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Brandon Knight set to be “optimized” in Houston

Expect point guard guru Mike D’Antoni to use Knight differently with the Rockets, which is definitely a good thing.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

In a perfect world, being traded to the Rockets would be a great fit for Brandon Knight. After thriving as the unquestioned lead ball handler in Milwaukee, Knight was consistently forced to play out of position in Phoenix; often finding himself playing third banana on offense to Devin Booker and Eric Bledsoe.

The fit wasn’t great. The team wasn’t either. And ultimately, Knight’s stock hit an all-time low.

Theoretically, being traded to a team coached by the greatest point guard maximizer of all-time should be a sure-fire career-saver for Knight. Unfortunately, Knight enters a team with arguably the best guard rotation in the league (with Knight now in the fold), and— barring injury— will likely never see any minutes at lead-guard.

However, in spite of the crowded backcourt, it seems entirely logical that Knight is revived in Houston. As Mike D’Antoni has said before “the more point guards you have on the floor, the better it is”, so it’d be quite the surprise if a proven point man in Knight doesn’t stumble into a meaningful role.

As has been much publicized, the Rockets led the league by a wide margin in both isolation possessions and isolation efficiency last season. It’s what made them so elite. And as fate would have it, isolation is also what has made Knight effective in the past.

Isolation has consistently been one of Knight’s best play types since entering the NBA. Despite his inconsistent percentages from deep, the threat of his pull-up forces defenders to guard him tightly, allowing him to abuse them with his lightning-quick first step. His ability to get “downhill” and create for himself and others can resemble a poor man’s James Harden at times.

Even when his role was waxing-and-waning in Phoenix and his play bottomed out, Knight never dropped below the 66th percentile in isolation efficiency (per Synergy Sports). In fact, even during his career-worst stretch following his trade from Milwaukee in the 2014-15 season, Knight finished in the 89th percentile.

It remains to be seen how often Knight will get to isolate, but regardless, should he ever get the opportunity to as the secondary ball-handler, expect him to thrive. The spacing created by Houston’s shooters helped Chris Paul’s isolation efficiency jump from 0.99 points per possession (PPP) across his last two seasons in Los Angelos to 1.10 PPP this past season, despite almost doubling the volume.

Considering both Eric Gordon and James Harden saw similar improvements in recent years (albeit not as drastic), it’s only logical Knight improves in this regard.

While the isolation bump is promising, it’s possible Knight doesn’t see enough of an opportunity to noticeably improve. However, there are multiple other ways Knight could be “optimized in [Houston’s] system”, with his shot profile being the most notable.

In his last season in Phoenix, half of Knight’s shots were pull-ups, and yet, only 25% of those pull-ups were threes. To compare that to Houston’s midrange-averse system, only 20% of Harden’s pull-ups this season were from inside the arc. Considering even the greatest mid-range shooter of this era in Chris Paul began taking the majority of his pull-ups from three this season, expect Knight’s shot profile— and in turn, his efficiency— to improve.

The other area of Knight’s shot profile that should improve drastically is spot-ups. In his first comments since the trade, Daryl Morey referred to Knight as a “near-elite three-point shooter”. While that left some scratching their heads due to Knight’s career 35.7% from three, falling slightly below league average, when you dig deeper, you’ll see Morey is on to something.

In his last season on a non-tanking team with reasonable spacing (2014-15), Knight shot 38.4% on catch and shoot threes, and 45.2% on threes classified as wide open (6+ feet). Considering the Rockets broke the NBA record for three-point attempts each of the last two seasons, with many of them being wide-open catch and shoot opportunities, Knight should almost certainly return to form in that regard.

That improvement from the outside should have a snowball effect on the rest of his offensive game, as closing out to an explosive player like Knight with the urgency of an elite shooter is a recipe for disaster.

Lastly, in 2016-17, Knight graded out in the 85th percentile for isolation defense. As I went into depth on in each of my last two pieces, switching is the bedrock of the Rockets’ defensive identity. Which, in turn, causes each player to defend far more isolation than anywhere else in the league. So it is safe to say Morey wasn’t just considering the offensive fit in his “optimizing” comments.

All in all, it’s quite possible Knight isn’t with the team at season’s end should his play improve as expected and another team offers a rotation quality wing in exchange for his services. There is also a distinct possibility that Knight’s pesky knee continues to cause issues and he becomes dead money.

Regardless, the Rockets now bolster the best guard rotation in the league, and have a respectable insurance policy should another CP3 hamstring pop at an inopportune time.

If things break right for both Knight and his trade partner, Marquese Chriss, then Mike D’Antoni may be correct in his assessment that this years team is better than last years. Only time will tell.