Trade Candidate: Markieff Morris

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Minnesota Timberwolves

Courtesy of USA Today Sports Images

Markieff and Marcus Morris “desperately” wanted to play together, as Lon Babby, then president of basketball operations for the Suns and now an adviser to the team, said last year shortly after the twins signed their extensions. So, perhaps the Suns should have seen Markieff’s trade demand coming when they dealt Marcus to the Pistons in July. It’s just as reasonable to suggest that the brothers should have known they’d have to play apart from each other sooner or later. Still, neither the Suns nor Markieff can be pleased with where they find themselves now, with Markieff clearly upset and Phoenix left to negotiate from a position of weakness.

Other teams know that the Suns risk poisoning their locker room if they bring their disgruntled power forward to camp, and Phoenix surely doesn’t want to be stuck paying $8MM this season to a player it tells to stay at home. Waiving Markieff would be hardly palatable, since the Suns still owe him the entirety of his four-year, $32MM extension. The stretch provision could spread those payments over a period as long as nine years, but the Suns would almost certainly rather bring back value, even pennies on the dollar, in exchange for making the contract another team’s obligation.

The trick for the other 29 teams lies in knowing just how far to push. The market for Josh Smith‘s contract was so barren last year that the Pistons reportedly would have had to attach draft assets to him if they were to have traded him, prompting Detroit to release him instead. That’s not the case with Markieff, whose deal is reasonable at $8MM a year. He’s arguably underpaid, a case that his brother tried to make last week, so it’s much more likely that an interested team will be willing to give up assets for Markieff rather than demand that the Suns give them up in a swap. Just what those assets might be is the sticking point.

The Suns would no doubt love to end up with a starting power forward in return for the one they’d be giving up. They made a shrewd addition when they signed Mirza Teletovic to a one-year, $5.5MM deal a few days after trading Marcus. It’s reasonable to suspect that the Suns had an inkling that Markieff might push his way out of town when they made the signing, since Teletovic rebounds at roughly the same frequency per minute as Markieff does, and both are putative floor-stretchers. Teletovic has proven a better three-point shooter over his three-year NBA career than Markieff has in his first four years in the league, canning 36.1% of his attempts from beyond the arc, though he made just 32.1% of them last season. Still, Teletovic is the strongest candidate to start at power forward on the Suns roster other than Markieff, and the Bosnian who turns 30 next month has yet to average more than 22.3 minutes per game in an NBA season. Trade acquisition Jon Leuer, who’s never seen more than the 13.1 MPG he posted each of the last two seasons with the Grizzlies, would seemingly be next in line.

It would be exceedingly difficult for the Suns to find that sort of value for Markieff under the duress they face now, however. In hindsight, GM Ryan McDonough would have dealt him soon after he realized the team’s strong pursuit of LaMarcus Aldridge had come up just short, or at least before Markieff’s discontent became public knowledge. That the Suns stood pat suggests that the market for him wasn’t as strong as McDonough would have liked, and indeed, at least one report indicated that the Suns tried to find a new home for Markieff. Reasons ranging from Markieff’s legal troubles, to the 15 technical fouls that tied him for the league lead in that category last season, to his criticism of Suns fans may have played a factor in a market that failed to yield equal on-court value in July, but offers are surely worse now than they were then.

The Suns could try to swing a deal that creates a trade exception equivalent to Markieff’s $8MM salary, one in which Phoenix wouldn’t take any salary in return. That would give the Suns a valuable weapon they could use at some point in the next 12 months, but as we saw last month with the Cavs and the Brendan Haywood contract, a de facto trade exception, the mere ability to add a quality player without having to give up salary in return doesn’t mean an attractive trade opportunity will come up. Indeed, pursuing this angle would force the Suns to find two trades instead of just one, and given the team’s playoff aspirations, it’s doubtful that McDonough wants to relinquish his starting power forward without some sort of immediate help coming back.

Phoenix may have to end up dealing from a position of strength on the wing to fix a position of weakness at power forward. The Suns have a pair of recent late first-round picks in Archie Goodwin and T.J. Warren. Each carries promise and plays on a cheap rookie scale contract. A deal of either of them plus Morris would give the Suns a much better chance of landing a starting-caliber power forward. McDonough could look to Boston, where his old boss, Danny Ainge, has no shortage of quality fours, and Houston, where GM Daryl Morey is another Celtics alum and where the power forward position is also relatively well-stocked. The addition of Markieff wouldn’t resolve the logjam at the position in either Boston or Houston, unless those teams gave up multiple power forwards in return, but, his off-court trouble and petulance aside, Markieff may well offer better at the position than either of those teams have now.

The Suns are in a tough spot, to be sure. The league knows they essentially have to make a deal. But, McDonough and company can still try to make the best of a regrettable situation rather than panicking or acting on emotion. A cool-headed approach will let the Suns cut their losses and move forward, even if it requires a step back first.

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