Phoenix Suns forward Markieff Morris was expected to be the third scoring option this season behind guards Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight.
That expectation has not been met.
This fact has been used by fans, and even some in the media, as confirmation to Morris not giving full effort or stagnating the offense over being upset about his brother getting traded during the offseason.
Are those assumptions fair?
Addressing whether a player is trying or not is a difficult task. As someone who has watched every minute of every Suns game, and a good chunk of them twice, I truly don’t think Morris is intentionally not trying hard.
He sets solid screens away from and on the ball, battles for post position on both ends, follows the defensive scheme and boxes out.
From a numbers perspective, his defensive rebounding percentage is up from his career average, and his blocks/steals are right around the same.
Phoenix allows the second-most opponent fast-break points per game. This is a team-wide problem not just a Morris issue. In the loss to the Pistons on Wednesday, which Morris sat out due to a knee injury, the Suns allowed 24 fast-break points.
You can pick out a play here or there where Morris’ effort isn’t what it needs to be, but that goes across the board to most players on the Suns and in the league, for that matter. There’s no evidence that shows through numbers or by watching film that Morris is sabotaging the Suns in any way.
It’s inarguable that Morris has hurt Phoenix’s offense — they’re 6.6 points better offensively in the 500 minutes he hasn’t played.
This doesn’t mean he’s made the offense more stagnant.
Morris has the ball in his hands 1.2 minutes per game — 0.7 minutes less than backup point guard Ronnie Price — who is only playing 12.4 minutes a night. His average second per touch is 1.47, lower than Bledsoe, Knight, Price, Archie Goodwin, Sonny Weems, Devin Booker and T.J. Warren. Morris also averages less than one dribble per touch, lower than everyone listed above and P.J. Tucker.
On the season, the Suns are averaging 312 passes per game. In the three games Morris has sat out, the Suns have compiled 354 passes, 288 passes and 301 passes. The 354 pass total was the overtime game against Detroit.
On a per game basis, Morris averages the third-most passes on the team (31.9) behind Bledsoe and Knight. He has the third highest adjusted assist to pass percentage (includes assists, secondary assists and free throw assists) out of anyone playing over 15 minutes per game on the roster.
According to STATS’ SportVU numbers provided to ArizonaSports.com, Morris is tied for the 15th-highest assist percentage (11.1%) on anyone receiving over three elbow touches per game (he has 4.8).
Not an assist here because Knight doesn’t make the shot, but an excellent example of how Morris is essentially the swing man in the Suns offense.
He passes the ball three times, twice without even putting the ball on the floor, and once with one dribble.
Morris executes a dribble hand-off with T.J. Warren. He doesn’t set the best screen, but enough to help Warren get DeMarre Carroll on his hip, into the paint and bend the Raptors’ defense.
The ball gets kicked back out to Morris, who instantly swings it to Bledsoe, leading into a Morris/Bledsoe pick-and-roll.
The duo correctly reads Toronto icing and Morris pops instead of rolling to the basket. Because neither Luis Scola or DeMar DeRozan are in position to close out on a potential elbow jumper, Carroll rotates over to help. Morris swings it to Knight for a wide-open three pointer he didn’t connect on.
This is quality offense generated almost entirely by what Morris does.
Another example of Morris moving the ball from the elbow area, but ending with a positive result.
Morris runs the court for a potential transition opportunity, but it doesn’t lead to anything.
Nets defenders Jarrett Jack and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson both go to Knight when the Suns run PnR, leaving Alex Len unguarded for a dive to the rim.
Brook Lopez leaves Morris to stop a potential layup, and Morris goes into the open space around the elbow. Joe Johnson has the choice of giving up a wide-open jumper, or closing out and leaving P.J. Tucker in the corner. Johnson makes the decision to rotate over, and Morris hits Tucker for the corner three instead of forcing up a contested mid-range jumper.
One last positive example.
The action starts with Morris and Warren looking to run PnR, but Carroll overplays Warren to such an extreme Morris settles in to give his teammate a passing angle.
Morris moves the ball to Knight to initiate another PnR. Kyle Lowry is really up into Knight and Morris gets fully set with a wide base for the screen.
Once Morris sees how far Scola is going to help off him, and Knight already has a step on his defender, Morris pivots into the open space and creates a three-on-two in the Suns’ favor once he gets the ball on the pocket pass by Knight.
Carroll collapses too far into the lane when he just needed to show quick and give time for Scola to recover. Warren takes advantage cutting along the baseline, Morris hits him in stride for a floater over Bismack Biyombo.
Despite all the positives, the NBA is simply a make or miss league.
In the 15 games Morris has played, he is shooting slightly under 40 percent from the field, down from just above 46 percent last season.
His short chart for 2015-16:
And the shot chart for 2014-15:
The most significant difference is the mid post area where Morris gets ISO and post up touches.
While a team like the Houston Rockets relies almost solely on threes and restricted area shots, Morris getting looks from these zones is what diversifies Phoenix’s offense.
These sets are run for him specifically to score and lighten the load up on Bledsoe and Knight, who have to create almost all the other offense the Suns run.
According to STATS’ SportsVU, Morris generates the sixth-lowest assist percentage (1.6%) out of anyone averaging three or more post-up touches a game (4.2).
If Morris is shooting a good percentage on these opportunities it’s not a problem, but he’s not. According to Synergy Sports, Morris has made 38 percent of 50 post-up shots. He’s also turning the ball over 14.1 percent of the time.
When the Suns go to Morris in the post, the weak side action typically (not always) dictates him to go get his own. This does stagnate the offense, but it’s almost certainly be design.
Once Knight makes the entry pass, he immediately clears out to the weak side. The only movement from over there is for the Suns to attack the offensive glass. Tyson Chandler tries to establish position underneath and Tucker cuts towards the middle, but that’s not for a pass, it’s to try to rebound the ball.
That’s not a good shot and you’d like to see Morris be more aggressive trying to get to the rim instead of settling for the step-back jumper with him being guarded by Mason Plumee.
A bad turnover by Morris.
With Morris being guarded by Joe Johnson, the Suns decide to go matchup hunting and see if he could take advantage.
Morris doesn’t establish deep post position on the catch and Knight clears out. If he’s getting guarded by a bigger defender, this is fine, but in this scenario you would like to see Morris kick it back out and work to get a touch on the block.
Even though Johnson doesn’t have the lateral quickness he once did, he is still able to beat Morris to his spot and steal the ball.
Poor decision making in multiple aspects here.
Undoubtedly, Morris deserves criticism for how he’s played this season.
The main issue is the reasoning for that criticism. Maybe you don’t like the Suns power forward for a variety of reasons, but that doesn’t mean it’s right to incorrectly ding him for faults that aren’t accurate.
The main issue for Morris is simply his inability to make shots he consistently has during his career. Why is this happening? I don’t have the answer.
Benching Morris and moving Jon Leuer or Mirza Teletovic into the starting lineup isn’t a long-term solution — it would be a panic, short-sighted move. Neither brings what Morris does on the defensive end and they would be exposed in larger minutes against better competition. Some nights you can withstand those flaws, but for the Suns to develop into a more consistent team they need Morris to be the guy.
Figuring out what is ailing Morris and being able to maximize his talents is one of many chores the Suns need to accomplish to turn their play around.
All statistics not attributed are from NBA.com, NBA.com’s SportVU data and basketball-reference.com.
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