The Curious Case of Markieff Morris

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Markieff Morris in his present form isn’t worth all of this fuss. Power forward is loaded leaguewide, and even teams that could use a boost there aren’t sure Morris is a pure talent upgrade over their incumbents — and that’s before getting into felony charges, trade demands, fines, technicals, and general Morrii yapping.

Morris is unremarkable, and at 26, the odds are he stays unremarkable. He is now more like an average starting NBA power forward, and his first season in that role was a mild disappointment. Morris didn’t improve at anything, and he got worse at one big thing: getting to the foul line. That puts the Suns in a tough spot. Morris has been unhappy in Phoenix since the Suns dumped his brother on Detroit, but no other team is clamoring to get him.

That creates an opportunity for some smart team to leap into the bidding, take a shot on Morris at a slight discount, and see if it can unlock his potential as something more than a run-of-the-mill big man — all while taking on Year 1 of what could be an absurd contract. Phoenix doesn’t seem especially motivated to deal Morris now, per several league sources, and Jeff Hornacek, the team’s head coach, told local reporters on Tuesday he’s hopeful Morris and the franchise can reconcile. It’s not dumping him for dead money and a second-round pick. It’s also hard to make trades before December 15, when free agents who signed this summer become trade-eligible. But teams should be looking at Morris and talking about what he could become.

Lots of power forwards can do two of these three things on offense: post up (particularly against switches and small-ball mismatches), shoot 3s, and make productive passes off the dribble. Very few can do all three, and those who can are lethal. They can play in any lineup and help against any opponent.

Morris can already post and pass (“He’s an excellent passer,” Hornacek says), and he hit 31.8 percent from deep last season — just 3 percentage points below the league average. That’s not good enough to scare defenses, and the Suns hoped Morris would have made more progress by now. “We thought he’d be a little better,” Hornacek says. “If he’s right around 30 percent, that’s probably not conducive to him shooting a lot of 3s.”

Draymond Green shot 33.7 percent from deep, and he had free rein to jack five triples per 36 minutes. He even faced criticism for getting gun-shy in the Finals, when the Cavs invited him to fire away. Morris shoots 31.8 percent, and he’s a disappointment who regularly passes up wide-open 3s.

Green and Morris are nothing alike on defense, of course. Green breathes fire, and Morris too often uses defense as a chance to catch his breath. “Some games he brings it, some games he doesn’t,” Hornacek says. “Maybe it’s conditioning. Maybe it’s him saying, ‘If I put the effort in on defense, then I can’t do it on the offensive end.’”

Morris hasn’t shown he can switch in either size direction on defense. He’s three inches taller than Green, but his wingspan is actually shorter, and he doesn’t have the low center of gravity that allows Green to hold his ground when huge dudes back him down. The Suns have rarely asked Morris to switch onto smaller ball handlers on the pick-and-roll, and he has looked out of sorts the few times he’s tried it.

But Morris has the raw speed to pull that off, and the Suns are going to experiment with more switching this season. “We’ll use more of that this year,” Hornacek says. “He can do it. If the game’s on the line, I think he’ll be great at it. He focuses on those kinds of plays. The question is whether he can do it in the middle of games, consistently.”

Morris could transform himself into a really good player for the modern, pace-and-space, switch-everything NBA, and he’s just starting a four-year, $32 million contract. In a league where contracts are short and starters will soon be earning almost $15 million on average, that deal is like gold bullion. There is not much risk in trumping a tepid trade market to take a shot on Morris.

We all know the obvious suspects by now. Toronto and Boston have so-so starting power forwards and extra picks, but I’m not sure either sees Morris as an upgrade. And not even Boston, hoarding so many picks in every draft range, is coughing up a first-rounder for Morris right now. Detroit has Marcus Morris and a decent power forward in Ersan Ilyasova whose salary matches Markieff Morris’s almost exactly. (Perhaps the Pistons agree with Phoenix that the twins may be better off separated.) The Lakers need help everywhere, the Hornets have an easy trade package in Cody Zeller and Jeremy Lamb, and the Blazers have the cap space to absorb Morris without trading anyone. They also have a zillion other young bigs who need minutes, and there are potential fit issues in some of those other places.

Morris is interesting enough that teams off the beaten path should at least have some internal discussions about him. If I were Nuggets GM Tim Connelly, I’d be tempted to pick up the phone and ask Ryan McDonough, the Suns GM, about a straight Kenneth Faried/Markieff Morris swap. Poll 100 league executives, and I suspect at least a slight majority would say Faried is the better player now. Numbers of all types certainly agree, and Faried isn’t carrying the same kind of baggage.

But we know what Faried is, and what he’ll almost certainly never be good at: outside shooting. He’ll also make about $4 million more per season than Morris over the next four years. That gap won’t matter quite as much during the likely cap boom, but every dollar saved in one spot might come in handy elsewhere.

That cost certainty might mean a lot to Houston, which could have two power forwards — Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas — hit restricted free agency next summer amid a flood of cap money. Houston has some salary-matching contracts that become tradable on December 15, and if the Rockets think one of the Jones/Motiejunas pairing is likely to walk, they could easily work a deal with Phoenix. The Suns would get matching rights to one of those guys, and the Rockets would snag a cheap starting-caliber power forward who would start bombing from deep in their system. (They’d also get another tricky personality, and they’re pretty well-stocked with those. Their MVP candidate is damn near a Kardashian. Daryl Morey should hire private detectives to plant evidence suggesting whichever Kardashian cheated on James Harden, just so Harden dumps her.)

If the Pelicans are afraid of losing Ryan Anderson, why not check in about a deal centered on an Anderson/Morris swap? Morris can’t shoot like Anderson, but he’s better at other stuff, and his health record is much cleaner.

Indiana probably doesn’t want another “problem” personality, and the Pacers don’t have much beyond a lowball offer without attaching a first-rounder. Morris would open up the floor a bit in Washington. He’d eat into the Wizards’ Kevin Durant cap room, but they could move him in a pinch after the season. The Kings and Knicks should take a look, even though neither has movable assets that would interest Phoenix — unless the Knicks are ready to engage in Carmelo Anthony trade talks. (They’re not there, yet. But they’re getting closer.)

Hell, don’t rule out Philly swooping in with two second-rounders, playing Morris enough to rehabilitate his trade value, and then flipping him at the deadline for a future first-rounder.

Morris is worth at least some creative thinking. He’s an accomplished post-up player from both blocks, capable of making pressured midrange jumpers:

Morris 1

That shot has helped Morris, especially in crunch time, but it’s not the sort of shot that makes his post game interesting. It’s a fadeaway over an all-time great post defender in Tim Duncan, and Morris stalls the Suns offense to set it up. Against big guys with the speed to track Morris’s twitchy fakes, those shots just as often end up looking like this:

Morris 5

And they rarely create contact. “He doesn’t draw enough fouls,” Hornacek says. Other Phoenix players have a bad habit of standing still while Morris surveys. That’s partly on those players and the coaching staff, but it’s also linked to where Morris likes to operate. He lives in that weird in-between space a step or two outside the paint, and that clutters up the most natural cutting lanes both inside and outside. “He doesn’t get the ball deep on the block, and sometimes there’s no place to cut,” Hornacek says.

But in moderation, Morris’s post game can be a deadly weapon. Morris obliterates wing players who switch onto him. As I’ve written before, that’s the kind of play that will keep the post game alive — the ability to leverage size mismatches that present themselves when defenses switch. Slot a bigger defender on him, and Morris shifts into blow-by mode with baseline drives.

Morris 4

Morris has to be more choosy with his post-ups, go faster with the ball, and trade a few contested shots for passes — especially since he’s good enough to draw help defenders on the block. He has blips of selfishness in his game:

Morris 7

Morris overpowers Dorell Wright and starts to suck in help defenders before spinning baseline for a terrible jumper. Just drive and dish. Maybe the Suns should use Mission: Impossible technology to outfit all of their players in Marcus Morris masks, so that Markieff will pass to them.

Morris is a helluva passer when he wants to be — from the post, and the perimeter. He anticipates how the chess pieces are about to move, and he makes instant reads:

Morris 6

Morris 8

When Morris picks-and-pops into 3-point range, defenses are going to leave him open. Ditto for when he spots up around a Tyson Chandler pick-and-roll. That’s not ideal, but it’s workable. Defenses leave Green open, too. Not everyone can be Anderson or Dirk Nowitzki. Morris just needs to shoot more 3s, hit 35 percent of them, and spend his other perimeter possessions punishing teams with his dribbling and passing. He should be able to gradually tilt his game in a more efficient direction.

The bigger questions come on defense, where he just doesn’t play with enough care or urgency. He’s not always in sync communicating with his point guards on the pick-and-roll, resulting in blown coverages and wide-open driving lanes. He doesn’t amp up his effort as a help defender when the first line of defense springs a leak. This is Stephen Curry strolling into the lane, and Morris treats it like a practice possession:

Morris 9

He’s not good enough, or talented enough, to get away with so-so effort. He doesn’t have the height or leaping ability that make a natural rim protector, and unless his motor is really revving, he offers zippo resistance at the end line. If he makes one hard cut on defense, he’ll sometimes feel satisfied and check out as the rest of the play unfolds within arm’s reach. He plays defense with his hands down. Morris would make an interesting small-ball center in change-of-pace lineups, but the Suns haven’t trusted his defense and rebounding enough to use those groups in extended stretches that matter.

Look, this stuff is hard. That’s the point. If Morris wants to become a Swiss Army knife on defense, stifling guys across multiple positions, it’s going to take a lot of grunt work — especially since he doesn’t yet appear comfortable guarding perimeter ball handlers. That’s a new, almost foreign skill for some big men, and Morris might never acquire it.

I’m excited to see him try. If a team has the patience to chip away at all the Morris family nonsense, it might find a really interesting all-around player underneath it.

Filed Under: NBA, Markieff Morris, Phoenix Suns, 2015 NBA Preview


Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

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