Even with an offseason that saw him take shots at the organization and demand a trade, it would not have been easy for the Phoenix Suns to trade Markieff Morris if he played as well as he did last season.
The former first-round pick averaged 15.3 points and 6.2 rebounds while starting all 82 games for the team, and he showed a knack for hitting big shots.
But Morris struggled out of the gate this season, averaging just 10.2 points and 4.9 rebounds in 32 games — 19 of which were starts — while shooting .384 from the field and earning a handful of DNP-CD from Jeff Hornacek.
At that point, it would have been considerably easier to deal Morris, even though he is playing under a team-friendly contract that will pay him $32 million over four years, which is a steal for a young starting power forward, assuming he is playing like one.
And lately, he has been.
In four games under interim head coach Earl Watson, Morris is averaging 21 points and 7.5 rebounds while shooting .441 from the field. He has played nearly 35 minutes per game, all of which he started.
A couple weeks ago it seemed like a certainty that Morris would be dealt by the Feb. 18 trade deadline, but with production like that, might the Suns decide the 26-year-old is worth keeping around?
“I would say there is a chance of that,” Suns GM Ryan McDonough told Burns and Gambo on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM Wednesday. “What moves we’ll make, I obviously don’t want to talk about specific players, but it all depends on what’s out there and what’s available.
“I think, especially with players with years remaining on their contracts — especially in our situation — you have to do what’s best for the team long-term.”
The third-year GM said the team will consider making trades because no one is happy with with the team’s 14-39 record and there is an understanding that some moves will need to be made if the Suns are to turn things around and compete in the future.
“But in the short term we’re not going to make an emotional decision or make a trade just for the sake of making one if we don’t think it will benefit the team, especially over a longer term,” he added.
The other side of the Morris-playing-better coin is that if the Suns are intent on dealing the mercurial forward, better performance should lead to a better package in return. Before the Suns could only sell trade partners on the idea that the player would return to his previous level of play with a change of scenery, whereas if he continues at this pace they could simply point to his performance and expect a substantial offer.
If that offer does not come in the next week, it could over the offseason, and McDonough understands how a long stretch of quality play from Morris over the rest of this campaign could lead to a better trade package over the summer.
“I think the way he’s played the last week and a half certainly helps,” he said. “I don’t want to comment on his trade value, but I’d say, generally, anytime a player plays well, recently, and shows he’s able to do a number of different things in terms of scoring, rebounding, assists, defense, all that — it helps.
“We’re such an immediate league, I guess, such an immediate society — everybody remembers what they saw most recently instead of maybe what they saw the most — so if you watch a player play recently and he has a stretch of four or five good games, I think that would certainly help any player’s trade value and the interest in him around the league.”
McDonough told the show there are currently no deals on the table for Morris or anyone else on the team, though he admitted talks usually pick up around the All-Star break and just before the deadline. He expects things to heat up over the next week, with the most serious conversations occurring between Monday and the deadline.
That being the case, Morris will have one more game — Wednesday night against the Golden State Warriors — to show the rest of the NBA that he has turned over a new leaf and increase his value. If he can do it and the Suns ultimately move him for a solid return, they can thank Watson for finding a way to get more out of Morris than Hornacek was able to.
Asked why the interim coach has been able to coax better play out of the fifth-year pro, McDonough pointed to Watson being direct and honest with the players in terms of his expectations for them and the roles they will have every night.
“Since Earl took over as coach we’ve been playing through Markieff more in the post, and as you guys know, he’s a pretty good low-post scorer. He’s also a very skilled passer at the power forward spot,” he said. “I think that’s part of it. But there are other reasons I think, other factors that go beyond that. I can’t really speculate as to what those are — obviously we wish we would have seen some of this sooner from Markieff, but we’re happy to see it now.
“I think he’s reminding everybody how talented he is and what he’s capable of when he’s locked in and focused, and he certainly has been that way recently.”
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