All was looking good for Brandon Knight when the Phoenix Suns acquired him in a three team trade just a couple hours before the trade deadline in February of 2015. A season and a half later Knight finds himself sitting out from mid February to the end of the season and it’s looking like Phoenix is almost in the same exact place they were just three seasons ago.
Logjam of Point Guards
Back in the 2014 offseason, the Suns had what looked like the best trio of point guards you could possibly have on one team. That included Goran Dragic whom learned under Steve Nash, Eric Bledsoe who was an acquisition in the 2013 offseason and Isaiah Thomas who the Suns got for a steal of a deal ($27 mill over a four year deal) on a sign and trade with the Sacramento Kings.
The 2014 offseason was just a few months removed from an unexpected 48-34 record with Phoenix not expected to have much success due to an abysmal 25-57 record the season before. Phoenix missed out on a playoff berth but there was a lot to be excited about considering the addition of Alex Len in the 2013 draft (the year before) and TJ Warren who was just drafted in the offseason.
Heading into the season, no one really knew how much playing time each point guard would receive. Unfortunately due to that fact, this point guard group didn’t even last the whole season. Goran Dragic was not a fan of his role and requested a trade in mid February. Per sources, Paul Coro of Azcentral Sports stated Dragic was not a fan of his role in Phoenix: “I don’t feel comfortable with my situation,” he said, adding, “It’s just different. Standing in the corner, it’s not my game. I see that we’re not going the right direction. That’s why I take action and try to put myself in a better position.”
Dragic definitely had a good reason to be frustrated considering he catapulted his game going into the 2014 season. He averaged 20.3 points, 5.9 assists, and 3.6 rebounds on 50.5% shooting from the field and 40.8% from three. That included career highs (at the time) in points, field goal percentage, three point percentage and minutes (35.1 per game) in the 76 games he played during the regular season. Not only did he set career highs, but also made the third all NBA team and won Most Improved Player.
That soon led to Goran Dragic and his brother Zoran Dragic being traded to the Miami Heat in exchange for Danny Granger, John Salmons, Miami’s 2017 first round pick (top seven protected) and Miami’s 2021 unprotected first round pick. His second stint was a successful one in Phoenix (on Rockets in 2010 and 2011 seasons), but he lacked the trust of the ownership of Phoenix and the lack of his role and playing time led to this deal going through, with the Heat being a team he wanted to get dealt to.
Not much needs to be said to understand how big of a mess up it was for the Suns organization to trade away Isaiah Thomas to the Boston Celtics and get robbed after they stole away Thomas from the Kings. Frankly, at that time fans knew Thomas was a good player considering his third season with the Kings in 2013, he scored 20.3 points per game on 45.3 percent shooting and 6.3 assists per game, showing he could help lead a team, as the first or second best player.
Thomas helped Phoenix greatly off the bench averaging 15.2 points per game on 42.6 percent shooting and 39.1 percent from downtown. He was really a spark plug Phoenix utilized off of the bench. This was short-lived because after 46 games Phoenix shipped Thomas to Boston for Marcus Thornton and the Cleveland Cavaliers 2016 first round pick.
It’s fair to say not many saw Thomas’s 2016-2017 NBA season coming. He had his best season in year seven putting up 28.9 points a game, 5.9 assists a game, 46.3 percent from the field, and 37.9 percent from three. This man played the game like a sniper and with heart over everything.
Leading the Boston Celtics to the first seed in the Eastern Conference and to the conference finals were feats not many expected coming into the season. Thomas has now rewarded himself by being able to receive a max deal due to making the all-NBA second team and he definitely deserves it, although there are rumors that the Celtics could look to trade him because of his age (28) and the loaded 2017 NBA draft.
Does this look familiar the situation of the 2014 Suns? It looks pretty close. The Suns have a history of acquiring Kentucky guards, whether it’s through trade, the draft or free agency. Add Brandon Knight to this list.
Brandon Knight is only 25 years old, but it feels like he’s a lot older with the Suns being the third team in his career already, only seven seasons in. Many people, including myself thought Phoenix was a good fit for him, but it went from not so good to worse. After only debuting for Phoenix in 11 games, nine of those being starts, he sprained his left ankle. In those 11 starts he put up 13.4 points per game on 35.7 percent shooting, and 31.3 percent from three. The worst part is that Phoenix gave him a five year, $70 million dollar deal right away in the offseason when he hardly played any games to prove himself.
Going into the 2015 season, fans had confidence that Knight could be a good scoring option for this team. He scored just under 20 points a game at 19.6, which was pretty good, but his inconsistency on the floor is what killed the Suns these past couple seasons. One game Brandon would score 32 and the next it’s like he wasn’t even on the court. To add to that, he doesn’t even make up for it on defense. Phoenix has been one of the worst teams in overall defense in the past ranking 26th and 28th in the past two seasons alone and he deserves part of the blame for that. Injuries led to Knight only playing 52 games in 2015-2016 and 54 in the 2016-2017 season, so you can see the concern other teams are facing if they are looking to trade for him, and his stock has gotten considerably lower each season that has went by.
This may be the most intriguing situation Phoenix has on their hands with Eric Bledsoe. Currently in the midst of his 5 year, $70 million dollar contract, Bledsoe could be on the way out of Phoenix because of the 2017 NBA draft having four guards possibly being taken within the first five picks. Phoenix is slotted at number four and could opt to take Lonzo Ball if the Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers pass on him or take De’Aaron Fox if he is available.
Eric Bledsoe just had his best season for the Suns posting career highs in points at 21.1, 6.3 assists, free throw makes (5.9) and attempts (6.9), and free throw percentage (84.7). The part of his game that was most impressive was drawing fouls and cashing in on them. His three-point percentage considerably went down from 37.2 percent to 33.5 percent. If Phoenix is willing to move on from the 27-year-old point guard, a good amount of contending teams could utilize him.
Teams like the Utah Jazz (if George Hill leaves), the Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs, and even the Minnesota Timberwolves. Minnesota could be the most intriguing option considering they have been looking to get rid of Ricky Rubio for quite some time and out of those teams, they have the best to offer. The pairing of Bledsoe and Karl Anthony-Towns would make for a great pick and roll and he could help distribute to Andrew Wiggins and Zach Lavine as the primary outside scorers. Bledsoe would provide what they need, a guard that can drive and kick, as well as knock down mid range shots. They add a player that can help them win now in the prime of Bledsoe’s career and Phoenix gets more draft picks and a solid player, maybe Dieng at the C position and continue to build around Booker.
Emergence Of Tyler Ulis
The second half of the season wasn’t exactly a failure if we are talking about Tyler Ulis because he is what made the games more watchable for the Suns. Drafted with the 34th overall pick, this kid had a chance to come up big and be an absolute steal. He showcased his talents in summer league and was quick to make a good impression.
Ulis averaged 14.5 points, 6.4 assists and 2.8 steals per game in Summer League as the Suns came one game short of making the Summer League championship. These performances did not go unnoticed for the fact that he came up big on the biggest stage. The game winner he hit against Denver was just special.
Now he didn’t really get any playing time until the second half of the season so it was satisfying to finally see him get the playing time he deserved. From the all-star break till the end of the season, Tyler Ulis averaged 12.7 points and 7.3 assists per game and you could instantly see how much more he affected the game on a positive note than Brandon Knight did. He won Defensive Player of the Year in the SEC at Kentucky in 2016. The difference out there defensively for Ulis alone was impressive considering his 5-foot 9-inch frame.
In the month of April alone he put up 20.7 points and 6.8 assists a game and won Rookie of the Month. In the small sample size he showed how good of a point guard he could be when he was the floor general. With Eric Bledsoe sitting out, Ulis was able to play 35-40 minutes a game, which was good for his development.
Tyler Ulis could be potentially be a sixth man that can be counted on. He isn’t the most efficient mid-range shooter, but he is capable of hitting them consistently with more development and is a good finisher at the rack. In fact, you could argue above average because of how small he is. The part that most impresses scout’s the most was being able to get his shot off in traffic in the paint and a lot of those shots were tough floaters that went in.
Phoenix is in a good position with Eric Bledsoe and Tyler Ulis running the helm. Their main priority is to find a wiling trade partner for Knight and that will be tough with his heavy contract and slew of injuries in the past. The Suns can go in the right direction by trading away Knight for anything at this point and then drafting a wing player like Josh Jackson at pick number four if available. The last thing the Suns want to do is draft another point guard with three point guards already on the roster, especially if they don’t get rid of at least one of them. The situation could happen again where guys like Knight or Bledsoe want out with all the uncertainty of where the team is heading. A lot can happen from now till opening night, and certainly don’t count anything out when draft night occurs.