Saturday January 10th, 2015

So menacing is the Western Conference playoff picture that those within it scramble to make headway by any means possible. Dallas (Rajon Rondo), Houston (Josh Smith) and Oklahoma City (Dion Waiters) have all made plays for prominent rotation players in recent weeks. Joining them now are Memphis (set to acquire Jeff Green in exchange for Tayshaun Prince and a protected first-round pick) and Phoenix (which added Brandan Wright for a protected first). Both are co-beneficiaries of Boston's midseason fire sale. 

The margin for error tightens in what was already a ridiculously competitive conference, escalating even teams as good as these out from the comfort of contentment. Those not at the top of the standings or not making moves to get there are already falling behind. Such is a reality of a world where the playoff race began in earnest months ago.

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It's in that regard that the Suns' place in Friday's moves may be the most interesting of all. A winner in 10 of its last 12 games, Phoenix has already strengthened its grip on the prospective eighth seed. A corresponding stumble by the Thunder has put a comfortable 3.5 games between the Suns and their most credible challenger. In effect, this positions Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe and Co. to play gatekeeper. Even though Oklahoma City is the better, more talented team, Phoenix will make the Thunder prove it over the back stretch of the season.

From there the playoff race extended to the front office. The Suns joined an arms race in progress by making an obvious upgrade: Wright will soon take the minutes and role of reserve center Miles Plumlee, who has a similar game without the hyper-efficient punctuation. Plumlee can sop up minutes for a team without the means to do better. Phoenix now has those tools and in Wright, adds a leaper to play opposite Dragic, Bledsoe, and Isaiah Thomas in the Suns' cycle of pick-and-rolls. 

The way Wright glides down the lane into dunks and layups will suit Phoenix perfectly. His height, vertical and wingspan make him eminently available -- any pass in his general direction is a potential assist. This, more than anything, is where Wright and Plumlee differ. Neither boasts an especially diverse all-around game. Yet on the basis of his accessibility and unfailing ability to convert short-range attempts on the move from all angles, Wright has essentially doubled Plumlee's scoring output per minute this season.

Phoenix still has every reason to lean on sophomore Alex Len as its first-option center, but through Wright comes an ease of passage for Len's shakier nights. Twenty-one-year-old big men aren't typically the most dependable sort. They struggle in certain matchups and err for no other reason than relative inexperience. Wright might only have a touch more seasoning, but the fact it came under Rick Carlisle for a professional, high-functioning offense lends added weight. This is productive depth. Not merely another body to fill time, but a player of beneficial skill specific to the role he'll be asked to play. 

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All it took to acquire him was a future first-round pick (originally via Minnesota), protected in such a way that it's likely to convey as a pair of second-round picks instead. Boston was only a stopover for Wright, but Phoenix could prove a destination. He'll have the remainder of the season to see if working off of a trio of point guards in an up-tempo, pick-and-roll system is to his liking. He'll then enter free agency with the Suns in position to make their pitch using his Bird rights.

Getting that far into Wright's relationship with the Suns is skipping ahead, yet it seems fair given the good sense of this arrangement. Wright needs the right contextual basis to ply his trade at the highest levels and Phoenix needs quality, quick-footed bigs fit for its style. This trade obliges both, adding even more momentum to the Suns' roll.

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In that, this deal holds some slight potential for upheaval. The course-corrected version of the Suns we've seen over the past month can win plenty and with Wright, perhaps enough to keep some slipping contender on the ropes as far as seeding goes. At the same time, that Phoenix's playoff candidacy might come at the expense of Oklahoma City could be construed as a victory for the rest of the West's championship hopefuls. The Thunder, when right in their health and their system, are a terror of a playoff matchup. The Suns, though good in their own right, are by comparison a mere bother.

Whatever the case, it isn't Phoenix's problem. Wright is a player worth adding and this specific trade is one worth making. All else is left to another half-season of mayhem -- the runs, injuries, moves and general craziness that will set up eight teams for the postseason and leave another dejected.

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