The Phoenix Suns placed a huge bet on Brandon Knight when they traded for the guard last spring. On the one hand, the 23-year-old Knight had been a sleeper All-Star candidate in the East after leading the Milwaukee Bucks from the basement to .500 ball. To land Knight, however, Phoenix gave up one of the most prized traded assets in the league: a Los Angeles Lakers first-round pick that was protected in the top five in 2015 and in the top three in 2016. As the Lakers continue to rebuild, the pick could be in the No. 4 or No. 5 range, which could mean a blue chip prospect on a rookie deal. That's how highly the Suns thought of Knight.
It didn't work out immediately. Knight quickly got injured and Phoenix limped to a lottery pick amid some turmoil regarding the end of the Goran Dragic era. After an offseason chase of LaMarcus Aldridge and some eventual tweaks, Knight joined up with Eric Bledsoe again to justify the huge, expected contract Phoenix gave him in the summer.
And right now, the Suns' big bet is paying off.
Knight is playing the best basketball of his career, averaging 20 points and five assists as the Suns are 6-4 and in the mix in the West. Phoenix has the No. 5 scoring margin in the league and sits in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Why? It's largely because Knight and Bledsoe have fit perfectly.
Bledsoe has been a thrill throughout his Phoenix career. It's obvious why he was the single point guard from their triple-threat experiment that the Suns kept. Like Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook before him, Bledsoe represents the vanguard of NBA point guard play as an athletic wizard with range and a touch of crazy. (Stephen Curry is, of course, remaking the modern point guard as a gunner extraordinaire as we breathe.)
As we've seen in Oklahoma City, the reckless but skilled attacker can work with more traditional offensive weapons. Bledsoe worked with Dragic quite well, as evidenced in Phoenix's strong 2013-14 season. We think of the bombastic guards of the world -- the Westbrooks, the Arenases, the Marburies -- as untenable partners in crime. Doing so conflates personality traits with basketball skills. It leads to misunderstanding.
Westbrook is surly, trigger-happy and an incessant dribbler. That doesn't make him selfish! The same applies to Bledsoe, albeit without the persistent snarl and with somewhat less dribbling. It's notable that Bledsoe has almost always played with either a second lead guard (Chris Paul in L.A., Dragic and now Knight in Phoenix) or a dominant offensive weapon (Blake Griffin in L.A. when CP3 missed time). Westbrook's always been a point guard in the NBA, and his co-star Kevin Durant is the less domineering elite scorer ever since Dirk Nowitzki. The environment has turned Westbrook into what he is, and Bledsoe into what he is.
As such, Bledsoe fits easily with Knight, who is best described as a much more modest Kyrie Irving with a huge basketball IQ. Knight has impeccable handling skills and a smooth deep stroke. He's athletic without blowing opponents away like Bledsoe. E.B. will beat opponents with a slick dribble move or a screen and untouchable speed and leaping ability. Knight will do it with flawless footwork. Ask poor Marcelo Huertas.
That play is a hoot because Huertas gets spun like a top, but it illustrates Knight's attacking mindset. The crossover is brutal and as good as any in the league, but Knight was looking to drive into the teeth of the defense on this play. Once he recognizes that Huertas is out of the picture, he effortlessly slides into a stepback just behind the arc for an uncontested three. He attacks, he recognizes, he executes, all flawlessly and beautifully. You watch it enough times (as I have) and you stop blaming Huertas for blowing away with the breeze. Who wouldn't get embarrassed trying to defend this?
As it turns out, there are ways to defend it. Knight isn't the best or most creative passer in the league, and neither is Bledsoe. Tough guard defense can lead to too much isolation, which can force the ball into the hands of Suns players you feel much better defending. Teams with flexible big men will work to trap Knight and Bledsoe up high and beg P.J. Tucker and Markieff Morris to beat them. Jeff Hornacek should be able to find ways to prevent too much of that -- movement, both player and ball, is one way to avoid needing to run too much high pick-and-roll -- and Knight and Bledsoe are both smart and talented enough to adjust as the season wears on.
That Lakers pick may yet turn to gold, but Phoenix has recovered nicely from a disastrous 2014-15 and looks to have made a smart bet on Knight.
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Because argument and rage are the source of all modern entertainment, here are the top nine young backcourts in the NBA. Criteria: which backcourt would you want for success over the course of the next four seasons? Remember that I am infallible before you disagree.
Undisputed No. 1: Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson
Curry is a postmodern point guard who needs to be covered as soon as he crosses midcourt and is completely unguardable. Thompson is a Reggie Miller mold, working endlessly around screens and through flesh alleys to find breathing room. When he does, he'll drill a jumper or upfake to a drive into the teeth of the enemy. Thompson is also a top defender at the two-guard and Curry is a surprising ball hawk. It is not conceivable that this duo can be displaced barring injury or direct ascension into the heavens.
No. 2: John Wall and Bradley Beal
Wall is an MVP candidate. Rather, he'd be an MVP candidate if Curry didn't exist. Steph's presence blocks out all other MVP candidacies currently; just clear the field and look ahead to 2017, folks. Beal is a top gunner who, like Thompson, works endlessly. I also trust Beal much more attacking the rim, but his defense is not at Thompson's level. Wall-Beal feels less like a sure thing than Curry-Thompson because Beal still has work to do, but all things are possible through John Wall.
No. 3: Knight-Bledsoe
No. 4: Ricky Rubio and Andrew Wiggins
Wiggins is the superstar wildcard who could upset these rankings over the next few years. He's so good already, and he's barely 20. The Minnesota Timberwolves revolve around Rubio in a way that's odd considering the supreme talent of Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. But hey, it looks awful real.
No. 5: Russell Westbrook and Dion Waiters
Don't you dare laugh at me. Waiters is shooting 48 percent on threes. He has the tools to be a fair defender. He has survived the onslaught of Westbrook eyerolls. This could happen! This could be real!
No. 6: Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum
Lillard is a known, certain quantity: an elite scorer and playmaker who can't defend a lick. McCollum has looked really good early this season, creating a nasty little battery that puts lots of pressure on better teams and has gotten the Portland Trail Blazers some improbable wins. He's also not a great defender. That fact could break up this duo prematurely. The other reason I've ranked them so low is that McCollum hasn't proved as much as the above two-guards (Waiters excepted).
No. 7: Reggie Jackson and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
Jackson is playing much better than many expected (myself included), and KCP is just a lovely prospect. They'll need to prove they belong in this conversation over time, but they could be a riser on this list soon enough. They remind me a bit of the Lillard-Wesley Matthews duo, though KCP has lots of work to do to live up to his end of that comparison.
No. 8: Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan
At the risk of upsetting The North, Lowry is much older than the others on this list at age 29, and DeRozan is a free agent in 2016, so there are reasons to believe this backcourt will not be intact in four years. That said, it's pretty darn good right now!
No. 9: Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo
This duo is lower than you might expect for a couple of reasons. The first is that Payton, though young, is a tremendously horrific scorer. His current True Shooting percentage is .435. He's averaging 0.86 points per shooting possession. League average is 1.06. It's a huge difference. The other is that Oladipo is probably not the best shooting guard in Orlando (Evan Fournier) and within three years might be the third-best shooting guard on this current roster (Mario Hezonja)! That's primarily because Fournier and Hezonja are neat -- Oladipo is real good, too -- but it doesn't inspire confidence in the future dominance of Payton-Oladipo. That's all.
Why no Houston Rockets?
Because Ty Lawson has been atrocious and Patrick Beverley seems destined to be secure in having the starting job. (See: Lawson trade.)
Why no Lakers?
Jordan Clarkson is good, but we have no idea whatsoever what D'Angelo Russell is or will be. No idea.
Why no Chicago Bulls?
Jimmy Butler is an All-Star, but I have retired from the Derrick Rose Hope Society. Sorry.
Why no Miami Heat?
Dwyane Wade is 33 going on 40. Dragic isn't as good as Bledsoe made him look.
Why no Boston Celtics?
Which duo do you actually pick here? Isaiah Thomas-Avery Bradley is the best now, but Marcus Smart is the best prospect. Smart-Bradley, while deadly on defense, can't score. My tiny brain can't sort this into a way that actually makes a backcourt competitive with these others over the course of the next few years. (I also think Isaiah is going to get solved by the NBA at some point, but that's another discussion.)
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SB Nation presents: Nets owner puts team through bizarre workout