The big news out of the NBA this week is that Memphis Grizzlies’ star Ja Morant will undergo season-ending surgery on his shoulder. Ja’s injury won't directly upset the balance of power in the West since the Grizzlies were already a long shot to make the playoffs.
It does, however, change the outlook of their season, and possibly their strategy at the trade deadline.
If they opt to be sellers, the Phoenix Suns need to make it a priority to land Marcus Smart.
Smart’s fit with the Suns is obvious. As a Defensive Player of the Year with multiple First Team All-Defense selections on his resume, Smart is arguably the best perimeter defender in the league. He would give Frank Vogel the guard defender he so desperately needs.
Vogel has tried Josh Okogie and Jordan Goodwin in that role, but their deficiencies and inconsistent play on the other end of the court have prevented either of them from sticking. Smart is not only a better defender than both, but is a much more capable offensive player.
His career three point percentage of 32% leaves a bit to be desired, but it's still significantly higher than either of the Suns guard defenders, and he’s never been short on confidence.
More importantly, Smart would give the Suns a ball handler that can take some of the pressure off their stars. Smart has a career’s worth of experience playing next to star players, specifically Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown in Boston.
On those teams, Smart acted as a combo guard. He consistently led the team in assists, but it wasn’t a huge number as the ball was spread around the floor with everyone playmaking. That’s exactly what this Suns roster needs: a point guard that can be a connector rather than the central hub of the offense.
Given the Suns success playing small starting lineups, it shouldn’t be a problem playing Smart in that unit in place of Grayson Allen. Allen has been phenomenal this year, and would still see big minutes in the event of a switch, but Smart’s defense and playmaking would make him a must-start.
The Suns would also be able to stagger their lineups much more effectively with a player like Smart. There would never be an instance where they wouldn't have two intiiators on the floor at the same time. This would be crucial in helping some of the Suns' bench units.
Acquiring Smart wouldn't be as easy as imagining his fit on the team. So often when teams are sellers at the deadline, they’re looking for premium draft capital. If the Grizzlies decide to go that way, then the Suns won’t be able to land Smart. For all the reasons above, he will be a hot commodity if he becomes available. Without any first rounders to trade, the Suns just don’t have the draft picks necessary to win a bidding war.
However, there’s no reason to believe that the Grizzlies don’t intend to contend next year with Ja back. They might prefer players that can contribute for that team as opposed to draft capital. If that’s the case, then the Suns can propose a trade centered around Jusuf Nurkić.
If the Suns were to trade Nurkić, they would first have to make sure that the flashes we’ve seen from Chimezie Metu, Udoka Azubuike, and Bol Bol are real and not just flukes. It’s risky trading what little of the size the Suns have for a guard, but if those players can continue to play well and they deem point guard a bigger need, then a swap makes sense.
The Suns can also try to recoup some of that size in the trade, since Nurkić and Smart’s salaries don’t quite match up. They can target Xavier Tillman as an additional player, while sending out Keita Bates-Diop to match salaries. Tillman is an upcoming unrestricted free agent who, despite being shorter than Bates-Diop, plays much more like a traditional four.
For a Grizzlies team that’s reeling with injuries, Nurkić would give them some insurance for next season. Center Steven Adams will miss the entire rest of this season and will be a free agent after next year. Nurkić would provide them a safety net should Adams have difficulty coming back, and is also a better fit next to Ja given his playmaking ability.
With the Suns assets so limited, they will likely be able to make one big move this trade deadline. It’ll be a high-stakes situation, and the Suns can’t afford to make the wrong trade. Smart’s defensive acumen, his fit on offense, and his experience playing next to stars make him a safer bet than most other players, and worthy of a big swing.