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.
The logic to this deal is a little more difficult to piece together from the Suns' perspective. Even if they saw Chriss as a sunk cost at this point, and the salary they added this season as largely irrelevant, they could have walked away from Chriss with nothing owed beyond this season. In that case, Phoenix added about $5.6 million in salary for 2019-20 by swapping Knight for Anderson, which will come out of the team's cap space next summer.
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 last 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 — particularly if, as reported by ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, he starts at power forward in Phoenix. That would be a perplexing outcome given the Suns' surplus of combo forwards. They 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 TJ Warren. If Anderson starts at power forward, that means three of those four will come off the bench.
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.
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.
It appears Phoenix looked at this deal as getting a starting power forward and a point guard prospect in exchange for two players who weren't part of their plans. A more appropriate valuation of Anderson makes this look more like getting Melton in return for an extra $3 million this season and $6 million in 2019-20, and that doesn't seem like driving a hard enough bargain given how much money Houston saved.