No-Limit Phoenix Hold ’Em: How the Suns Went All In to Build for the FutureIssac Baldizon/NBAE/Getty Images
The Big Deal
It’s refreshing to get a reminder that in this age of technocratic team-building — of analytics, risk-reward calculations, arcane cap rules, and pegging a value on everything — crazy and unpredictable stuff can blow up all of your sophisticated planning.
Just ask the Phoenix Suns. They tried to tank last season and instead damn near made the playoffs, with a turbo-charged dual point guard system, great coaching, and fun chemistry. They tripled down on that over the summer, signing Isaiah Thomas to a killer contract as part of a push to crack the West’s top eight. They never planned to be the stars of perhaps the wildest trade deadline in league history.
“The whole purpose of it was to give all three guys rest, so that they’d have gas in the tank for a playoff run,” says Suns coach Jeff Hornacek. “That was the plan, anyway. It was surprising for Goran [Dragic] to say he wasn’t going to sign back. It forced us to make some moves.”
In one furious hour, Phoenix became the most talked-about franchise in the league — a team still stuck between contention and mediocrity, with an uncertain path forward. No one would be chattering had Phoenix stopped after the deal that sent Goran Dragic to Miami for first-round picks in 2017 and 2021.1 Those picks seem far away, but they represent great return for an impending free agent who demanded a trade to a group of glamour teams short on glamorous trade assets. The Heat have stars, the beach, a friendly tax code, and a history of reloading at hyper speed. It’s tempting to assume they will always be good, and that those picks will end up in the 20s.
That’s what the Lakers thought when they flipped four picks, including two first-rounders, to the Suns for Steve Nash. It’s the cavalier attitude that had Brooklyn tossing away picks and swap rights through approximately 2085 to load up on old guys and win one playoff series. The future is uncertain, and by getting two picks spaced four years apart, Phoenix maximized its chances of catching the Heat in a down cycle at least once.
The Suns might have been able to snag Luol Deng in that same trade, but they never asked about him, according to sources familiar with the talks. That’s especially revealing in connection with the whirlwind of deals that accompanied the Dragic trade: the three-team blockbuster that ended with Brandon Knight in Phoenix, and the separate deal sending Thomas to Boston for another pick.
The Suns took in three future first-rounders, but the one they sent out for Knight is among the most valuable trade assets in the league: a protected first-round pick from the Lakers, via the Nash trade, that is mostly likely to fall in the lottery next season.2 Most rival executives say they would rather have that single pick plus Thomas over the package of players and picks that Phoenix snagged at the deadline. You can understand why.
The Suns obviously disagree. They were willing to move the L.A. pick for the right player, and even offered it to the Bucks after Milwaukee turned down a direct Dragic-Knight swap, per several league sources. “Everybody loves the L.A. pick,” says Phoenix GM Ryan McDonough. “The concept of a pick is great, but it’s more of a sure thing to get a 23-year-old who is a borderline All-Star in the East.”
This is, in the end, a giant bet on Knight. “We had a great chip, and we cashed it in for a good young player,” McDonough says. The Suns also opened up more cap space for this summer, but once you factor in Knight’s $8.9 million cap hold,3 the difference amounts to only about $2 million. Phoenix could have stood pat after the Dragic deal and still had something like $12 million in space to chase Knight in free agency — while keeping that juicy Lakers pick.
It’s hard to wring restricted free agents away from teams. The Suns saw a chance to get a long-term wing in the same age band as their other core guys — another player they could have under contract for a half-decade — and they took it.
We will be monitoring this risk for years. Knight is a solid player, a good long-range shooter with the size to defend wings and the speed to get to the basket at will. He has struggled to slow down, probe the defense, and create open looks for teammates — the high-level point guard stuff.4
Even as Knight piled up borderline All-Star numbers, the Bucks struggled with him on the floor and took off when their heady bench crew sent Knight to the pine.
The Suns saw all of that and shoved the Lakers pick to the center of the table anyway. It’s a bet that the numbers are misleading — that Knight had to carry an inexperienced starting lineup of nonshooters and that he’ll do better playing off the ball more next to Eric Bledsoe. “We think his spot-up shooting makes him a terrific fit alongside Bledsoe,” McDonough says. “And we’ve had a fair amount of success with the two-point-guard system here.”
It’s also a bet on their read of the marketplace. Look around the league for a wing player that was both available at the deadline and “worth” the Lakers pick. You can’t find one. The wing players who hit the market are mostly midcareer guys who moved for heavily protected picks that will likely end up in the 20s. The wings who match the value of that pick are either on expiring deals or unavailable — including all the guys on rookie deals, like Victor Oladipo and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who Phoenix likely talked about to at least some degree. Even guys in the sweet spot of being young, under contract, and potentially attainable with a huge offer, like Avery Bradley and Harrison Barnes, aren’t worth the Lakers pick.5
Why They Dealt for Brandon Knight
You can rationalize zeroing in on Knight within that landscape. He is a restricted free agent, meaning Phoenix can lock him up for four seasons after this one. In a world of short contracts, that longevity is meaningful; Phoenix signed Bledsoe and both Morris twins to at least four seasons last summer. They will sign Knight’s contract at the perfect time — right before the cap boom that will make most contracts signed this summer look like relative bargains. Even a max deal for Knight won’t make you vomit a year from now, when it will eat up only about 16 or 17 percent of a $90 million cap.
Being granted a lottery pick in this year’s draft thanks to the NBA’s warped conference system also softens the blow of sending the L.A. pick away.
If you’re worried the Lakers will achieve mediocrity next season and pick something like 12th, you can add up all of this big-picture stuff, swallow hard, and arrive at a place where Phoenix got fair value for that L.A. pick.
On the flip side, if you can’t find a player worthy of your trade asset, perhaps you should just pocket it. Other teams knew the L.A. pick was on the table but got the sense Phoenix envisioned netting a better player than Knight. McDonough has the track record of a guy who could absolutely nail the no. 12 pick, and storing it in the war chest another year would have kept Phoenix well stocked in case some star player became disgruntled — and for the sign-and-trade market this summer. Thomas on a declining contract is a great trade piece, and the Suns gave up all the extras in Miles Plumlee and Tyler Ennis — a dude who was picked just outside the lottery less than a year ago. Those aren’t random throw-ins. Sometimes the extras define the deal; just ask the Bucks and Pistons about Khris Middleton.
Rushing to fill Dragic’s spot with Knight also feels a little like a panicky move from a team desperate to replace Dragic right away — a team perhaps too caught up in chasing last season’s unexpected success.6 The Suns could have used a worse draft pick to nab a player who would have kept them in the playoff race this season, though a lot of those guys — Arron Afflalo, Jeff Green, and others — are on expiring contracts. Phoenix could have paid a little to get a little. It chose to pay a lot to get Knight.
Knight has to be damned good to justify all of this, and the Suns have to leverage the extra cap flexibility they created for this summer. They are still a move away from opening up max-level room, but if a star free agent commits, the Suns will make that move in a pinch — even if it costs them. They’d also have to renounce Brandan Wright to open up all of that space, and risk losing him to a big offer early in free agency if they trawl for bigger fish.
Every team with cap room this summer is grappling with the same question: How urgent is the need to spend that money now, before nearly the entire league has major room in the summer of 2016? No team wants to give off a whiff of desperation, but it’s a major topic of discussion. “Just because we have the money doesn’t mean we’re going to spend it for the sake of spending it,” McDonough says.
Knight fills a positional need as a pseudo-wing of the future, even if he considers himself a point guard. Gerald Green is a sieve on defense and probably isn’t long for this franchise. P.J. Tucker is a brick wall, but he doesn’t have enough off-the-bounce juice or range outside the corners to work as an ideal long-term solution. Marcus Morris toggles between the two forward positions. With Knight onboard, Phoenix can chase frontcourt studs in free agency, even if signing one might mean bringing Markieff Morris off the bench as a super-sub.
What the Suns Need to Improve Now
What Phoenix really needs is defense, and it’s unclear how much Knight moves the needle there. The Suns have maintained a top-10-level offense for two years despite injuries to Bledsoe, chemistry issues, the loss of Channing Frye, and other roster turnover. This team can score. It would have kept right on scoring with Thomas backing up Bledsoe, though Thomas would have agitated for a starting job.
But they’re 17th in points allowed per possession after clocking in at 13th last season, and improving that number is the only way for Phoenix to leap into 50-win territory. Phoenix has been a top-10 defense since the trade deadline, but Knight has barely played because of injury, and the sample is tiny.
The Suns likely would have improved organically with experience, targeted signings, and some offseason adjustments. Step 1 is cleaning up the transition defense. Phoenix ranks a strong seventh in points allowed per possession in the half court, according to Synergy Sports, but it’s getting roasted in transition.
It’s tempting to blame Bledsoe, who ranks ninth in turnovers per game and often ends up on his ass after wild driving misses, leaving the Suns to play four-on-five the other way. That stuff hurts, but Phoenix isn’t coughing up live-ball turnovers at an alarming rate; about 56 percent of their turnovers are of the live-ball variety, right about the league average, per SportVU data provided to Grantland.7
The real fix is simple: Phoenix players love to hang around the basket after misses, leading to poor floor balance:
The Suns have a zeal for offensive boards, but they’re not good at collecting them. Phoenix ranks eighth in the league in total “chances” at offensive rebounds, according to SportVU data, with a “chance” defined as any instance in which a player ends up within 3.5 feet of the ball when someone rebounds it. Phoenix has gathered only 50 percent of those rebounds, one of the worst marks in the league, per SportVU. That’s a deadly combination.
They just have a bad collective first offense-to-defense step. When there’s a loose ball or a 50-50 rebound, the Phoenix players who aren’t involved like to stand around and watch — or even worse, sneak into position for an open shot, should a teammate recover the rock:
Contrast this with a team like the Hornets, who flee offensive possessions like bank robbers scrambling to the getaway car. Steve Clifford has drilled it into them: Get your ass back on defense, or you’re coming out. Given time, the Suns’ young guys will learn.
And this is an edgy group. Len is a virtual rookie, Bledsoe and Tucker get into your jersey, and the Morrii are handsy. Phoenix has the reputation of a fun-’n’-gun bunch, but it is a brutally physical team with a temper. That hit-first approach will be good in the long run, but right now, the downside outcomes — personal fouls, technical fouls, and an overeager approach to floor balance — outweigh the good.
Bledsoe, a stalwart defender, even gets out of kilter in the half court with no-chance gambles …
… and aimless drifting away from elite shooters:
Len and Markieff Morris, the two core bigs, are still learning the nuances of pick-and-roll defense — exactly as you’d expect, given their experience levels. Both have a tendency to abandon help assignments a hair too early, as if they’re afraid to lose touch with their original guy:
Len has been dealing with a new set of instructions since midseason. Hornacek at first had Len chasing pick-and-rolls far from the hoop, hoping to rev up his motor.
Len wasn’t quick enough to venture out so far and recover to the rim, and Hornacek now has him dropping back more in the mold of Roy Hibbert and Andrew Bogut. “He just had no way of knowing how fast some of these guys were — how fast you have to get back,” Hornacek says. “He was a touch late.”
The Suns botch switches and have trouble communicating on the fly — classic young team problems.
Everyone is learning. The scheme, courtesy of Hornacek and Mike Longabardi, is sound, and the young guys will get better. Giving Knight minutes that have gone to Green, Thomas, and even Dragic will help the defense; benching Green would help any team’s defense. But the Knight-Bledsoe pairing will have size issues almost every night. Phoenix has defended well since the deadline in part because it is playing a beefy lineup featuring Tucker and Marcus Morris on the wing. Will it last with Knight?
The offense is already pretty good, and the half-court system will get crisper as everyone grows more comfortable moving without the ball. Right now, T.J. Warren stands out as perhaps the only good off-ball cutter, and they need Markieff Morris to roll to the rim. “We’re yelling at guys to cut all the time,” Hornacek says. “Sometimes they just don’t cut.”
Things can get stagnant, especially in crunch time, and Knight’s ability to create decent shots late in close games figured into the trade.
It will be fascinating to see how this plays out over the next few years. From a value perspective, Phoenix was probably better off holding the fort after the Dragic trade, keeping Thomas and the Lakers pick, and chasing Knight or some other core guy in free agency. But the on-court product develops in unpredictable ways, and those Miami picks will rise and fall along a path we can’t anticipate now.
Second-guess McDonough at your peril. He’s a whip-smart basketball guy, he loves Knight, and he has a plan. I can’t wait to see what it is.
10 Things I Like and Don’t Like
1. Mirotic Mania
The Bulls are surviving without Derrick Rose and a rotating cast of wounded veterans (Jimmy Butler returned Monday night). They’ve reverted to a Joakim Noah–centric offense, with Noah handling the ball at the elbows and picking out cutters flying around the floor.
A big reason the post-Rose offense functions, when it does: the boost in spacing from Nikola Mirotic, making a late rookie of the year push behind some hot shooting nights, crafty passing, and a killer pump-and-drive game producing heaps of foul shots. Check out how the basic geography of the court changes when Mirotic is the second big man on the floor:
One opposing big man is guarding Noah above the elbow. The second is guarding Mirotic behind the 3-point arc. Simple math tells you there are zero remaining big men to protect the basket, and Tony Snell indeed coasts in for an uncontested dunk. It almost makes you wonder if teams will slot a wing player onto either Noah or (more likely) Mirotic and keep the second big man along the baseline, where he could drift away from a nonthreat like Kirk Hinrich or E’Twaun Moore.
The Bulls could exploit that strategy in a bunch of ways, and it becomes less tenable on Butler’s return.
By the way: Mirotic has fared surprisingly well as the nominal small forward alongside two of the Noah–Pau Gasol–Taj Gibson trio in jumbo lineups. Chicago is minus-3 in the 229 minutes the three most-used supersize groups have been on the floor, per NBA.com, and Mirotic has flashed some nimble feet in tracking wing players.
2. Tony Parker’s Point-of-Attack Defense
In the most predictable story line of 2015, the Spurs are peaking for the stretch run after an uneven season of injuries, weird rotation choices, hockey substitutions, angry Pop timeouts, and general malaise. Kawhi Leonard is a two-way star, Tiago Splitter is moving fast again, and Boris Diaw looked positively frisky nailing an array of nutty flip shots in San Antonio’s Big Brother beatdown of the Hawks on Sunday.
Parker’s resurgence on offense has been key in San Antonio’s late-season pursuit of a top-four seed, but his defense looks almost as bad now as it did a month ago. He’s running smack into picks, going under screens against good shooters, and falling far enough behind some plays to bust the integrity of San Antonio’s defense. He doesn’t have quite the same zip in closing those gaps, and he was already a minus defender who couldn’t afford much slippage on that end.
The Spurs defense is fine overall, but the Parker issue bears watching depending on their first-round matchup.
3. KCP, Attacking
It can take years for a young shooting guard to get comfortable attacking off the bounce, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has looked tentative on driving opportunities for most of his brief career. But over the last few weeks, he has been more aggressive slicing past defenders rushing to close out on his jumper:
This is the exact sort of drive any shooting guard must master in order to be a heavy-minutes rotation guy. Some players just aren’t meant to be primary ball handlers — guys who juke past a set defense one-on-one or with the help of only a ball screen. Some wing guys need a head start — the momentum edge they get when their defender has to sink into the lane on a help assignment, switch directions, and sprint back out to the 3-point arc.
If Caldwell-Pope can master that kind of drive and eventually learn to throw passes out of it, the Pistons have something.
4. Unexpected Dunks
Nothing gets a bench going like a dunk from an unexpected source — a little guy, a nonleaper, or some fogie who can’t get up anymore. In the past few weeks, we’ve gotten “HOLY SHIT!” dunks from Kyle Korver, Dirk Nowitzki, and Jason Richardson — the NBA’s ultimate forgotten man. Richardson is old by NBA standards, but he’s a goddamned fossil within Philly’s pseudo-roster; you can picture Jerami Grant asking Richardson what it was like to play with Wilt Chamberlain.
It was hilarious watching all of those NBA babies go crazy when Richardson, their graybeard soothsayer, threw one down against Brooklyn earlier this month.
5. Andre Iguodala, Flashing Back
Speaking of unexpected dunks: Iggy has been rising up in traffic lately, dropping thunder on fools who thought he had lost his bounce. Iguodala is shooting 56 percent since the All-Star break, and he’s going hard at the rim in a way that suggests he’s no longer afraid to get fouled. The Dubs rotation is rounding into form, and Iguodala’s uptick has been a huge part of that. He’s a leader and pace-pusher on their bench units, and when he’s going well, he can slide into starter-heavy groups of all sizes for crunch time.
6. Rodney Hood’s Floater
Utah’s offense has perked up a bit since Hood replaced Joe Ingles in the starting lineup. Hood has emerged as a league-average 3-point shooter with the quicks to hang with opposing wings on defense — something Ingles lacks — and a nifty change-of-pace game on the pick-and-roll.
He keeps his dribble alive, probes for smart passes, and can loft floaters over big men who drop back against his drives:
Hood looks like a player, and it will be interesting to see how he fits in Utah’s rotation next season when Alec Burks returns.
7. DeMar DeRozan, Looking Off His Big Man
DeRozan is always going to be a score-first guy who eats inside the arc, and that’s fine. He draws a ton of fouls, and he honed his midrange shot into a weapon before slumping this season. He’s not a great passer, or even a good one on some nights, but he’s improved incrementally every season.
But sometimes his game gets out of whack and DeRozan drives directly at a clean Jonas Valanciunas post-up:
DeRozan finds Patrick Patterson in the nick of time for a good look, but it’s a desperate play, and it comes at the expense of an easier alternative. Valanciunas is shooting 51 percent on post-ups this season and drawing a pile of fouls, per Synergy. His passing needs major work, but Valanciunas is dangerous with a smaller defender pinned behind him.
8. Ryan Kelly, Missing Everything at Small Forward
Injuries on the wing have “forced” the Lakers to play Kelly out of position, but they have enough tools on hand now to shift Kelly back to work as a stretch power forward — a role he played to some acclaim last season.
He can’t survive on the wing, and he’s suffering through perhaps the worst 2-point shooting season in modern league history. Kelly is just 28-of-107 from inside the arc — an unfathomable 26 percent. Even Nick Young thinks that’s bad. Since the league added the 3-point line in 1979, only one player — Bobby Hurley — has shot worse than 28 percent from 2-point range on at least 100 attempts in a single season, and he finished at 27.9 percent.
These unis stand as Cleveland’s lone beacon of good taste amid a morass of ugly jerseys, uninspired franchise marks, and barfy court designs. The Cavs should just make these navy duds their standard road jerseys — and stop wearing them at home. Dark jerseys are for road teams. Stop violating this cardinal rule in order to sell overpriced alternate dark jerseys!
10. Ben Gordon, Egregious Fake No-Look-Pass Enthusiast
We see you, Ben Gordon.
We see right through you.