LOS ANGELES — An unwritten rule of the NBA is that the lead dog on the team gets to take as long as he needs to unwind after a road game.
Rest those weary bones; linger with a stat sheet or a long shower in reviewing your accomplishments. It's just a fact of life that teammates, coaches and staff might be sitting idly on the bus or the team plane's takeoff is delayed waiting for one player finally to get dressed and on his way.
Assuming this role for the Phoenix Suns late Sunday night was Brandon Knight.
He eventually pulled on his colorful socks and ambled past the locker room board with the Suns' miniscule first-half field-goal percentage scribbled on it (19.6 percent!) and on to the end of this four-game trip that buckled the franchise's knees.
Is Knight, a month past his 24th birthday, the leader of this team that has now lost nine consecutive games? Might be.
Is Knight, who scored 25 of the Suns' points in a humiliating 97-77 loss to the Lakers, the best player on the team? Could be.
Is Knight properly cast to be the lead dog on an NBA team? No way.
And that cuts to the heart of the problem with a Phoenix squad swimming in confusion right now.
Every team needs an example of excellence in some way—whether it's a coach in clear charge, a star player whose unstoppable skill at his particular craft is inspirational or just a community of guys who care enough about being accountable to each other that no one wants to be the last guy to buckle his seat belt for takeoff on that late-night flight home. (Not that NBA teams on private jets necessarily adhere to strict FAA regulations, but you get the idea.)
The 12-25 Suns have underachieved for all sorts of reasons—foremost among them is an insufficient volume of available talent, thanks all season to Markieff Morris' bad attitude and more recently Eric Bledsoe's latest serious knee surgery.
But teams can persevere through personnel setbacks to weather-the-storm levels if they have something to believe in. The Suns flat out do not, which is what Knight said as he served as de facto team spokesman Sunday night.
"You got to figure out what's best for your team," Knight said, "and we're still trying to figure that out."
The basic ideas of a pick-and-roll offense and a Tyson Chandler-anchored defense have delivered only sluggish results. Knight said it has been different mistakes on different nights, but confusion is naturally going to occur when the team lacks "something that we can go [with] that works for us, something so that we know we're going to be playing the right way."
Some of that falls on Chandler, the veteran presence who let the Suns get outscored by an incomprehensible 30 points in his 20 minutes of action Sunday night. That was after his costly ejection in Sacramento Saturday night.
Some of that is on Knight, who certainly played far harder when frustrated by the big deficit in the fourth quarter than he did in the first quarter.
After a series of questionable trades to land Knight, and then their decision to extend Knight, the Suns are counting on him to be special.
Asked if it's unfair to put that leadership burden on him so early in his career, Knight said: "That's life. You get drafted top 10, that's what's expected of you. So I don't have a problem doing it. But it's not an easy task."
The truth is that the pre-Knight Suns that surprised through their unconventional always-two-point-guards tempo and 48 victories two years ago were overrated. The excellence they leaned on was their unconventionality, which the league has caught on to.
And as much past praise as Suns coach Jeff Hornacek has gotten for his savvy and general manager Ryan McDonough has for his ability to balance present possibilities with future plans, they have to assume some blame for this team feeling like it's on a raft.
After surprising the NBA with those 48 victories, the Suns wound up undervaluing the best part of that team: Goran Dragic, who has natural leadership skills that Bledsoe, Knight, Isaiah Thomas and every Morris brother do not. Dragic wound up on a speedboat to Miami.
Whether commitment to character turns out to be the missing link amid strong talent evaluation in Phoenix, it's undeniable that the Suns put Hornacek in a tough spot.
It's one thing for him to coach Markieff Morris successfully back when expectations were low and Hornacek had a new contract while Morris did not. The power shifted completely before last season, with Markieff having his contract extended and then being hyped by McDonough as perhaps the best player on the team—while Hornacek was left without contract guarantees beyond this season.
That power has brought out the worst in Morris.
He wants to be traded, has been dropped from the playing rotation and decided not to suit up Sunday night because he said he had flu-like symptoms.
After Suns owner Robert Sarver openly criticized Morris to the Arizona Republic's Dan Bickley for not being able to recover from the setback of twin brother Marcus' trade, Markieff offered this simplistic retort Sunday night: "I've been through adversity my whole life."
Morris will never be the sort of guy for whom people are perfectly willing to wait it out on the team bus.
Before he headed out of Staples Center, Hornacek—the buzz from his pregame coffee long gone and the postgame fatigue intensified by all the recent losses, fired assistant coaches and everything else—leaned up against the hallway wall with his hands literally behind his back.
Hornacek took the best passive-aggressive swing he could at his team in roundly and repeatedly praising Knight's journeyman backup.
"We need Ronnie Price effort every night," Hornacek said.
Ronnie Price takes roster spots and court minutes from guys who don't get it or go for it.
"It's just what he does. It's how he stays in the league."
Ronnie Price, obviously, is not a lead dog.
The best players are the leaders, whether via words, example or action.
Whether indolent, insubordinate or in absentia, Markieff Morris—26 and entering the prime of his career—has still managed to be the lead dog in this Suns season.
He has infected this team with his inconsistent everything, a quality that now emanates from every level of this organization.
Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.
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