As we explored yesterday, the Detroit Pistons have very few trade assets as they approach the March 15th trade deadline. Teams around the league are likely only to covet Greg Monroe, Jonas Jerebko, Brandon Knight and Detroit's 2012 first round draft pick, none of which the Pistons would be quick to part with. However, Greg Monroe and the 2012 lottery pick are likely more important to the near future of the franchise than young Brandon Knight. Given his trade value and the historically long development schedule for a player of his nature, should the Pistons at least listen to trade offers that might include Brandon Knight? Would doing so be a massive mistake? Let's explore...
Why even consider trading Brandon Knight?
Given their messy salary cap situation, the only hope for Detroit to build for the future is through trades and the draft. Fortunately, building through free agency isn't a winning strategy. The problem is that Detroit doesn't have the cap freedom to absorb a trade that isn't salary matched. Making matters worse, Detroit only has a few assets that could be moved for anything of value. There's no getting around it-- for Detroit to properly turn this team around, it can't hope for another GM to make a mistake, it needs to assess its market strengths and give up something it doesn't want to.
Of its key assets, namely Monroe, Jerebko, Knight and the 2012 lottery pick, only Monroe and the pick should be untouchable. If Detroit wants to play the trade market, offers including Jerebko and/or Knight should at least be entertained, and big opportunities including those names should be explored by Detroit's front office.
Fans might reluctantly consider letting Jerebko go if it meant a better, more immediate shot at improvement. The suggestion to move Brandon Knight, however, might be welcomed with emotions ranging from fury to laughter. You can't say I don't know what I'm getting myself into by writing this...
The point is that for Detroit to get something via trade, it has to give up something of value. I feel that moving Brandon Knight might be the most reasonable option for finding value without losing much in the short term.
Brandon Knight will take years to develop
The Pistons plan is to use Brandon Knight as a point guard, having started him at the point 28 times so far this season. They have moved Rodney Stuckey off-the-ball and are relying largely on a three guard rotation including Ben Gordon. The problem is that Brandon Knight has yet to develop a passing game, something he has never exhibited in his collegiate and professional career. It is this alone that separates a point guard from a shooting guard, and a skill set that rarely develops after a player has entered the NBA.
In the last ten years, amongst rookie guards who played 500 minutes or more, Brandon Knight is ranked 65th in assist rate. Amongst the active point guards in this group, only Mo Williams has established a serviceable career having assisted less than Brandon Knight in his rookie season. The only other point guards behind Knight in this group that are still in the league are Nate Robinson and Daniel Gibson. Amongst this group, Knight has more in common with shooting guards than point players, lining up with 21st century rookies like Ben Gordon, Jason Richardson, Joe Johnson and Monta Ellis. When you take turnover rate into account, however, Knight sinks toward the bottom of that group quickly.
This is the problem-- to expect Brandon Knight to develop a serviceable passing game is to overwhelmingly bet against history. It is incredibly rare for players to suddenly acquire a skill they haven't exhibited in the past. If Knight is to come close to serviceable, it could take three or four years to properly build such skills. Even then, it may never happen-- and until it does, the Pistons will have a weak link at a terribly important position.
Building a Passing Game: Case Studies
Prior to the 2011 draft, the leading draft news organizations rated Brandon Knight similar to Chauncey Billups and Jason Terry. Let's take a close look at these two players, plus one other combo guard Pistons fans are quite familiar with-- Rodney Stuckey.
Having been bounced around four different teams before joining Detroit, Chauncey Billups was stuck between positions due to his height, his ability to shoot and the lack of a polished passing game. It wasn't until Minnesota gave him a shot at the point that he began to put it together. Prior to that, Billups was largely a perimeter player who wasn't known as a distributor. This wasn't due to a lack of opportunities, as Chauncey started all but 14 games in his first two seasons. Billups is now known as one of the best point guards of the last decade, but it took him five years to establish the passing game that made him such an effective NBA player.
Pistons fans have had a front-row seat to watch how slowly it can take for a passing game to develop. In five years, Rodney Stuckey has never fully grasped the passing game necessary to lead a team from the point. This is despite the fact that Stuckey averaged more assists than Brandon Knight in college, and despite the fact that Stuckey produced a higher assist rate in his rookie season. In his fifth year in the NBA, his team has realized that he's not likely to ever develop a passing game and has such moved him off the ball at shooting guard. In Stuckey's case, Pistons fans have seen that some talents just don't ever develop, and expecting Knight to be different is not realistic.
Jason Terry, another player comparable to Knight, is also a best-case scenario for the career of the aforementioned Stuckey. Terry began his career as a point guard hopeful for the Atlanta Hawks, but he suffered from poor shooting efficiency, an awkward passing game and problems with turnovers. He seemed to be more suited to shooting guard, but his height prevented him from holding the position against taller opposition. Unlike Knight, Stuckey and Billups, however, Jason Terry seemed to be at least a decent passer out of the gate. He averaged greater than a 28% assist rate in five years in Atlanta, but he could never quite put together a complete game at the point. He ultimately found his groove off-the-bench and on-the-ball, bringing instant offense in a manner that has earned him frequent 6th man honors.
If a player hasn't shown to have an adequate passing game, developing one can take four or five years and even then, it may not happen at all. Chauncey Billups is an absolute best-case scenario, but to make that comparison with Knight is to pray that lightning can strike twice. But the problem Pistons fans need to be aware of is that even in the best case scenario, it could take Knight years, even up to five, to become a serviceable point guard with a serviceable passing game in today's NBA.
Can the Pistons wait four years for Knight's passing game?
In four years, Greg Monroe's rookie contract will have expired. Detroit will owe him a qualifying offer or will have to match an offer from another team, but they will likely have already signed Monroe to a nice extension. In Knight's case, he will be on his last season before he, too, is due an extension. Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva and even Rodney Stuckey will have expired, and a 34-year-old Tayshaun Prince will be earning over $8M for that season.
Yes, the Pistons can wait four years for Knight to develop a passing game. But this suggests two other supplemental outcomes which are not mutually exclusive:
1) The Pistons may have been hampered by the lack of a solid point guard throughout that stretch
2) The reality is that Knight may never develop a passing game.
If Knight never does blossom as a point guard, the Pistons could face extended mediocrity without a payoff.
For all this doom and gloom, who would want Knight?
Even if Knight does not develop the passing game necessary to become a solid NBA point guard, he still presents plenty of value and could be a good NBA player. There might be other teams that are in a better position to take the risks Knight carries in hopes of a payoff. First round playoff teams and low lottery pickers might want to take on Knight because they can afford that risk. They might have a backcourt that could plug in 30 minutes of Knight off the bench, hoping that he can take the reins in a few seasons. For this potential payoff, they might be willing to part with something of value.
The problem is that Detroit may not want to wait four years to develop Knight, and the reasons are numerous. First, Knight may not end up being as good a point guard as Rodney Stuckey was last year. The Pistons have Stuckey on contract for three years, so sticking to Stuck may be a wise option. Second, properly building around Monroe with immediate contributors is terribly important, lest Detroit find themselves in the position of teams like Orlando and Denver with trade demands on the wall. Last, if Knight doesn't develop signs of a passing game in a year or two, his trade value will plummet. If he can be moved, he should be moved at the highest sign of value-- which may be prior to the 2012 NBA trade deadline.
Should the Pistons trade Brandon Knight by March 15th?
It's not likely that the Pistons phone will be ringing with offers for Knight this season. He hasn't had a rookie season that will inspire much confidence, but the promise is still there. Usually, rookie point guards show off a passing game as reflected in the stats, but Knight has a few talking points to be considered. So if the phone rings, should Detroit listen? Absolutely. He is one of the only tradeable players on the Pistons roster that Detroit should openly entertain offers for.
Should Detroit actively pursue trades involving Knight? This is certainly up for debate. If I was managing Detroit's roster, I would make a few phone calls. If I could move Knight in a deal that involved the contract of either Gordon or Prince, I'd try to make a deal. If I could make a deal which involved salary relief and/or a first round lottery pick in 2012, I'd try to make a deal there too.
Most fans, and likely everyone in Detroit's front office, would prefer to hold on to Brandon Knight. The point of this article is a note of caution-- that historically, a player like Knight won't end up being a serviceable starting point guard in the NBA. He isn't serviceable right now, and despite all the talking points about him (his intelligence, his pedigree and all the other things that have nothing to do with what he actually does on court), erring on the side of caution may be the right thing to do.
If Detroit's goal was to use Knight as the next super 6th man, while planning to fill the point guard role in the near future, you'd have no arguments here. Knight has the potential to be a valuable player in the NBA. But if anyone wants to take a risk on Knight being a starting point guard, it'd be wise to let someone else take that bet. We Pistons fans have seen how long it can take for a passing game to develop, and we've seen firsthand that sometimes it never happens despite our collective hopes...
Personally, I'd love to see Brandon Knight flourish and become the Pistons point guard of the future. But given the situation in Detroit, it's important that every scenario is considered-- otherwise fans can expect more of the same.