Markieff Morris established himself as one of the best players on the Suns in 2014-15. But will the techs and the attitude affect his future standing with the organization?
During his first full season as a starter in the NBA, Markieff Morris was one of the Suns' most productive players. Few fans will argue with that assertion. Most would probably peg him at first among the list of big men, and 3rd or 4th overall behind guards such as Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragic and Brandon Knight. Ryan McDonough even had the audacity following the Dragic trade to say that Markieff, not Dragic, was one of the team's best players.
And yet, the Markieff Morris fan club is shrinking. Ask most Suns fans what they think of the eldest twin and the answer will likely contain the word "headcase". Somehow Markieff made himself a controversial player despite his positive on-court production, and that does not bode well for his future with the organization. Let's take a bit more of a thorough look at all aspects of Keef.
For long stretches of time this season, Markieff was the team's only productive power forward. Anthony Tolliver struggled, as did Marcus Morris when he was moved to the PF slot. Brandan Wright was considerably more efficient, but when Alex Len went down he was focused on playing center. Even P.J. Tucker had to slide over to PF occasionally out of necessity.
Overall, Morris finished the season ranking 3rd on the roster in PPG, 3rd in RPG, 5th in PER and 3rd in WS (win shares). His PER actually dropped from 18.4 in '13-14 to 15.8 in '14-15, but that can largely be attributed to Morris' shift from the second unit to the starting lineup, where he consistently faced tougher competition.
I can't talk about the best of Keef without mentioning his clutch scoring. You can argue whether he could be a starter on a contending team or not, but he certainly stepped up in clutch situations for this mediocre one.
In "clutch situations", which I'm defining as any situation with a point differential of 3 or less and in the final 2 minutes of the game, Morris shot 19-35 from the field, which is an astounding 54.3 percent. Among all players with at least 20 field-goal attempts in such situations, that ranked 2nd behind only Anthony Davis (who shot 14-20).
For a visual of that data, check out the graphic below. Notice that Eric Bledsoe was not too far behind Morris, also ranking near the top of the list.
Many fans don't like "ISO" ball, but in certain situations it can be an effective strategy, if only as a bail out method when all other offensive options fail. Markieff excelled in isolation situations all season long, shooting 50-111 (45%) on such shots. That's a higher percentage than James Harden, LeBron James, DeMarcus Cousins, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Anthony Davis, Stephen Curry, and a wide range of other star players for whom isolation is a significant method of production. Most of Keef's shots were from mid-range, where he was especially deadly.
To be more specific, there were exactly 41 players who took at least 300 mid-range shots this season, according to NBA.com/stats. Markieff took 476, and he ranked 12th out of those 41 in FG% with a 44.5% clip. That ranked just above forwards such as Anthony Davis (43.4%) and LaMarcus Aldridge (41.5%), and just behind Nikola Vucevic (46.3%), Chris Bosh (46.4%) and Dirk Nowitzki (46.9%).
But don't forget about post play! Would it be surprising if I told you that Morris ranked 11th in the NBA this past season in total post-up possessions, making him one of the most commonly used post players? Of the 15 most used post players, Morris tied for 6th out of 15 in PPP, at 0.89 points per possession. He tied with Pau Gasol and finished behind only Big Al, Aldridge, the grind brothers (Randolph and Gasol), and finally Blake Griffin. But that puts him in elite company.
Morris' scoring is no secret, so let's now move on to one of the more underrated aspects of his game: his passing ability.
Markieff has increased his assist rate in each NBA season, gradually going from 1.9 assists per 36 minutes in his rookie year to 2.7 assists per 36 in '14-15.
That may not seem particularly impressive, as there are other forwards such as Blake Griffin who can blow that figure out of the water. However, Markieff's 10 games with at least 5 assists are no laughing matter.
What's most interesting to me is that Markieff consistently targeted Alex Len with his passes. If you have a few moments, I encourage you to watch this NBA.com playlist of Morris' 17 assists to Alex Len.
Seventeen assists doesn't seem like much, but also consider that Dragic, Thomas and Knight combined only assisted Len 25 times this season. In reality Markieff used both his ability to penetrate and ability to draw the defense towards him as a way to feed Len for easy dunks in the paint. It was frustrating to watch the guards often ignore Alex on offense, but you could always count on Keef to look for him. The same holds true for the Markieff-Wright combo, which makes Markieff an effective long-term option at PF not only for his scoring but for his passing as well.
For more evidence of that, look at the following chart. I calculated what percentage of each player's assists went to Alex Len as a way of noting how often they generated easy points in the paint. Originally I wanted to include Wright as well, but that would have skewed data against Thomas and Dragic (as they did not have many opportunities to share the floor with Wright).
First of all, let's all appreciate Gerald's ability to find Len in the paint. But Markieff ranks 3rd on this list, ahead of guards like Thomas and Dragic as well as forwards like Marcus and Tucker (who assisted Len just 4 times).
I am aware that that chart is far from perfect. A frequency of assists to a particular big man might be lower for some guards because they generate so many spot-up opportunities for the rest of the team, something that Markieff can't do. Additionally, not all players shared the floor with Len for an equal proportion of time. However, let's simply use the chart to establish the connection that exists between Len and Morris. If Len is seen as the center of the future and wants to develop offensively, such a relationship can only be positive for him.
Finally, a word about defense. When talking about defense, so many people look at power forwards and immediately determine their effectiveness by analyzing rim protection and stats such as "opponent FG% at rim".
However, "rim protection" is only the cherry on top! In reality, only a couple of starting power forwards are elite rim protectors (Davis and Ibaka come to mind). Effective pick-and-roll defense is much more essential to a PF's skill set in today's league, which is so focused on spacing and shooting.
So while Morris does not have the length for shot blocking, that does not negate his defensive abilities, just like Channing Frye's lack of rim protection did not make him a bad defender either. Despite his physical limitations, Markieff has the foot speed to hedge and recover, and his instincts on where to stand and where to shift are just fine. He's not even close to being a perfect defender, but blocking shots is overrated.
I've raved about Keef enough, haven't I? Time to get into some of the negative aspects of his game, or else there wouldn't be any controversy in the first place.
With his short arms, Markieff was never destined to be an elite rebounder. But unfortunately, in transitioning from a sixth man to a starter, his rebounding numbers went down more than anticipated. He averaged 7.1 rebounds per 36 minutes in '14-15, a new career low.
His three-point shooting remains just good enough to hit some wide open shots, but still below average overall.
However, the worst thing is without a doubt the technical fouls. Markieff finished the season with 15 technical fouls, ranking 2nd in the league. He only needed one more in order to receive an automatic one game suspension. And in addition to those 15 techs, he also added in three flagrant fouls and two ejections.
Personally, I reject the idea that a team can't win a championship with a headcase who racks up technical fouls. After all, Rasheed Wallace exists. So that alone is not reason enough to ditch the twins.
And yet, it's impossible to argue that those techs help the team. The vast majority were just for whining and cussing, a strategy that never works and one that sets a bad example for the young players on the team.
Is this something that can be fixed? It's tough to say. You want your players to have an edge, but only to an extent. Perhaps Sarver, Babby and McDonough can simply talk the twins out of it, or else Hornacek will begin to hold them more accountable for their actions. Maybe a veteran like Danny Granger could have a positive impact on the locker room that placates the twins.
But those are simply possibilities, not guarantees. Until the Morris twins clean up their act, they will likely remain unpopular.
Even worse than on-court technical fouls was what happened off the court.
One incident was when Markieff called out the fanbase for a lack of support after one of the team's worst losses of the season against the Spurs. The Suns were obliterated 101-74, but Markieff used it as an opportunity to express his disappointment with the energy level in the arena.
For what it's worth, I personally think he's right. The Suns don't have a rabid fanbase (and there appear to be several reasons why). I understand frustration among fans, but I often find myself wondering why people are so impatient and search for scapegoats.
But after a 27-point loss, it's not something that you should bring up. It's a terrible PR move, as it tries to shift blame to the fans for the players' lack of energy. The players are the ones being paid to show enthusiasm on the court, regardless of fan support. Markieff's frustration is absolutely understandable, but he should have expected fans to get defensive. Maybe he doesn't care and expected it. But if you want to avoid drama, the best course of action is to keep your mouth shut and only start demanding help once the team is already winning.
Finally, you can't write an article about Markieff's season without mentioning the assault investigation. I'm against baseless speculation, so all I'll say is that the results of the investigation will play a large role in shaping the team going forward. Were the twins to be found guilty, would they be suspended? Traded for scraps? Released? If they were kept, would they even retain the few fans that they currently have (such as myself)?
I don't know the answers, and I don't want to think about it either. I want to believe that the twins wouldn't do something that stupid once they finally started to "make" it in this league, but watching a player on the basketball court can only tell you so much about their character.
If we only consider Markieff's on-court performance, he probably gets at least a B or B+. He was clearly one of the best players on the team.
But if we compare his actual production to the expectations put on him going into the season, his grade probably goes down a bit. He stepped up in some areas, but by facing tougher competition in the starting lineup became less efficient. I was hoping for more of a leap forward from the 4th-year forward.
And finally, his off-court antics can only be given an F for Foolishness.