Tag Archives: Brandon Knight

A Little Bit of Everything

Photo: Flickr/Nicholas Noyes

Life is full of choices. Some small like what to have for lunch and others far more consequential. I mean, when is the last time a turkey sandwich ruined your day? Probably never, I’m guessing. Typically, you would be just as happy with the ham or roast beef as you would with the turkey. It’s nothing on par with signing a lease, changing careers, buying a car or anything else that takes serious consideration. And you also typically have multiple choices to make with big decisions, which is not always easy.

Same goes for NBA teams and the route they choose to take after evaluating their team following a season. If you think you’re missing the few essential pieces to making a championship run or feel you still have another shot at it, you acquire players past their rookie contracts that can help you immediately. On the other hand, if you feel your glory days are behind you and it’s time to look towards the future, you identify your franchise cornerstones, add picks, expend the long-term veteran contracts you need to and add additional vets on short-term deals to maintain your salary cap flexibility.

The cold hard truth: even if you select either of those routes, there is still no guarantee that you will be successful. You need luck. You need the proper personnel in place. You also need to put the right combinations of players together. And when you do all that you need to get favorable matchups in the playoffs and hope the ligaments in your star player’s knee holds up.

In short, building a good basketball team is hard. It would be so much easier if you could just throw a bunch of money at an assortment of talented players and just skip right ahead to the parade planning, but that’s just not how it works.

Since it’s such a difficult decision, it’s hard to fault a team like the Bucks for the decisions they’ve made this offseason. They won 38 games this past season, good enough for a four game “Thanks for Coming!” sweep at the hands of the Miami Heat in the first round. Sure, they still made the playoffs but they were facing a crossroads with prominent rotation players like Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis expiring with several young players on the roster as well. When you consider general manager John Hammonds’ Bucks teams have won 34-46-35-31-38 games  in his tenure that should have been an indicator that it may be time to focus on player development rather than winning and first round exits.

Aside from the draft, the Bucks appeared to be headed into July looking to finally blow it all up after years as a fringe playoff team. Not only did they select two projects in addition to having John Henson, Ersan Ilyasova, Ekpe Udoh and Larry Sanders on the roster, but they moved JJ Redick in a three-team trade for two 2nd round picks and a trade exception. Shortly after that they dealt for the expiring contract of Luke Ridnour to boost their point guard depth and we thought we had the Bucks all figured out.

Following the Bucks’ trade of Luc Mbah a Moute for a second round pick, it really seemed that the Bucks were collecting assets in the form of draft picks (a form of currency in today’s NBA that is ever-growing in it’s value because of the new CBA) and promising young players. Despite a brief flirtation with Jeff Teague, Milwaukee seemed to be focusing on player development and maintaining cap flexibility for the future.

Then things got interesting. They brought in OJ Mayo  in free agency. A few days later they brought in veterans Carlos Delfino and Zaza Pachulia. Finally, they added San Antonio free agent Gary Neal and the team that once looked like they were rebuilding looked as if they were looking to make another exhilarating run to the 8th seed. At least these players they signed were all veteran guards whose minutes wouldn’t stifle a developing player’s growth because the Bucks don’t have any. The same can’t be said for Pachulia who will be sharing frontcourt minutes in the frontcourt with Henson, Udoh, Ilyasova and Sanders.

Still, this wasn’t the end of the world and a very manageable situation. These moves seemed to make it unlikely that they would bring Jennings back, which is fine because his fit next to Mayo doesn’t seem like a great one on paper. With Pachulia, they have a solid rotation, and even though he may cut into some of the young players’ minutes, having a veteran could help the Bucks through their young frontcourt’s growing pains. Besides, waiving Gustavo Ayon a few days prior made this less of a cluster-you-know-what than it was before.

Alright, so the Bucks had added a few veterans in addition to their blossoming former lottery picks while gaining a few extra picks along the way. They weren’t totally bottoming out despite the strong draft coming next June but they will still likely receive a good pick nonetheless, and the veterans they added are on short-term contracts that will allow that to maintain cap flexibility. They just had to get the Brandon Jennings situation resolved and they’re all set.

Well, unless you sign and trade him to the Pistons for Brandon Knight (another combo guard and recent lottery pick) and 2013 rookies Khris Middleton and Viachevslav Kravstov. Don’t get me wrong — Knight is a great get in exchange for Jennings — but now they have all of these prospects surrounding these established players for a team that would be lucky to win 40 games next season.

You can’t rebuild and win at the same time when you’re a team like the Bucks. This isn’t like the Spurs where they retool on the fly by plugging in different role players next to their stars and win 50 games every year because they already have stars. It’s not just the fact that this is the way it’s always done: it’s done that way because it doesn’t work any other way. And winning 40 games this season does the Bucks very few favors in the near future since, despite their cap space, aren’t a prime free agent destination. Teams like the Bucks need that cap space to use on their own draft picks once their rookie contracts expire.

Now they have the 15th overall pick in last June’s draft, Giannis Antetokounmpo,  and Middleton on the roster for next season. They will have to figure out how to disperse the minutes at power forward and center between Pachulia-Henson-Sanders-Ilyasova-Udoh-Kravstov.

As for the guards, they have Ridnour and Neal at point guard, but where does that leave Knight?  If he can’t hit shots well enough as a shooting guard do they move Ridnour over into the role he played in Minnesota and have Knight take point guard minutes? Will he or should he start? If he starts, do you try to get Mayo to come off of the bench and play Knight as the off-guard?

I know that positions aren’t the most important thing, but the roles of a shooting guard and point guard require different skill sets to help the team, and these are the questions the Bucks will now have to ask after adding several developing players. In fact, having Neal, Ridnour, Delfino and Mayo all on the roster wasn’t a big deal until they brought Knight on board. Furthermore, their unique veteran-backcourt/young-frontcourt dynamic worked before the Jennings trade.

This offseason, John Hammond has proven just how hard it is to make the decision to rebuild or continue trying to win in the present. Yet, when you begin a rebuild, you can’t stop halfway through once you realize just how bad you are going to be and abruptly change course. You have to be patient, which is something that is hard to find in today’s NBA culture because teams want results sooner rather than later. At the end of the day you have to ask yourself if another year of 35 wins as a middling team is better for your job security than a 25 win season and a chance at eventual long-term success.

What are the Detroit Pistons?

Daniel Y. Go | Flickr

The Detroit Pistons have probably had the most mesmerizing offseason in the NBA this year. And by no means are you to make the mistake of assuming that mesmerizing has a positive connotation in this case. Almost every move that Joe Dumars has made has been met with either “LOL PISTONS” or “What the f*ck are the Pistons doing??” Detroit signed Josh Smith to a huge 4 year, $54 million contract. On Tuesday afternoon, they completed a sign and trade with the Milwaukee Bucks to bring Brandon Jennings to the team on a 3 year, $24 million contract. In a vacuum, both of those moves are pretty sensible. The Pistons got two very talented players on fairly reasonable contracts without giving up much more than Brandon Knight and some cap space. But as components of a larger Detroit Pistons organism, they are head-scratching moves to say the least. Now, I’m not about to write 2500 words about why these moves make perfect sense and why the Pistons are now destined for greatness with Jennings and Smith complementing a young core of Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond. But I will write roughly half that many words to explain why Detroit’s offseason leans more towards “sensible” than “head-scratching.”

The question that immediately comes to mind when we consider Detroit’s offseason move is: how does it all fit? They figure to have young studs at power forward and center in Monroe and Drummond. So why the hell are they spending $54m on Josh Smith to further complicate the situation in the frontcourt? Well, that’s a really good question. And it’s a question that has a couple of potential answers. The easiest solution to the problem of the crowded frontcourt is that the Pistons think Josh Smith can play small forward. Defensively, Smoove can certainly guard most NBA small forwards, but it’s the offensive end that gets messy. How do you possibly play those three players at the same time and have an effective offense? That’s another really good question and I don’t think I have any easy answers to that one. But Josh Smith is a really talented player (yes, even on offense) and when all else fails, adding more talent to your roster is usually a pretty good strategy. Even if you’re losing some value due to Drummond, Monroe, and Smith overlapping offensively, the Pistons still figure to get a net gain from the addition. Whether or not it’s cost effective or the best allocation of their resources are different issues that deal with a host of hypotheticals that I don’t feel the need to get into at the moment. Instead, let’s stay focused on what we do know (or can at least reasonably project).

Another explanation for bringing in Josh Smith when you already have a talented frontcourt is that it’s possible we are all overestimating the short-term impact that Detroit intends for Andre Drummond to have. Drummond has all of the tools to be an elite NBA player in the future. He’s extremely young, has a tremendous physical profile, and has produced phenomenal per-36 minutes numbers in his brief time in the NBA. But that first trait might be the most important: Drummond is extremely young. He’ll turn 20 years old on August 10th and despite his impressive numbers in the NBA thus far, his skill level still leaves a lot to be desired. He’s just a kid; he’s very raw. He played just over 20 minutes per game in his rookie year and missed several weeks due to a lower back stress fracture. For all of those reasons, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Pistons bring Drummond along very slowly. As much as the basketball blogosphere would like to #FreeDrummond, it seems unlikely that the Pistons will suddenly thrust Drummond into the starting role and let him play 35 minutes every night. If you’re only planning on playing Drummond 25ish minute per game, it shouldn’t be that hard to mix and match the lineups with Drummond/Monroe/Smith to minimize the overlap.

I think the move to get Brandon Jennings is easier to make sense of than the Josh Smith signing. First off, the dollar amount on the contract is very reasonable. According to the NBA free agency market, the Pistons seem to be paying roughly the right amount for a player of Josh Smith’s caliber, but they might be getting a relative bargain in Jennings at just $8 million per year. He’s not the most efficient player, but his shot-creating ability (for himself and others) is valuable. He’s still quite young (will turn 24 just before the NBA season starts) and he likely has some remaining upside on both sides of the ball. $8 million seems to be roughly the going rate for an average starting point guard in the NBA and there’s a pretty decent chance that Jennings ends up being better than that.

Of course, the addition of Jennings is viewed as questionable because you have another guy that struggles with efficiency and doesn’t exactly solve the spacing issues that you’ve created with the Drummond/Monroe/Smith combo up front. And these concerns are legitimate – I’m not trying to pretend they aren’t. But the Pistons have started to address the spacing issues by drafting Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — who projects to be a threat from three-point range even if he isn’t an elite shooter right away – and by signing Chauncey Billups. They also signed Italian League MVP, Luigi “Gigi” Datome (his name is Luigi and he shot 42% from three in Italy, your argument is invalid). Maybe this roster will end up being totally dysfunctional and the talent will go to waste. But I’m willing to wait and see it in action before declaring it a disaster (or even really worrying about it, then again I’m not a Pistons fan).

Smoove and Jennings are guys who have developed reputations as shameless chuckers who are at best ambivalent (or perhaps just unaware) about the concept of efficiency. But is that reputation a life sentence? Is it possible for Smith and Jennings to change their ways on their new team? Some people around basketball will say that they are who they are. Personally, I’m more hesitant to write them off. Jennings and Smith are both obviously very talented and have the ability to be far more efficient than they have been recently. Will a simple change of scenery be enough for them to adjust their shot selections and lead to an uptick in efficiency? I have no idea, but I think there’s a non-zero chance that there is a coach, player, or mentor in Detroit that these guys lacked in Milwaukee and Atlanta. Any NBA fan has seen Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith do tremendous things on the basketball court. If somebody is able to harness their overwhelming potential and skills into consistent efficiency, then all of the questions of fit and cost can likely take a backseat.

More often than not, the NBA team with the more talented roster wins out. There are certain cases where scheme, chemistry, and coaching allow a lesser roster to overcome a significant gap in talent, but usually talent reigns supreme. And while you can question all of the specifics regarding the additions of Jennings and Smith, I don’t think you can sincerely question that they increase the overall talent on the Pistons’ roster. Again, I’m not about to simply dismiss any questions about the future direction of the Pistons’ franchise (what’s the endgame here??) or about what how the heck Mo Cheeks is going to make this roster work. But at a certain point you want to start winning games. It could have been pressure from ownership to put more fans in the Palace or the front office may truly believe that a Drummond/Monroe/Jennings/Smith core can be a title contender in the future. But more likely, the Pistons saw an opportunity to improve their roster by adding two very talented players – and they did so without sacrificing much more than some newfound cap space (sorry, Brandon Knight). That seems pretty sensible to me.

Profile Paroxysm: Brandon Knight – Soaking Up Knowledge In Detroit

Photo by Charli Mariott on Flickr

 

You’re not going to see Brandon Knight on the cover of SI just yet. You’re not gong to spit out your drink because of any of his passes. He lacks the hype, the flash and frankly, the production of the young point guards you hear the most about. But quietly, he’s making an impression in Detroit.

Before the Pistons faced the Raptors on Wednesday, they’d won seven of their last ten games and Knight had played no small part. There was the career high 26 points and seven assists against Milwaukee. The 23 and 10 plus six rebounds against Sacramento. The 24 on 12 shots including 4-5 from beyond the arc in Cleveland. If Toronto coach Dwane Casey wasn’t already following him because of their Kentucky connection, his play would have forced him to pay attention. “Everybody knew he had the speed and quickness, but the three-point NBA shooting is something that was lacking,” Casey said of Knight, who is making 38% of his threes as a rookie. “And now he’s got that, so for years to come he’s going to be one of the top point guards in this league and Detroit’s lucky to have him.”

Perhaps more impressive than that endorsement and the point totals listed above is the fact that Knight had a total of two turnovers in those three games. In Toronto, he didn’t turn the ball over a single time. This was his fourth such game in February, impressive for any starting point guard, let alone a rookie who averaged three TO’s a game through his first month as a pro.

“Playing the point guard in the league is a very tough position. Probably the hardest in the league,” said teammate Ben Gordon.

“As the season’s been going on, he’s been making better decisions,” Gordon continued. “Sometimes just making the simple play is the great play for him. Early on in the season it seemed like sometimes he would try to do a little too much, but now he’s becoming a little bit more poised and he’s not having those same turnovers and things like that he did earlier on in the season.”

Ben Wallace describes Knight’s first few games as those of a typical rookie. Coach Lawrence Frank asserts that his growth over 35 games has been exceptional. “He’s gotten better throughout. He’s a very diligent worker, a quick study,” he said. “Anything that he needs to learn, he’s a sponge for it. Constantly wanting to grasp knowledge and apply it. Very, very impressive person.”

You can add Frank to the list of Knight’s coaches who rave about him as a person and a player. Less than a year ago, John Calipari called him “the most conscientious, hardworking player I’ve ever been around.” Pine Crest high school coach David Beckerman said, “I’ve been doing this 40 years, and he’s one in a million, no doubt. Every coach dreams about getting one, not only with his skill, but he has a great deal of things that go far, far beyond basketball.”

Knight was a straight-A student since third grade and he helped his Wildcats teammates with their homework. As an eight-year vet, Gordon is now the one giving advice, but he doesn’t hide his admiration for the 20-year-old. “He’s a great kid to be on a team with, man. He works really hard,” he said. “He understands that he’ll continue to get better and pick things up if he’s just a sponge and listens to pretty much what all the older guys have to say and he’s done that. He takes it and puts it into use and you can see that concerted effort in him every day, every game, trying to get better, so it’s a real breath of fresh air to play with another young talent like that.”

The unwavering support of those in the locker room is in contrast to the doubt expressed by a segment of Pistons fans. Despite Detroit’s February hot streak, it is last in the Central Division at 11-24. Some have lost patience with management and are uncomfortable with Knight’s below-average PER. Like most first-year players, he’s inconsistent — a night before the 26-6-10 game against Sacramento, he had a 6-3-1 game in Boston. Some pine for a more natural creator, as Knight spends a lot of time playing off the ball with Rodney Stuckey or Tayshaun Prince initiating the offense.

While his overall numbers invite some criticism, expectations need to be tempered — Knight is a Piston because of his upside. Standing 6’3 with elite quickness and a 6’7 wingspan, he has the tools to become one of the best defensive point guards in the game. His release is effortless. His handle, strong. To Wallace, it is not a matter of if Knight will harness all of his considerable talent. “No question,” he said of seeing All-Stardom in Knight’s future. “Without a doubt. For a number of years.”

When you consider that Knight spent just a year in college and is more project than prodigy as a passer, a leadership role is a lot to ask. But Wallace said that’s exactly what his team has demanded. “We just tried to tell him his role is to go out and lead this team,” Wallace said. ”And as of late he’s been doing a great job of going out there and leading us, getting us out in the open court, getting us easy buckets on the break and making sure everybody’s where they need to be… He’s a lot farther along than we expected him to be at this point in the season.”

“It’s difficult,” Knight said of accepting that kind of responsibility. “But it all comes with hard work. Once guys know that your heart is in the right place and that you want the best for the team, then that makes it a little bit easier.”

It’s rewarding to see your name in the national headlines. It’s fun to see a million YouTube hits on one of your plays. But these things aren’t as significant as appreciation and recognition from your peers. “It means a lot just to know that guys that have been in the league, have done what I’m trying to do, have won championships say that stuff about me,” Knight said. “I just want to continue to do that and continue to earn their respect and trust on the team.”

A select few players dazzle, dunk and dish their way into the average fan’s consciousness during their first campaign. Most are only acknowledged by those closest to them. It’s normal to give everyone else some time to catch up.