The stillness of late August never lasts long in the NBA, and on the one-year anniversary of the Kyrie Irving trade to Boston, with just nine minutes of Thursday remaining on the East Coast, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported the salary dump that we’d all been waiting for: The Houston Rockets traded Ryan Anderson and rookie De’Anthony Melton to the Phoenix Suns for Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss. Here are four takeaways from the deal:
The Rockets Finally Got the Ryno off Their Back
It was always a matter of when, not if, Ryan Anderson would be shipped out of Houston. The archetypal stretch 4 found himself in the right place at the right time, becoming a free agent in the now-infamous cap boom of 2016, earning himself a four-year, $80 million contract with the Rockets the same summer the team hired Mike D’Antoni to revitalize a stalling franchise. But by the end of his dismal 2016-17 postseason against both the Thunder and Spurs, the Rockets had a severe case of buyer’s remorse.
Ryno looked to be a perfect soldier, a simulacrum of the Tim Thomases and Steve Novaks that thrived under D’Antoni’s past regimes. But times change. At the highest level of competition, NBA teams with championship aspirations nowadays will find it impossible to justify playing a one-dimensional shooter in a frontcourt position simply because he has the height of a center. The defensive liabilities that Anderson presented in the regular season were magnified tenfold in the playoffs. In his first season with the Rockets, he averaged 30.5 postseason minutes; in his second, he averaged 8.7. In the span of a season, he was rendered unplayable.
That said, Anderson makes sense for the Suns and what they’re hoping to build, which may seem hard to reconcile with how fast and hard he fell from grace in Houston. But the difference between the Rockets and the Suns as things stand today is the difference between a billionaire tycoon and an average salaryman. There is a fundamental disparity in the scope of each side’s endeavors: The Rockets are in position to reach the NBA Finals; the Suns are just trying to cobble together an identity for themselves. Anderson gives the team a reliable floor spacer as Phoenix figures out how best to deploy its young talent in a spread court. Between Anderson and Trevor Ariza, the team will have perimeter threats for any kind of upsized or downsized lineup. Opening up driving lanes is the easiest way to develop their talented core in Deandre Ayton, Devin Booker, and Josh Jackson.
Can D’Antoni Salvage Phoenix’s Dead Weight?
The Rockets are now in possession of Knight and Chriss, which was not the express purpose of trading with the Suns, but it’s not nothing.
Knight will immediately embed himself as an insurance policy for either Chris Paul or James Harden—though it has to be at least a little troubling for a franchise when an insurance policy probably needs its own insurance policy. It feels as though Knight has been out of the league due to injury for three seasons; in reality, he’s missed only about a season and a half. Ideally he’ll return as a sharpshooting secondary ball handler who can play alongside either Paul or Harden, or even alongside Eric Gordon in a true reserve unit (which would be something completely unexpected from D’Antoni). After he tore his ACL last summer, it’s hard to imagine anything going ideally for Knight. However, the Rockets found a template that worked last season, emphasizing the skills of their perimeter creators and allowing the rest of the team to fall into place. Knight, at his best, is a starting-caliber creator on an NBA team. That upside alone is worth the gamble, if only to make sure neither Harden nor Paul has too excessive a regular-season workload.
Chriss requires just as much projection, but at only 21 years old, it’s much easier to allow optimism to take over. The pre-draft Amar’e Stoudemire comparisons were a stretch, but Chriss might just be the best athlete D’Antoni has coached since STAT a decade ago. An optimist might look at Chriss’s disappointing stint with the Suns and wonder whether he had the proper infrastructure to succeed. Raw big men are often at the mercy of their lead guards, and the Suns have been floundering in that department for the past two seasons. If there’s one thing that D’Antoni does better than anyone else, it’s keeping the game simple for his players. Chriss won’t need to do anything other than run hard, keep track of his defensive assignments, and catch lobs. And he can catch lobs:
At Washington, he tantalized scouts with a seemingly effortless perimeter stroke. It hasn’t translated in the NBA, at the free throw line or behind the arc. But even the possibility of a big-man perimeter game beyond that of Clint Capela must have D’Antoni’s gears churning.
Let’s Dream About Devin Booker As the Suns’ Starting Point Guard While We Still Can
With Knight gone, the Suns officially do not have a nominal point guard on the roster with more than one year of NBA experience. That means the Suns do not have a player more capable of stepping into the lead guard role from Day 1 than Booker. Phoenix’s $158 million wing essentially auditioned for the role last season, sculpting himself into a proficient player in the pick-and-roll, the mother sauce of modern NBA offense. With his on-ball confidence and deadeye shooting, there’s no reason new head coach Igor Kokoskov couldn’t use Booker the way he did Luka Doncic during EuroBasket 2017 for the Slovenian national team: as a large playmaking backcourt player who fluidly transitions between on- and off-ball duties. Harden under D’Antoni is the platonic ideal, and perhaps the shape of the lead guard position to come. We’ve floated the comparisons before.
None of this is to say the Suns don’t have promising point guard talents on their roster. Frenchman Élie Okobo, drafted 31st overall in June, is part of the new wave of Steph Curry acolytes—guards with limitless range coming off the pick-and-roll. But it’s De’Anthony Melton, the former USC combo guard whom the Suns acquired in the trade, who could very well end up being the best player involved. That the Suns were willing to take on salary in the trade to land Melton speaks volumes.
Melton spent all of last season suspended by USC while the NCAA investigated fraud and corruption charges that pertained to one of the school’s assistant coaches, who helped recruit Melton. Had he played the season, Melton likely would have solidified himself as a top-20 pick in the 2018 draft; instead, he fell all the way to no. 46. Despite not having played a competitive, sanctioned basketball game for more than a year, Melton showed out in five games with the Rockets’ summer league team, averaging 16.4 points, 7.2 rebounds, 4.0 assists, and 3.0 steals per game. He showed confidence in shooting 3s both off the dribble and off the catch, and had the court sense to make the extra pass when necessary. He wouldn’t be the most conventional choice for the role, but the way the Suns have built out their roster, conventions are already being tossed aside.
I’m envisioning a starting five of Booker, Jackson, Ariza, Anderson, and Ayton. But given the state of the West and just how young the team is at its core, it wouldn’t be too surprising to see more of the team’s rookies (like Melton or Mikal Bridges) finding their way into the starting lineup sooner rather than later. It would certainly be a bold move for a rookie head coach to dismantle positional norms this early in his career, but if the whole point of this Suns experiment is to serve the youth, Kokoskov doesn’t have much to lose.
It’s Possible That Neither Team Is Done Trading
The Rockets found a perfect partner in the Suns for their yearlong quest to dump Anderson’s salary. But this could just be the beginning of a chain of deals in the lead-up to the season. While Knight still has two seasons remaining on his five-year, $70 million contract, his annual average of $14 million is much more palatable in a prospective trade than Anderson’s $20 million. The Rockets are still in need of reliable perimeter players: Knight to the Hornets for Marvin Williams straight up works financially, as does Knight to the Cavaliers for [gulp] J.R. Smith. If Daryl Morey sees this as nothing more than a salary dump, perhaps Houston can trade both Knight and Chriss to the Hawks for Kent Bazemore.
As for the Suns, they are now in possession of the best haul from the 2018 draft (just a reminder, they now have Ayton, Bridges, Okobo, and Melton on their roster). Phoenix has plenty of assets to try to swing a trade for a starting point guard, as Woj suggested it would. Kemba Walker seems like an obvious target, but the Suns might be reluctant to give up too much for a player who will be a free agent at the end of the upcoming season. A home run for Phoenix would involve acquiring C.J. McCollum, who would instantly create one of the most dynamic offensive backcourts in the league with Booker by his side. The Blazers may be clinging onto the facade of last season’s 3-seed, but would they be able to ignore the goodie bag the Suns are capable of putting together?