Shortly after the Celtics traded Avery Bradley (the longest tenured member of the Boston Celtics at the time) and a second round pick for Marcus Morris to clear cap space last summer, I dove into the stats. I wanted to see what I could expect from the man whom I had only previously known as the “worse Morris twin.” What I found didn’t exactly make me excited, as he had the profile of a high usage, inefficient scoring forward, with numbers not entirely dissimilar from Jeff Green. This, understandably, did not encourage me, particularly since the Celtics were poised to have two young, developing wings on the roster alongside incoming All-Star Gordon Hayward.
However, by the end of the year, my tune had dramatically changed when it came to Morris. Hayward’s injury changed Morris’s role from “bench luxury” to “occasional starter” and, as the year went on, he shook off an early season injury and his play improved. Mook’s game, while having an undeniable air of “feast or famine,” was something I found myself charmed by and more often than not, I enjoyed his minutes. With all this in mind, I sat down to write this piece and I decided to go back and look at his no-doubt improved numbers.
As expected I found that they were...Wait, huh? The same?!?!?
Yes, besides a higher than average year in rebounding and three point shooting, Marcus was largely the same player he had been his whole career. Had you shown me his numbers for this season last year, I likely would have blanched. Looking back on the complete season, with the benefit of hindsight (and memes) I can’t imagine this season’s Celtics getting by without him. So what’s the real story of Marcus Morris’ season?
As is typical with two extremes, the truth likely lies somewhere in the middle.
The Contenders: Efficiency War
Any criticism of Morris likely begins and ends with efficiency. Morris had the worst Assist Ratio (8.8) of any Celtics rotation player not named Semi Ojeleye per NBA.com. Considering that Morris had the 3rd highest USG% on the team behind Kyrie Irving and Greg Monroe, that’s a couple of numbers that don’t pair well unless you are a lights-out shooter. Morris was firmly in the middle of the pack when it came to TS% or eFG% (54.1% and 49.9% respectively) but the Celtics simply didn’t perform well when Morris was on the floor.
Mook finished the year with a -0.1 Net Rating, worst among rotation players not named Semi Ojeleye, Abdel Nader, and Greg Monroe. It’s easy to write this off as Morris being the victim of having to play with weak teammates and his floor stats being dragged down as a result. However, a quick peek at the stats, as per lovely, highly-recommended website NBAWowy.com, tell a different story.
That’s, um, a lot of lineups where he’s with some of the other best players, and all of them were significantly higher when it came to Net Rating. Floor stats can be a bit finnicky in smaller sample sizes and there’s good reason to scrutinize them, but over a full season like this, they tend to tell a correct story.
Speaking of seasons, a fair defense of Morris’s regular season numbers would be that his true value lies in playoff versatility. In the playoffs, teams tend to go to smaller lineups more often, and having a wide variety of big, versatile wings and forwards at your disposal can help with this. We saw the effectiveness of Morris firsthand during the opening game of the Eastern Conference Finals when he held LeBron relatively in check, and served as an emotional spark plug during the series.
However, Morris very quietly had very rough offensive performance in the playoffs, and he was actually shot the third worst inside of 5 feet of anyone in the playoffs with at least 20 attempts (ahead of Luc Richard Mbah Moute and Robert Covington) at 46.4%. In fact, Morris had a ghastly 47.4 TS% in the playoffs, just barely ahead of known defensive specialists and brick layers Marcus Smart and Semi Ojeleye. If Morris is going to struggle to score in the playoffs, when defenses tighten up and scheme to enchant him into a contested fall-away, how much impact can Morris really stand to provide in the playoffs?
The Steadying Loose Cannon
On the other side of the coin, Morris is a cost effective, starter-quality forward who serves as an incredibly cost effective insurance policy. Mook’s presence gave the Celtics arguably some of the best wing depth this side of Oakland, and his contributions were a large reason that the Celtics were able to tough out a magical season that came within one win of the NBA Finals.
While Morris was not the most efficient Celtics scorer, he also steadied a Celtics offense that was in danger of going under after Kyrie Irving had knee surgery and eventually sat out the season. After Irving’s removal from the lineup, Morris shot a nifty 58.2% over the last 11 games of the season, trailing only Jaylen Brown for the team’s rotations players.
Beyond numbers and scoring, Morris also undeniably had an effect on the younger players on the team. Watch any game, or timeout following a big shot and it was clear how much younger players like Tatum and Brown enjoyed and looked up to the Morris brother. It’s insane to suggest that Morris personally incubated some of the lethal intincts of Jayson Tatum simply by hanging around him, but let me just say that I’m not sure this clip happens if Marcus Morris isn’t on the team.
Ok now that the confetti has settled we need to talk about Jayson Tatum telling Embiid “You got lucky” after meeting him at the rim ⚡️ pic.twitter.com/uUYcvcpji5— Pettywise (@World_Wide_Wob) May 6, 2018
I’m at risk of becoming a take guy here, so before someone kicks in my door and offers me and FS1 contract, I’ll have to switch gears. Jokes about the unquantifiable of basketball aside, I do think it’s worth noting that I was won over by Marcus Morris in spite of him being exactly the player I feared he was before the season.
There’s something to be said for watching a player and being charmed by his charisma on the floor, a phenomena Marcus Smart fans can attest to. Sometimes we can get a little caught up in an athlete’s play for a team, and not really appreciate what kind of fun character they bring into our lives. For that reason, I’d just like to opine very quickly that I would miss having Marcus Morris on this team, should he be on another squad next year.
What’s Mook’s Role Going Forward?
Of all the players on the Celtics roster under contract for next year, Morris probably holds the most tenuous future in Boston for next year besides perhaps Terry Rozier. Morris was an effective player for the Celtics all year last year, but it’s also easy to forget that the Celtics had a worst case scenario as far as injuries were concerned. The return of Gordon Hayward paired with the dual emergence of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to create and interesting situation for Morris.
Barring another disaster, there’s not much of a chance Morris gets much of a shake as a starter again next year. Should Marcus Smart leave, the Celtics will likely play bigger at the 2 with Hayward and Brown which could open minutes for Morris at 3 in bench lineups. Morris was an effective PF last year and (while his contested rebound percentage was a bit suspect) he could still soak up some minutes at the four as the Celtics don’t have many true power forwards on the roster
besides Marcus Smart. This will likely mean Semi Ojeleye and Guerschon Yabusele are out of the rotation again, too. That’s not the end of the world, but ideally you would like to give those players some more run. Were Aron Baynes to walk and the Celtics really wanted to be crazy in-season, they might be able to get away with Morris getting a couple of minutes at center when Daniel Theis is not in.
No team has perfect health throughout the year, and it’s likely that someone on the Celtics will get hurt next year. The Celtics elastic roster construction means that, pretty much regardless of who gets hurt, lineups can be re-jiggered to turn that into minutes for Morris. So there’s probably a good chance, even though Morris would be the 9th (or 10th depending on your Daniel Theis feelings) man on the roster right now, that he could find a way into 15-20 minutes a game.
I’m just not sure if that’s a fit for Marcus Morris the player, who is coming off his most visible year in the league. The Celtics would need an injury just for Morris to become a rotation player for them, whereas Morris could get 30 minutes on 20-25 other teams in the league and probably start for many of them. The Celtics are loaded with versatile young wings and have a luxury that, quite frankly, most other teams don’t have. When the Celtics traded for Morris, Jaylen Brown was a totally different player and Jayson Tatum was a rookie. Now that it’s abundantly clear those two are bonafide starters, it’s a different situation.
Yesterday, we discussed the question of trading Morris in a roundtable post which you can read here. I recommend reading it, as some of us are not as concerned about tax issues for a team four years away while others of us ponder the mysteries of the Ojeleye Factory. Personally, considering that that team was actually slightly worse when Morris was on the floor, I don’t think keeping him should stand in the way of possible taking a strike toward the repeater tax or bringing back Marcus Smart. This is especially true if you consider what kind of value Morris might have as a trade asset to wing-starved and playoff win-starved young teams like the Pacers or the Timberwolves.
What does give me pause is that the Celtics do not have much movable salary available for trades and the Celtics have always largely prioritized such flexibility. That said, it won’t do the Celtics much good past the trade deadline, so perhaps that is more of a realistic target time for a possible Morris move.
The other unsaid factor (which will likely decide this) is whether or not LeBron James is playing in the East again next year. Ughhhh, talking about LeBron means it’s time for me to wrap this.
Morris is a very good player that I’ve enjoyed watching, and while he wasn’t a terribly efficient player, I had a lot of fun watching him play basketball and he clearly played a big role in helping this young team develop. I’m not sure it would be best for Morris’ career to be on the squad next year, or make much sense from a future oriented perspective, but he would provide valuable insurance. Even in the off-season, it’s hard for me to get a great handle on Marcus Morris. Then again, that’s part of the Mook charm.