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Phoenix Suns give credit to Earl Watson for Markieff Morris trade to Wizards

Under head coach Jeff Hornacek, malcontent Markieff Morris was struggling to succeed. Then Earl Watson showed up, and Morris played like an All-Star. How?

Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

Phoenix Suns GM Ryan McDonough answered emphatically on the Doug and Wolf show last Friday when asked how long it took to put the deal together to trade Markieff Morris for a very good draft pick coming in the near future. Last week, Morris was traded to Washington for what is likely a late-lottery pick in 2016.

"About 8 months," McDonough answered without hesitation. "It's something we were obviously glad to do."

Many fans would question McDonough's claim he'd been working on a Morris trade all this time. Morris has long had an excellent skill set as a multi-talented NBA power forward on a coveted long-term contract paying about half of what similarly talented players will receive on the open market going forward. The Suns have publicly been hoping he would buy in this year, and even promoted Watson to coach in part to reach Morris.

So if they were trying to trade Morris all this time, surely they could have gotten a middling pick last summer for him?

"No," McDonough said emphatically on ArizonaSports radio of whether he could have gotten the same level of deal last offseason. "If we could have, we would have done it then."

Teams were not as willing to surrender a good first round pick for a risky player last offseason, and frankly the Suns would not have valued the Washington pick as highly as they do now. Washington had made the playoffs the last two years and looked like a Top-4 East contender coming into the season.

McDonough acknowledged that Markieff Morris' off-the-court issues impacted his trade value. Teams were not excited to add a potentially difficult player - and one facing trial for aggravated assault this summer - to their locker room. Then as the season began, Morris' poor play further complicated negotiations.

Even the last week before the trade deadline had teams being reluctant to give up much for Morris.

"Coming into the day [last Thursday], we had some interest, but we had no firm offers," McDonough said to Doug and Wolf. "We were debating offers that returned a player or players, versus ones that returned a draft pick."

Washington finally stepped up to the plate with a draft pick high enough to make the Suns agree to the deal. Washington's offer of a Top-9 protected pick means that pick will almost certainly convey in 2016 as a mid first-round pick that could conceivably be as high as #10 overall if Washington doesn't make a hoped-for playoff run or suffers more injuries. If somehow the Wizards drop out of the race and keep their pick this year, the pick has the same protection for the next six years before becoming unprotected.

The Watson factor

It was the promotion of Earl Watson to coach that unleashed the Markieff Morris that teams could covet again. Morris' play under interim coach Earl Watson finally showed the league that he might still be a good player who can thrive without his brother in the lineup with him.

"[Watson] did a tremendous job with Markieff in the five games he coached him," McDonough said. "You saw the surge in his productivity. And if we're being honest with ourselves I think that helped get the deal done."

Over five games leading to the trade deadline, Morris averaged 20.7 points, 7.6 rebounds and 4.6 assists. These numbers dwarfed what he'd put up for Hornacek - who Morris had publicly supported and swore was not the target of his poor play. Yet, until these past give games, it was a mystery where Morris' game had gone.

"It was natural to ask 'where was this the first 49 games of the year? Where was this for coach Hornacek?'," McDonough admitted. "So there's some frustrations there."

Coach Watson was circumspect when talking about Markieff Morris. After treating Morris like the second coming for weeks, he said they handled it like a business transaction on deadline day.

"For us, it was immediate closure," Watson said of the trade to ArizonaSports FM radio, for Morris and the Suns as well as the players themselves. "It's no secret that both sides wanted to get this done."

He gave the players only three minutes to say goodbye to Morris, who was traded mid-practice on Thursday afternoon. The trade was only a matter of time.

"We knew coming in as a staff that the trade deadline was soon," Watson said. "We knew there was two ways to approach it. If you approach it with confrontation, nothing would be executed. We knew if we made him the focal point and the leader of our offense, we had an opportunity to bring out the best of him."

Watson elevated Markieff Morris immediately to team leader, and Morris responded with 30 points and 11 rebounds in his first game. How did that happen?

Watson said he learned early on in his career as a point gaurd, all the way back to UCLA, that he couldn't treat every player the same and get the same results. He had to figure out what would make them respond, rather than treating them all the same exact way. What works for one player doesn't work for others. He talked about future NBA players Jerome Moiso and Jason Kapono as examples of who would not respond to aggressive behavior. Hugging Moiso worked a ton better than yelling at him.

Hornacek apparently never ascribed to that tactic. Hornacek stubbornly treated all players as equals, and gave them the same feedback in the same way. He expected players to act professionally, without a lot of hugging and love to motivate them. Hornacek's tactics worked for more than a year, but then the players' attitudes began overpowering the locker room vibe.

Watson knew Hornacek's style wasn't working, especially with Markieff Morris. So he immediately adjusted, harkening back to the teachings of John Wooden and Larry Brown.

"When you have a player that's not bought in," he said, "You give him accountability, responsibility and you put it on him to be a leader of those accountabilities. By doing that, you're no longer hiding the player."

It worked. We don't know if Watson's tactic would have worked in the long run. Most coaches get tuned out after a couple of years. But for now, that was exactly what Morris needed.

Morris is now Washington's problem. He's Randy Wittman's problem, in particular. Good luck, Randy.

*All quotes courtesy of ArizonaSports radio, via the Doug and Wolf show, in two separate interviews on Friday morning

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