Markieff Morris is undoubtedly having his finest season as an NBA player this year for the Phoenix Suns, who are the biggest pleasant surprise of the 2013-14 season. Aside from the fact that the desert Cinderellas are looking more and more like the odd man out of the Western Conference playoff fairy tale, Phoenix supporters have had nothing but good feelings for this overachieving group of former misfits and outcasts. Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee are the biggest examples of this, but it wasn’t too long ago that many questioned Markieff Morris’ future in the league.
This season, Morris is averaging career-bests in points (13.6 per game), rebounds (5.9), assists (1.7) and field goal percentage (47.8 percent). His three-point shooting has dropped all the way down to 28.9 percent, but since Morris only takes 1.4 attempts from downtown on a nightly basis, the Suns can live with it. Phoenix is 20-8 this season when Morris scores at least 15 points.
Where has this breakout season come from, you ask? There are a few factors that come into play here. For one thing, it’s only Morris’ third year in the league and although he only looked like a real NBA player in spurts in his first two seasons, there were plenty of signs that he could develop into a useful role player, even if it didn’t look like he would ever be a superstar. Second, you have to figure Jeff Hornacek‘s tutelage has been a positive influence on this budding bench force, given that pick and pops with Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe free up decent midrange and three-point looks from the top of the key, where he is particularly efficient.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the twin connection, which has undeniably played a role in both the Morris twins having their best seasons yet. After bringing in Marcus Morris, my initial thought was, “Great. The Suns just traded for an identical copy of an underperforming player. Nice PR stunt for the tank job next season, Phoenix!” But an underrated aspect of the move was just how much happier the twins are on the same team, which shows in their play this season.
All this praise is warranted, but we also can’t ignore that Morris has some areas where he can still improve his game. Although his post moves have vastly improved and his fadeaway is incredibly difficult to stop, Morris still makes one or two bad decisions per game. His outlet passes are usually solid and help the Suns ignite their fast break attack, but every now and then he’ll get sloppy and turn the ball over. The same could be said of his passing in the half court offense.
Suns have at least 2 lazy outlet passes per game. Half of them from Markieff Morris.
— Dave King (@DaveKingNBA) March 20, 2014
However, there aren’t many players in the league who can say they’ve won a Western Conference Player of the Week Award in a conference with the likes of Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, Stephen Curry and too many other stars to mention. Morris proved in early November that he could string together masterful performances when he averaged 22.8 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.0 steals while shooting 69.8 percent from the floor. But where does Morris stack up against the rest of the league for the Sixth Man of the Year Award?
For the sake of being concise, let’s narrow the playing field to the following top six candidates for Sixth Man of the Year this season: Taj Gibson of the Chicago Bulls, Jamal Crawford of the Los Angeles Clippers, Jeremy Lin of the Houston Rockets, Markieff Morris of the Phoenix Suns, Manu Ginobili of the San Antonio Spurs and Dion Waiters of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Taking a look at their basic numbers separates the big boys from the rest of the pack:
Ginobili and Lin are big factors off the bench for teams in the top four in the West, but their numbers are clearly the weakest of the bunch and they’ve only played 55 and 57 games, respectively. And although Waiters is showing he can play off the bench much better now, the Sixth Man should really be on a team that matters (no offense, Cleveland). That leaves us with Morris, Crawford and Gibson. Taking a look at some advanced statistics helps narrow the playing field down, so let’s start with the Per 36 Minutes numbers:
It’s pretty straight forward: Crawford is the best scorer of the bunch but is pretty one-dimensional after that, Gibson is the most well-rounded player who can add defensive numbers to his case and Markieff Morris is pretty much a near double-double threat who can knock down a three every now and then. Let’s keep going and dig a little deeper:
Hmm. This doesn’t seem to be getting any easier. Morris has the best Player Efficiency Rating and is competitive in most of the other categories listed here. Crawford is obviously a much better passer than two power forwards, as shown by his assist percentage. Both Morris and Crawford are clearly more offensively inclined, indicated by their offensive ratings of 110, while Gibson is clearly a defensive force as shown by his phenomenal defensive rating of 100, his block percentage of 3.7(!) and 3.5 defensive win shares.
Gibson and Morris have played a few more games than Crawford and since the Clippers have such a deep team now, it might be safe to scratch the more one-dimensional Crawford off the list. You really can’t go wrong with either of these three, but if I had to give my vote to someone right now, it would be Taj Gibson. Morris is the better post threat and is having a phenomenal breakout season as the Suns’ X-factor off the bench. But no one has a bigger impact on their team on both ends of the floor than the Bulls’ Gibson. There’s still plenty of time for Morris to make his case for this (somewhat trivial) award known, but you’ll have a hard time convincing anyone that there’s a better candidate than Gibson, especially if the Suns miss the postseason.