Brandon Knight Is Latest Cautionary Tale for Late-Season NBA Rentals

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 7, 2015

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The Phoenix Suns will face a daunting leap of faith with point guard Brandon Knight this offseason, and they only have themselves to blame.

Knight, acquired in a trade-deadline deal this past February, is likely out for the year due to a heel bone bruise after playing just 11 games for the Suns.

"It's a tough situation," he told reporters. "If it feels better, we'll see what happens, but I'm in no rush to come back and make it any worse. You can't just keep pounding on a bruise and have it get better."

If Knight's season is finished, the Suns will have no choice but to make a difficult decision with very limited information on the restricted free agent.

While we can't blame Phoenix for the bad injury luck that created this dilemma, the organization wouldn't even be in this situation if not for some shaky moves this past offseason.

Where the Suns are now is tied directly to where they wereand what they didlast summer.

They signed Isaiah Thomas at a time when they weren't sure then-RFA Eric Bledsoe was part of their future. It was an insurance play that made some sense at the time. Phoenix had success with two-PG sets in 2013-14, and inking Thomas assured the franchise of having two lead guards (Goran Dragic was the other) even if Bledsoe wound up elsewhere.

Foreshadowing.
Foreshadowing.Barry Gossage/Getty Images

Bledsoe didn't end up going anywhere, which gave rise to the triple-PG fiasco that resulted in the Suns jettisoning a whole bunch of assets for Knight.

Yes, Phoenix faced the prospect of losing Dragic for nothing, but it's worth asking whether smarter moves in the summer of 2014 would have helped the team avoid that situation entirely.

The Suns didn't just swap Thomas and Dragic for Knight in separate deals, though that wound up being the practical on-court result. They also gave up the ridiculously valuable, top-five-protected pick from the Los Angeles Lakers, rookie Tyler Ennis and Miles Plumlee.

"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," wrote Grantland's Zach Lowe.

According to an interview he gave on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM's Burns and Gambo (h/t Adam Green of ArizonaSports.com), Phoenix general manager Ryan McDonough said there's no pressure to re-sign Knight to a big extension this summer.

"Long-term, he's a free agent, he's going to do whatever's best for himself and his family, and hopefully for the Suns as well," he said. "No, we don't feel any immediate pressure, 'Oh my gosh, we have to do this or that,' based on public reaction or based on what we gave up in the trade."

It's wise not to let a past deal influence a future one, but if all the Suns have to show for the assets they gave up to get Knight is a top-10-protected first-round pick from the Cleveland Cavaliers, it's hard to see that as anything other than a massive mistake.

It's tempting to view the Suns' conundrum as further evidence that late-season rentals don't pay off in the NBA. But that's not uniformly true.

The Cleveland Cavaliers remade their roster in January, adding J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Timofey Mozgov. Since then, they've become legitimate contenders.

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

The Lakers added Pau Gasol midway through the 2007-08 season and went on to win a ring the next year.

By and large, though, the past decade has shown us that deadline deals rarely result in significant performance improvements.

The Suns were in a unique situation when they made the move for Knight. There was some desperation brought about by Dragic's intention to leave in free agency, as reported by USA Today's Sam Amick, and the past offseason's mistakes all but forced Phoenix's hand.

It wasn't like the Suns targeted Knight as someone who'd vault them from the playoff fringes to contention. He was a fallback option.

What happens next mainly depends on both the Suns' and Knight's willingness to put their faith in one another—and a risky backcourt plan. Knight and Bledsoe are both hybrid guards, and we know the Suns have been fans of using such lineups because they've made it the cornerstone of their roster for a couple of years now.

It'll be up to Knight to decide if he wants a more conventional lead-guard role someplace else.

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

Well, sort of.

The Suns are still in total control of Knight's free agency because of his restricted status. They can match any offer sheet he signs with another team.

That gets us back to the tricky decision facing the Suns this coming summer. If or when Knight gets such an offer, they'll have to decide whether he's worth keeping around.

Eleven games didn't give Phoenix much to go on, and ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton noted that Knight was remarkably a negative statistical influence in his pre-trade time with the Milwaukee Bucks this season:

As the team's leading scorer, Knight got credit for the Milwaukee Bucks' unexpected emergence as a playoff team, making a push for an All-Star spot. Plus-minus data tells a different story. Even with Milwaukee slipping after trading Knight, the Bucks have still been better without him on the court, per NBA.com/Stats.

Knight can absolutely shoot the ball, as demonstrated by his 38.9 percent accuracy from deep this year. But it remains to be seen if his overall contributions amount to better than breaking even, let alone if they're worthy of a max deal in a league where solid point guards practically grow on trees.

John Raoux/Associated Press

Even if the Suns had more information on how Knight fits into their roster, would it make sense for them to add a second highly-paid player to a backcourt that already has one in Bledsoe? Does the spiking salary cap in 2016 make the financial aspect of re-signing Knight less worrisome?

Questions abound, and Phoenix will have to make a pivotal decision without the benefit of many answers.

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