deadline.
When the Bucks said no, the Suns got creative. The Bucks wanted Michael Carter-Williams and the Sixers wanted more draft picks. So the Suns swapped their #Top5Protected pick for Michael Carter-Williams, effectively, then added in Miles Plumlee and Tyler Ennis to the deal to finally get Knight to the Suns.
The Sixers got, potentially, a great pick for the disappointing MCW. Worst case for the Suns: the Sixers get lucky, cash in on a 17% chance to get the 6th pick THIS YEAR from the Lakers (who are a virtual lock at 4th in the race for worst) or a top-10 pick next year if the Lakers can't find a way to get significantly better this summer. Best case for the Suns is that the Lakers have a really good summer and they get better enough to make it a late-lotto pick after all.
The Bucks,m for their part, got three young players for Knight and will still make the playoffs in a terrible conference. None are stars, but the Bucks can control their payroll now.
The Suns meanwhile gave up three first round picks - a likely 2016 lottery pick, a late 2012 first (Plumlee) and a middling 2014 first (Ennis) - for Knight, who is apparently asking for more than $10 million per year, starting in 2015-16.
The big question is, why give up so much?
What's so great about Brandon Knight?
On the surface, Knight is a failed point guard experiment. The former #4 prospect in the nation, drafted 8th overall in the 2011 NBA Draft, he averaged just 13.1 points and 3.9 assists over two years for the Detroit Pistons. His shooting was abysmal, making just 41% overall and 37% on three pointers.
After two years, Knight's ability to run a team did not inspire confidence from national writers. Back in August of 2013, just after Knight was traded to Milwaukee, Zach Lowe gave the lowdown on Knight's biggest deficiency as a point guard: being a half-second late on decision-making, leaving him missing open passes and making bad decisions despite his best intentions. Not what you're looking for if you're trying to ride the Greg Monroe / Andre Drummond train back to the playoffs.
The Pistons were so ready for a change, they swapped Knight, still with two years left on his cheap rookie deal, AND Slava (who was traded to the Suns weeks later) AND Khris Middleton for the right to pay Brandon Jennings $8 million a year.
Let's say that again: one of the league's worst teams dumped a 21-year old point guard so they could pay a 24-year old journeyman $8 million per year... only to acquire restricted free agent-to-be Reggie Jackson (also older than Knight) just 18 months later so they could pay him more money than Knight would ever demand.
What does that say about Brandon Knight?
Well, hold your answer. The story isn't over quite yet.
Brandon Knight rewarded his new team, the Bucks, by making a huge leap in his personal stats (17.9 points, 4.9 assists per game). But after leading the Pistons to records of 25-41 followed by 29-53, he led the Bucks to a league-worst 15-67 season under Larry Drew.
After that season, despite the awful win totals, the Bucks reportedly offered Knight $9 million per year in an extension that would kick in this summer (2015) and make him a Buck for the near and medium-term future. Knight, seeing the league's dollar signs growing each year, declined the offer and decided to roll the dice on getting a bigger contract.
Here's what Brewhoop said of the Bucks waiting to extend Knight:
Would you rather commit $12 million annually for a 22-year-old who might become a really good player, or would you rather wait a year and pay him $15 million only if he actually becomes really good? As any investor knows, options have value, and the Bucks effectively have one with Knight. Knight's early season numbers have been impressive, but there's plenty of season left as well.
Last fall, Zach Lowe wrote about Knight being an extension candidate who still had too many questions in his game to warrant huge money. He suggested the Bucks should hold firm on a low deal, and that was after Knight put up 18 and 5.
Knight is a great guy and a tenacious worker, but he doesn't seem primed for a massive breakout. The Bucks can hold a firm line at $7 million or lower.
Then things got better for Knight.
This season in Milwaukee was a revelation. Knight showed he could be the lead dog on a winning team - the Bucks were 30-23 - while still putting up 18 and 5. He improved in every area, dishing a career high 5.4 assists a game and making 41% of his three point shots. He also led the Bucks to several wins as the offensive catalyst, despite the incredible youth in the starting lineup (he and Middleton just 22, Greek Freak and Jabari Parker just 19).
And yet he was traded anyway.
"Yeah, it was very tough because of what he's accomplished in a short amount of time," [coach Jason] Kidd said after the trade. "We talked when he got traded and then we talked later that night, giving him a little time to catch his breath. Because it's emotional.
"It's very emotional. Especially going through the year last year (league's worst record) and then coming back this year and proving and betting on himself because there was no deal done."
Why would the Bucks trade their lead point guard in the middle of a playoff race?
Asked about the Knight trade's impact on the team, Kidd said: "It's something much bigger than that that you guys are going to have to wait and write about.
"Right? You guys look at the moment. Sometimes you've got to look in front of you. I think the trade was a good thing, a positive thing no matter how our record shakes out.
"We're here to build something, not to do something in six months. There's a bigger picture. We feel we have a core here that will be around for a long time and have success."
Maybe it's not all about Knight though
The bigger picture might just be who else is a free agent this summer: Khris Middleton. Could the Bucks have brought back both Knight and Middleton by matching any offers? Sure. Would the cost have outweighed their potential delivery as a back court tandem in the future? Maybe. That's likely the biggest decision: the Bucks chose to focus on Middleton over Knight.
The Bucks started losing, a lot, but still have managed to stay in the playoff race. They lost 15 of 20 games after the Knight trade, and MCW has been awful at shooting. But they're still in 6th.
Are the Bucks better now? No. Might they be in the future? We shall see.
(By the way, the Bucks now have Middleton, MCW, Ennis and Plumlee for Brandon freaking Jennings)
Now in Phoenix, with his RFA rights held by the Suns, he was only able to play in 11 games and didn't show particularly well in any of them. He did hit (effectively) a game winner against the Nets, but otherwise his play was down across the board: 13 points, 4.5 assists, 33% shooting. Kinda like Detroit all over again.
The rest of the story
Sure, we can make a good guess that Brandon Knight is not a star. But there are still some very good indicators for Knight's continued growth into something more than he is today.
He went from 13 and 4 in Detroit from 2011-2013 to 18 and 5 in Milwaukee from 2013-15, all while occasionally sharing the point guard duties and defending bigger players like the Suns want him to do.
On defense, Knight spent a fair bit of time guarding wing players last season (2013-14), and he's rangy enough to survive on most nights against the league's sad array of 2-guards. But one bad matchup renders that scheme untenable, and in a playoff series, that is death.
Knight is long and quick defending point guards, and he works hard chasing guys around screens. The Bucks did a fair bit of off-ball switching on the perimeter last season, and given Giannis Antetokounmpo's versatility, they have the potential to turn into a long-armed house of mirrors.
The Bucks this season were #2 in defense with Knight in the lineup, proving Lowe's point that the Bucks used their length and ability to switch on the perimeter to their advantage.
Knight is still young, just now turned 23 years old (this spring), and yet he has more starting experience than anyone on the Suns roster. He's played both PG and SG, and is long enough to defend all along the perimeter.
And potentially more than anything else, he's a vocal leader the Suns desperately need. You have to throw his 11-game stats with the Suns out the window entirely and base your decision on whether you think he topped out in Milwaukee or is still just scratching the surface.
Is 18/5 with outspoken leadership and starting combo guard experience worth $12-14 million per year?
Or is being too short for bigger SGs and too limited in "pure point" skills too much of a detriment to keep him long term next to Eric Bledsoe?
Maybe there's even one more reason the Suns would pay Knight this summer.
A re-signed Knight is a good insurance policy at PG in case the Suns have the opportunity to swap Bledsoe for a great front court player. Think about it: let's say the Suns find an All-Star big man they want, and need to give up a potential All-Star talent to get him? Without Knight in the fold, you can't give up Bledsoe. But with a re-signed Knight, you most certainly can.
I don't know what will happen this summer, and I'm sure Brandon Knight doesn't know either. Neither do the Suns.
No wonder he's hedging his bets and taking the rest of the season off, rather than limping through a handful of meaningless games over the next week.