PHOENIX -- The Suns didn’t have much of a choice.
By making public his intentions not to re-sign with the team when he could become an unrestricted free agent this offseason, Goran Dragic forced the Suns to make a move or risk losing their third-team All-NBA performer from a season ago for nothing, a potentially disastrous outcome for a front office intent on asset accumulation.
So in a flurry of moves before the deadline Thursday, out went Dragic and in came Brandon Knight as Phoenix made three trades minutes before the deadline to reshuffle the deck and make one of the league’s youngest cores even younger.
“At the end of the day, I’m absolutely convinced that we are in a better place now than we have been since I’ve been here,” Suns president of basketball operations Lon Babby said at a news conference Friday.
The main reason for that is the Suns’ crucial 2015 free agent now becomes the 23-year-old restricted free agent Knight rather than the 28-year-old Dragic, who can become an unrestricted free agent.
If the team signs Knight to an extension of at least four seasons, Eric Bledsoe (age 25), Knight and Markieff Morris (25) will be under contract through the 2018-19 season and Alex Len (21) will be under team control through 2016-17. Dragic, meanwhile, turns 29 in May and will be eligible for a more lucrative long-term contract this offseason than Knight based on his years of experience in the league.
“A major motivation was going from 28 [Dragic’s age] to 23 [Knight’s], and I think that’s a major positive for us,” Babby said. “The group will hopefully stay together and grow together and reach their prime together.
“Maybe if we’re lucky, by that time Tim Duncan will be 48 years old and things will begin to change in the Western Conference. You have to look at the whole picture of where we are and where everybody else is.”
That whole picture includes a loaded Western Conference with seven teams boasting winning percentages of at least .630. Unless one of those teams falters, that leaves the Suns fighting with Oklahoma City for the final playoff spot in the West -- the teams currently own identical 29-25 records -- and, of course, that’s just to reach the postseason, to say nothing of making a run.
Beyond their building blocks, the Suns’ youth includes recent first-rounders Archie Goodwin (20), T.J. Warren (21) and Reggie Bullock (23), as well as overseas stash Bodgan Bogdanovic (22) and the three first-round picks acquired Thursday to keep the Suns’ future pick stash full.
“The principle we follow is the same principle that we’ve been following for the last couple years,” Babby said. “We’re not going to do anything to help us in the short run if it’s going to hurt us in the long run. We expect to compete for this playoff spot, and we’re excited about the opportunity. We get the challenge, but at the same time we have to be focused on the future.”
The Suns’ wealth of draft picks and young prospects could put them in a good trading position the next time a disgruntled star seeks to force his way to a new squad, but for now the Suns are relying on the improvement of their young core.
That now includes Knight, a player Suns general manager Ryan McDonough lauded for being a “closer,” citing his stats in late-game situations. Knight has scored 85 points in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter or OT when the score is within five points, the seventh-most such points in the league. The Suns could use help in clutch situations as they are just 2-9 in games decided by three points or fewer, the second-worst win percentage in the league in such games.
Knight will now share a backcourt with a fellow former Kentucky guard in Bledsoe, giving the Suns a pair of multitalented players to push the pace and share lead guard roles just as Bledsoe did last season with Dragic.
As a 40.9 percent 3-point shooter this season, Knight could be a good fit playing off the ball while also being able to attack when called upon.
“We have two very high-level guys in Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight that we feel like have the potential to be All-Stars and have the potential to be a terrific backcourt for years to come,” McDonough said.
The Suns have spent much of this season in one of the top eight spots in the Western Conference, yet Thursday’s activity is a reminder that Phoenix is still a rebuilding team, albeit one with a better record than most of the league’s other young teams, as McDonough pointed out at Friday’s news conference.
The team now has additional future cap space with Isaiah Thomas off the books, draft picks far enough down the line that Babby joked owner Robert Sarver’s children will be making one of the selections, and a potential cornerstone player five years younger than the cornerstone the Suns shipped out.
“We have a lot of young players we feel are just starting to scratch the surface of their potential, and we feel like their best basketball is ahead of them,” McDonough said. “The goal is to get to that championship level. Every move we’ve made over the last couple years is with that in mind. I feel like we’re getting closer to seeing the core of the next great Suns team, but we’re not going to stop until we get it right.”