Houston Rockets get: Power forward Marquese Chriss and point guard Brandon Knight
Phoenix Suns get: Power forward Ryan Anderson and draft rights to guard De’Anthony Melton
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At heart, this is surely a money-saving deal for a Rockets team deep in the luxury tax. Assuming Houston would have signed Melton to a contract starting at the rookie minimum, swapping him and Anderson for Chriss and Knight saves the Rockets $3.4 million in salary and approximately $8 million in luxury tax.
Given that Anderson wasn’t likely to play a significant role next season after losing his starting job at power forward just before last season’s All-Star break and playing limited minutes as a backup center in the playoffs, sacrificing a second-round pick for that kind of savings is surely worthwhile at face value. Just how good a trade this is will be determined by what kind of production, if any, the two players coming back from Phoenix provide.
Let’s start with Knight, who makes up the bulk of the matching salary for Anderson’s contract. Once a promising-enough point guard that the Suns were willing to give up a future first-round pick to get him from the Milwaukee Bucks as part of a three-team deal — Phoenix ultimately traded up this year to get back that pick, routed to the Philadelphia 76ers, and used it on Mikal Bridges — Knight saw his value crater not long after signing a five-year, $70 million contract in 2015.
Unhappy playing a reserve role in 2016-17, Knight was one of the league’s least effective players. His efficiency sank to a career-low .502 true shooting percentage and he handed out a career-low 4.1 assists per 36 minutes. Add in Knight’s atrocious defense and his minus-5.3 rating in ESPN’s real plus-minus (RPM) was fifth-worst among all rated players that season.
An ACL tear suffered during a pro-am game last summer in Miami kept Knight off the court all last season, preventing him from bouncing back. Though Knight won’t be 27 until December and should theoretically be in his prime, the combination of his poor performance and his injury make it unclear Houston can count on him for any kind of production despite the team’s need for another option in the backcourt.
The timing of this deal just before the Aug. 31 deadline to waive players and stretch their salary for this season suggests it’s possible the Rockets could consider doing just that with Knight, who would count $6.1 million against the cap the next five seasons if waived and stretched — allowing Houston to get within striking distance of avoiding the tax altogether. Alternatively, the Rockets may have been weighing trade options against the possibility of waiving Anderson, which would also account for the timing.
As for Chriss, he’s barely two years removed from being drafted No. 8 overall, and an interesting “second draft” candidate. A football player in middle school, Chriss came to basketball late and is still catching up — particularly at the defensive end of the court, where the Suns have finished 28th and 30th in defensive rating during his two seasons.
Clearly Phoenix had given up on Chriss, but he could prove a better fit for Houston’s system. Chriss has the athleticism to keep up with guards on switches, and according to Second Spectrum tracking, opponents averaged just 0.8 points per chance when Chriss switched last season — far better than the 1.0 point per chance opponents averaged against Anderson switches.
Chriss’ leaping ability should also help him play a rim-running role similar to Clint Capela on offense. He has never played with an effective lob passer in the NBA, and now has the luxury of both Chris Paul and James Harden setting him up for dunks.
If things don’t work out because of Chriss’ inability to recognize plays as they develop and communicate with his teammates — not to mention difficulty maintaining his cool, which has led to a series of altercations with opponents — the Rockets haven’t invested much in him. They’ll have until Oct. 31 to decide on picking up Chriss’ $4.1 million option for 2019-20.
This deal got easier to understand from the Suns’ perspective when ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Friday morning that Anderson had agreed to reduce the guaranteed portion of his $20.4 million 2019-20 salary to $15.6 million — the same amount Knight is scheduled to make.
Now there really isn’t much downside to this trade from Phoenix’s perspective. At worst, they can walk away from Anderson without cutting into cap space next summer, and the difference in salary this season is irrelevant to a team that is over the salary cap but far shy of the luxury tax. (Being over the cap does present one complication: as ESPN’s Bobby Marks pointed out on Twitter, at present the Suns don’t have a mechanism to sign Melton to a contract longer than two years.)
Anderson’s willingness to potentially sacrifice nearly $5 million speaks to the fact that Phoenix sold him on starting at power forward after the trade, and that’s still difficult to understand. As helpful as Anderson’s floor spacing should be offensively, he won’t be much help in upgrading Phoenix’s horrendous defense. At this point, he should probably be considered a reserve rather than a starter.
Starting Anderson means cutting into new head coach Igor Kokoskov’s ability to play some of his combo forwards at the 4. The Suns signed Trevor Ariza away from Houston to a one-year, $15 million contract and drafted Bridges to go along with holdovers Josh Jackson (the No. 4 pick of the 2017 Draft) and T.J. Warren. If Anderson starts at power forward, that means three of those four will come off the bench, making it tough to find playing time for all of them.
Surely, culture was a major factor in this deal. Knight was disgruntled two years ago, and his injury had the silver lining of keeping him from complaining about his role last season. While it’s certainly possible that Knight could have started at point guard this season, his shoot-first style is a poor fit alongside Suns star Devin Booker and his lack of effort on defense a poor example for his teammates. So more unhappiness was likely. By contrast, Anderson should be more of a veteran leader in the locker room.
As for Melton, the Suns could have drafted him with the first pick of the second round. They instead chose another point guard who slipped on draft night, Elie Okobo. Given his generally strong statistical projections coming out of USC, Melton made more sense with the Rockets than in Phoenix.
That said, if Melton can hone his 3-point shooting — his 32 percent accuracy on 7.6 attempts per game during the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas was moderately encouraging — he could become an ideal partner for Booker. Melton’s defense-first skill set makes him similar to Shaquille Harrison, the G League product now potentially in line to start at point guard for the Suns.
The lingering question is whether Phoenix could have extracted more from Houston given how much money this deal will save the Rockets. I also don’t love what this trade says about how the Suns value Anderson and see their own roster. Nonetheless, adding a prospect with more potential than the typical second-round pick at the cost of $3 million in salary this year is a positive move for Phoenix.