The Polarization of Markieff Morris | Wizards Blog Truth About It.net

The Polarization of Markieff Morris

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Updated: August 5, 2018

Markieff Morris, Washington Wizards

The 2017-18 season was a mixed bag for the Wizards as a whole, and what is a team if not a sum of its parts? Mike Scott had a strong season, Jodie Meeks had a disastrous, forgettable season, but just about everybody else who played meaningful minutes in a Washington uniform had a fair share of positives and negatives to take from the year.

Markieff Morris was no exception. He had his lowest scoring average (11.5 points per game) since the 2012-13 season — his second in the league — and his 5.6 rebounds per game marked a stiff drop from the 6.5 boards per contest he grabbed a season prior. But he also dealt with injury problems early in the season and still finished with a .480 shooting percentage, up from .457 the year before. He shot .367 from beyond the arc, a career best, on a career-high 2.8 attempts per game, and his .536 eFG% was easily a personal best.

Morris played a more passive game last season than we’d previously seen from him, likely for a number of reasons. Injury concerns usually leave a player cautious, relegating him to more jumpers and fewer high-impact plays at the basket, and that was the case with Morris. John Wall’s extended absence also contributed to a different style of play, as the offense ran through a combination of Bradley Beal and Tomas Satoransky for much of that time.

In the 2016-17 season, Morris attempted 33.2 percent of his shots from within five feet of the basket, per NBA.com, and 24.6 percent of his shots from 20 or more feet away. A season later, those numbers nearly reversed; he took 24.3 percent of his shots within five feet of the basket and 32 percent of his shots at least 20 feet away.

Those numbers confirm what the eyes suggested: Morris spent a lot more of his time around the perimeter. On paper, that implies the 6-foot-10, 245-pound forward is adapting to the modern game by spacing the floor and not clogging the lane, and that’s partially true. He relied much more heavily on catch-and-shoot offense for himself, with moderate success. A season prior, 32 percent of his shots were classified as catch-and-shoot, and he shot .359 on those attempts. Last season, those numbers were up to 43.8 percent frequency and .430 efficiency.

But those numbers don’t tell the whole story.

Much of that shot chart was born out of stagnancy and apparent disinterest on Morris’ part. This has been part of the narrative for Morris his entire career: He’s great when he’s engaged, but he checks out of games for lengthy stretches.

This happened more frequently last season than in his previous season and a half in Washington, and it’s not fair to attribute it entirely to injury. In 76 games in 2016-17, Morris scored 20 or more points 14 times, and he failed to reach double-digits just 16 times. In 73 games last season, Morris scored 20-plus more just six times (he only surpassed 21 points three times) and failed to reach double-digits 28 times. Morris never scored fewer than five points in a game two years ago; one year ago, Morris had nine games of four points or fewer.

It wasn’t just an issue of scoring, he was markedly less active and less productive across the board last season. Expanding on that further:

  • He had 10 double-digit rebound games in 2016-17, four in which he hauled in 12 rebounds or more. He had six double-digit rebound games in 2017-18, only two of which featured 12 or more boards.
  • In 2016-17, Morris had 23 multi-steal games; he had just 12 such games last season.
  • He committed three or more turnovers on 16 occasions in 2016-17, but he did so 21 times (in three fewer games) last year.

He has always been something of a boom-or-bust player, but last year brought a more distinct gap in his highs and lows. He had a 17-rebound game against Memphis in just 32 minutes, but that was the only game he topped 12 rebounds all season. He had four points on four shots in a loss to Miami on March 10, then followed it up with a season-high 27 points on 15 shots in a loss to Minnesota on March 13.

He’ll Make You, He’ll Break You

Morris averaged 12.7 points per game on .503 shooting with the Wizards won. In losses, he averaged 10.3 points per game on .455 shooting. He won’t single-handedly win or lose you a game, but a good Morris game gives the Wizards a viable fourth option while a bad one creates a  void on both ends of the court.

Going hand-in-hand with his on-court volatility is Morris’ relationship with the team’s best player, John Wall. Wall and Morris get along well, and, for better or worse, enable each other. The two slowest players on the Wizards last year, by far, were Wall (average speed of 3.71 mph) and Morris (3.89 mph — though it went up to 3.92 during the long stretch Wall was out). Having Wall healthy for the whole season, ideally, will change a lot about the team, offensively and defensively. But if Wall comes back motivated with something to prove, it could in turn bring out the best in Morris due to their relationship.

Of course, Morris is only 28, and he’ll turn 29 shortly before the start of the season. There’s no real reason to think this is where his career is now headed. He entered last season with injury problems, as did Wall, and the team never really got off on the right foot. Maybe this season will bring a better start and therefore an encouraged and revitalized Morris — and if he’s hitting 3-pointers at the rate and efficiency he did a season ago, there’s reason to be optimistic for a career year.

With Morris, intangibles like state of mind and happiness levels cannot be ignored. But there’s a more clearly defined change that will impact how this season goes for Morris, and that comes in the form of his new frontcourt mate(s). (That said, the intangibles that come with the team’s new center acquisition are a whole other issue. If we were to start a pool today on who would be the first Wizards player to throw a punch at a teammate this season, and who the recipient of that punch would be, my money is on Morris throwing at Dwight Howard.)

Marcin Gortat was never an offensive dynamo, but his contributions on that side of the ball last season were basically reduced to setting screens and back-tapping missed shots. He clogged the lane, not because he was potentially dominant there, à la Rudy Gobert or DeAndre Jordan, but because he was more or less useless outside of the paint.

Dwight Howard is a different beast. He, too, is mostly relegated to the paint — about 85 percent of his field-goal attempts last season were in the paint, compared to about 83 percent for Gortat — but Howard, for all his many flaws on and off the court, can create his own offense.

And he’s a dynamic presence in the paint. For example, Howard converted 174 of 191 dunk attempts last season; Gortat went 28 for 37 on dunks. Gortat’s shots were very evenly split between jumpers/hook shots and layups/dunks at roughly 50-50; more than 60 percent of Howard’s shots last year were either layups or dunks.

Perhaps most notable: Howard has never once averaged fewer than 10 rebounds per game for a season. Gortat has only cleared 10 rebounds per game in two seasons.

(For what it’s worth, I was not and am not Team Howard.)

So that’s a very different style of player Morris and the rest of the Wizards, will have to get accustomed to. If Morris is indeed leaning all the way into the modern game and is willing to rely more on his outside shooting — his 3-point attempts have increased each of the past four seasons — then having Howard down low should help. Howard will draw more attention from defenses than Gortat ever did, even if it comes at the cost of fewer screens for Wall, and he is a much more adept rebounder who should ease some of that burden off Morris.

One other major element that could come into play: Morris is heading into a contract year. He’s coming off a somewhat disappointing season and is looking at entering an exceptionally volatile market — lots of teams have lots of money, but there are also an unusual number of high-level players hitting the open market. If he puts together a big year, he could be in line for a big payday from one of the teams that strikes out on the stars (ah yes, the Durant-Horford-Mahinmi Wild Finish). But if he puts together a lackluster season, he could easily become one of those decent players who has to settle for a subpar contract in mid-July because there’s no money left.

He’s entering his age-29 season with likely one decent contract left. The contract, the disappointment of last year, and the “wide open East” sans LeBron, not to mention the success his brother has had recently, perhaps we see a more motivated Morris than we’ve seen in a couple of years. And who knows, if he gets off to a good start, maybe the Wizards turn a strong first half and an expiring contract into something at the trade deadline. (Don’t get your hopes up.)

If Morris puts together a strong season, the Wizards could be Eastern Conference Finals-bound. After all, just a year ago, the Wizards were an up-and-coming team with mostly the same core they have now. While I don’t think it’ll happen, it’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility that this team picks up where it left off two seasons ago. If that happens, Morris will be a big part of the success. If it doesn’t happen, don’t expect Morris to lead the team in a kumbaya singalong.

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Bryan Frantz
Reporter / Writer at TAI
Bryan is a D.C. native with a degree in something or other from UNC. He has important, interesting hobbies, but mostly he just weeps over D.C. sports teams. You can find him on the Metro, inevitably complaining about Red Line delays.