Will the Suns' latest backcourt experiment work better than the first?
PHOENIX — It’s safe to say the Suns’ three-guard experiment did not work how they might have intended. So when they needed a change, they brought in new blood. Phoenix needed someone who it believed could turn the team around and fix its broken chemistry.
A Knight in shining armor.
The Suns hit the abort button on their point guard trio at last week’s NBA trade deadline, shipping away Goran Dragic (Miami) and Isaiah Thomas (Boston) while bringing in four-year veteran Brandon Knight from Milwaukee. In Knight, Phoenix gets a playmaker who fits alongside the new face of the team, Eric Bledsoe.
“I think we’ll make a dynamic backcourt,” Knight said. “I know it’s tough in the West, but I think with two guards that can defend and create and get in the paint, I think it’s a positive.”
The Suns are hoping Knight can do for them exactly what Dragic did for them last season: work in harmony with Bledsoe and challenge for a playoff spot.
“It’s going to be really similar,” Bledsoe said of playing with Knight. “He’s a hell of a player and he was having an All-Star year and I was surprised he got traded. But at the end of the day, it’s a plus for us.
“With Knight coming over, it’s going to be the same I think as it was with me and Goran.”
Suns fans sure hope that is the case. Last season Phoenix won 48 games, the most since it appeared in the Western Conference finals in 2010. The source of last year’s success came primarily from Dragic, who averaged 20.3 points and 5.9 assists per game while taking home All-NBA Third Team honors, and Bledsoe, who averaged 17.7 points and 5.5 assists, manning the backcourt.
When the Suns added Thomas in the offseason, it was viewed as a big talent addition, but eventually his arrival turned into a mess. Dragic saw his production plummet to 16.2 points and 4.1 assists per game, and he declared the day before the deadline he wanted out and didn't trust the Suns’ front office anymore.
So with Dragic out and Knight in, the Planet Orange backcourt gets a little more blue. Both Knight and Bledsoe played for Kentucky, and the two have played together in the off-season. They never shard the same floor in college – Bledsoe was drafted in June of the year Knight enrolled – but they, with second-year guard Archie Goodwin, bring a strong Wildcat flavor to the Suns.
“It’s a bond we have,” Goodwin said. “That’s something a lot of Kentucky guys share. We all have that competitive edge and that spirit of trying to be winners and hard workers.”
Knight’s career path has been a peculiar one, with the Suns being his third team in four years. It’s not as if he has been a poor player. Knight has improved his rebounding, steals and assists numbers every year of his career, and was averaging 17.8 points per game and career highs of 5.4 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.6 steals when he was traded from the Bucks.
But just as important as the numbers Knight will produce is adding numbers to the win column. Last year it was obvious how well Bledsoe and Dragic played together. Their backcourt chemistry led the Suns to finish just one game shy of making the playoffs for the first time in five years.
Suns President of Basketball Operations Lon Babby said the trade deadline moves were about just that—a return to the playoffs. At a press conference last week he told the media he hopped on the team bus immediately after the trades and told them they plan on getting back to winning basketball.
“Let’s have fun again,” Babby said. “Let’s play as a team. Let’s recapture that chemistry. The future is bright and we’re excited about it.”
At that same press conference, general manager Ryan McDonough made it clear that losing Dragic will not sink the team. In response to the idea the Suns traded away their best player, he curtly responded that Bledsoe and forward Markieff Morris are still on the roster.
“This isn’t singles tennis,” McDonough said. “We’re looking for team guys. The guys who will be here are those who will buy in and play the right way. Those who don’t will be gone.”
Gone is Dragic. In is Knight. Only time will tell if Knight can be what Dragic was to Bledsoe, the city and most importantly, the Suns.
Justin Emerson is a junior at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. This story is the product of a partnership between the Cronkite School and Sports Illustrated.