January 20, 2018
The Suns traded away two of their better players, but did so to get assets and stay young.

Imagine for a moment one of your best players publicly stating that he has no trust in the team. Follow that up with said player wanting out of town, creating a list consisting of just three teams, and mix that together with his pending free agency in July in which it’s expected he’ll demand as much as $20 million a year.

Not a pretty picture by any means.

But alas, this was the case of Goran Dragic, who in recent weeks has grown sour of the Phoenix Suns and made no secret in denying it. A player’s trade value hinges on a great many things, including his words, which left the Suns with their backs against the wall going into last night’s trading deadline.

In the end, Phoenix turned potential misery into potential. The Miami Heat, one of the teams on Dragic’s list, shipped off their 2017 and 2019 first-round picks for Dragic and his brother, Zoran, while also sending the Suns Danny Granger and (via the New Orleans Pelicans in a three team deal) John Salmons.

Dragic this year seems to have fallen back to Earth after a break-out campaign last year, in which he was named to the All-NBA third team. His numbers have fallen back into line with those similar to the rest of his career, suggesting last season might have been an outlier, at least statistically. Dragic’s assist percentage, despite similar usage rates, has dropped from 35.7% two seasons ago to just 19.5% this season for a team ranking just 21st in assists, while his free throw rate of 38.1% has been halved from last year to this, at 19.1%, which goes hand-in-hand in the visual lack of aggressiveness.

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Of course, the addition of Isaiah Thomas, and having a healthy Eric Bledsoe playing full-time minutes, naturally meant that Dragic didn’t have the same on-ball freedom as last year (he was unassisted on 71.9% of his shots last season, compared to just 50.3% of the time this year). Playing as more of a two guard without the same number of opportunities to probe the defense, and with less opportunity to feed relatively easy passes for generous assists to explosive scorer Gerald Green (who received 11.8% of his passes from Dragic this year, down from 30.6% last year), Dragic was the most affected player of the Suns’ three point guard experiment, the one who had to play the closest thing to a shooting guard. However, Dragic wasn’t just put in the corner to ball-watch, as evidenced by his aforementioned usage rate, just three percentage points lower than last year and almost identical to the year before. His PER dropped almost five points from last year to this, and his TS% dropped three percentage points, which is unusual given that he’s assisted significantly more on his makes, compared to last year.

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Even accounting for the change in role, Dragic’s output has tapered off significantly. His raw numbers of 16.2 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 4.1 assists in just over 33 minutes a night are rather pedestrian. But his perceived value – ignoring his own sabotage of it with his public comments – is evident in the return Phoenix acquired.

Phoenix didn’t just overcome the aforementioned self-sabotage attempt by Dragic; they may even have dodged a bullet long-term. While it’s assumed that Dragic will demand (and receive) a max contract, or at least something in the ballpark of one, his statistical regression doesn’t inspire much confidence in Dragic being at all worth it. With Dragic showing his discomfort in Phoenix lately and his distrust in the team, it shouldn’t be ruled out that Dragic’s production fell due to him simply being in Phoenix, and he might now right the ship in the new climes of Miami. Either way, Dragic wasn’t going to return to Phoenix, so acquiring future assets spread out until 2019 looks like a smart long-term solution.

The Suns also brought in Brandon Knight from Milwaukee, shipping off their first-rounder acquired from the Los Angeles Lakers in the Steve Nash trade, along with the redundant Miles Plumlee and little used rookie Tyler Ennis. [They also received Kendall Marshall, out for the season with injury, who they will waive.] Knight is enjoying a break-out season, a surprise Eastern Conference All-Star snub, due to his refined all-around play. He’ll more than likely take on the two-guard mantle next to Eric Bledsoe, and although neither is used to playing off the ball much, Knight’s shooting skills make a pairing workable. Knight is assisted on just 40.4% of his total makes, with Bledsoe coming in at 31.4%, suggesting the two will need to get acquainted over the second half of the season. But Knight is assisted on 63.5% of his three-pointers, to which he’s made 104 at near 41%, which will be a big piece going forward.

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After running with a three-man point guard rotation, Phoenix drastically needed to re-structure some of its roster, which made the Knight trade slightly curious had it not been for getting him cheaply. They promptly both cleared up the point guard glut and made another trade with long-term effect when they shipped off Isaiah Thomas to the Boston Celtics, in exchange for shooting guard Marcus Thornton and a 2016 first-rounder courtesy of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Thornton, while undersized, is a pure shooting guard who is fully capable of putting up strong scoring numbers. Thornton had been playing just 16.4 minutes a night in Boston, but that didn’t stopping him averaging 8.9 points while canning almost 42% of his three’s. Thornton is assisted on close to 64% of his shots, and well over 86% on his three-pointers; he doesn’t need the ball to be effective, which is welcome relief to a team who had struggled to wedge Dragic into the same role. He’ll give the Suns a much needed non-ball-dominant guard in their rotation, leaving the point guard duties to Bledsoe, with Knight becoming the secondary ballhandler. Not insignificantly, Thornton’s $8.575 million expires this year, keeping options open for a team with youth on its side (and with Knight soon needing paying).

Trading Thomas, who was signed just last summer to a very reasonable deal paying him $27 million over four years, was a tough choice for the Suns, especially given that his contract declines in value over the next few years. But to fully re-structure the team, while adding assets for down the line, some eggs needed to be broken. Thomas’s minutes will likely be given to a combination of Thornton and Gerald Green, opening up some minutes at the three-spot with Green playing more off-guard, which allows the Suns to play bigger in more clearly defined, better-fitting roles.

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Another wrinkle in last night’s trade orgy was the trade of Miles Plumlee, which signifies a now fully established position as starter for second-year man Alex Len, the only true center currently on the team. Good though he is, Len’s back-up Brandan Wright is mostly a four who will squeeze himself into the center position from time to time, thus leaving the vast majority of all center minutes to Len, who will turn only 22 in June.

In totality, Thursday night might have been a step back for the immediate success of the Suns, but not to the point where their gain of future assets wasn’t worth it. The eighth seed is still going to be tough to get this season, especially with their main rival for the spot Oklahoma City making some improvements of their own. But despite trading away two quality players, Phoenix balanced their team with a view to keeping the chase alive, while also gaining better long term assets.

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Morten Stig Jensen

Danish hillbilly, and proud father, who's been around the web a few times. Owned and operated the largest basketball-site in Denmark, was an NBA on-air color analyst for a brief time, now a frequent podcaster. Academy Profession Degree in Multimedia Design and Communication from the Copenhagen School of Design & Technology, currently studying Media Production & Management at the Danish School of Media & Journalism.

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