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The impact of last year’s trading deadline on the Suns

Phoenix Suns guard Brandon Knight (3) drives past Minnesota Timberwolves guard Ricky Rubio (9), of Spain, during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Minneapolis, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016. (AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt)
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One of the hardest parts about gambling is trying to cash out at the right time maximizing your profits. Leaving too early potentially allows extra money to stay on the table, while getting out too late could take money away.

Finding the middle ground and hitting at the peak is the goal.

That’s a simplistic metaphor of what an NBA general manager has to do when dealing with trades. The basic concept is the same, but there are more avenues and nuance.

The outcome of Suns GM Ryan McDonough’s actions at last year’s trading deadline have yet to be determined, but there’s legitimate reason to be concerned about the decisions made.

First, the positive. Even if it wasn’t a move made of their own volition, trading Goran Dragic to the Miami Heat for two first-round picks was the correct way to go. Dragic is almost 30 and is already declining. He’s signed for another four years after this one (player option in the final season) and his presence wouldn’t make the Suns a championship contender. They got a 2018 first-round pick (top seven protected) and a 2021 unprotected first-round pick.  There’s no way to know how those pan out, but it’s pretty fair to say they have more value than Dragic on his contract already.

If McDonough had stopped right there, the Suns would be in a better position than they are today.

He didn’t.

Isaiah Thomas was shipped off to the Celtics for what’s going to turn out to be a late first-rounder in the 2016 draft (Cleveland’s pick). The Lakers’ top three protected pick for the next two seasons, and unprotected for 2018 headed out and brought back Brandon Knight.

These two transactions sting on numerous levels.

The Suns didn’t just trade for Knight, they traded for the right to pay him $70 million over five years. Thomas was under contract for this season and another two for about $20 million. Thomas is clearly worth more than a late first-round pick based on his level of play and what he’s being paid.

A current inarguable fact that’s unfortunate for Phoenix — Thomas is better than Knight. They have similar skill sets, but Thomas does pretty much everything outside of hit catch-and-shoot jumpers at a higher level than Knight. Getting into the paint, drawing fouls, creating his own shot, finishing at the rim and setting up others are all areas Thomas gets the nod in.

Neither is all that good at defense — Thomas has physical limitations because of his size, while Knight hasn’t learned to leverage his physical tools into defending at even a decent level.

It does need to be acknowledged Thomas is three years older, and there’s time for Knight to grow into more adjusting the dynamic.

The early returns on his development aren’t encouraging. Poor shot selection, not using his ability to drive enough, struggles with playmaking responsibility, selfish play and below average defense are legitimate concerns.

Knight’s limitations make it hard to see him ever becoming more than Thomas despite the age curve.

The possibility of Knight being a slightly better version or equal to a Jamal Crawford type player exists. And there’s nothing wrong with that — Crawford is going through his 15th season and has carved out a useful role for himself.

If Knight is open and willing to be the sixth man off the bench playing behind Eric Bledsoe and Devin Booker, he can have value to this team. If that’s not something he’s open to, there’s a problem because it’s pretty clear Bledsoe is better and Booker will be, if he isn’t already.

Another issue is the opportunity cost of what they gave up for Knight. McDonough passed up a slim chance at having a second lottery pick in the 2015 draft, which looks like it’s going to end being historically good based on how this season’s crop of rookies are performing already.

Now, the Lakers have the second-worst record in league at the All-Star break, with third and fourth being in play depending how the season plays out for the Suns and Nets. The Lakers are 3.5 games worse than both at the moment.

Even if they stay in the two slot, it’s a 44 percent proposition they end up with the fourth or fifth pick. Those odds swing worse for L.A. if they flip with one of the teams ahead of them.

The unknown of the potential player with the pick and the known of the cost controlled salary is worth more than Knight and his contract.

McDonough banked on the Lakers being a draw this past summer thinking they would attract a top free agent. Unfortunately (or fortunately — what a weird situation not to know whether to root for or against the Lakers) this isn’t the old Lakers. They were straddled with Kobe Bryant’s contract and game for one more season, plus are dealing with dysfunction that starts all the way at the top. With limited top-tier options in free agency this offseason, it’s unlikely Los Angeles is adding a game-changing player until 2017, which isn’t even a lock unless they improve their infrastructure.

McDonough misread the situation from many aspects. If you were to rank what was involved in the two transactions from the Suns’ perspective, it would look like this:

  1. Rights to the Lakers’ pick
  2. Isaiah Thomas
  3. Brandon Knight
  4. Rights to the 2016 Cavs’ pick

In the two connected deals, the Suns received worse than what they gave up.

The question is why?

McDonough is typically meticulous and calculated when it comes to his decisions. My best guess is, in this situation, he acted out of emotion. You can garner that by how he’s publicly spoken in regards to breaking up this previous incarnation of the roster.

If McDonough was playing blackjack, he had a 12 and the dealer had a 14. The situation wasn’t perfect, but there was time for patience and no need to take a risk.

McDonough let the adrenaline get to him, and he not only hit, he doubled down.

The dealer’s card hasn’t been completely turned over yet, but when he started his motion you could swear it looked like royalty.

The anticipation is building to see if that quick glimpse ends up being wrong. We’ll know soon enough.

 

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