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NBA AM: The Case for Keeping Markieff Morris

Eric Saar breaks down the Markieff Morris situation and why the Suns’ best option is keeping the disgruntled forward.

Eric Saar

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The Markieff Morris situation in Phoenix is pretty unique.

Markieff and his twin, Marcus, both signed four-year contract extensions to remain with the Suns exactly one year ago yesterday. They decided to sign for less money so they could remain teammates in Phoenix. Not only was this scenario unique because the twins decided to take less to stick together, but also because Suns management let them decide how they wanted to split the $52 million that they had allocated for them. It was an interesting idea and, at the end of the day, Markieff received $32 million while Marcus got $20 million. Those were considered bargain contracts at the time, especially for Markieff, and the deals look even better today compared to some of the monster contracts handed out this offseason since teams know the NBA’s salary cap will increase significantly next year.

Everything was fine until a few months ago when, in a move to clear cap room to try and sign free agent forward LaMarcus Aldridge, Phoenix shipped off Marcus along with a couple other players in a deal with the Detroit Pistons without giving the twins any prior notice. The Morris brothers did not like that. In fact, the situation got so toxic that Markieff publicly demanded to be traded at one point this summer, which resulted in a $10,000 fine from the league. However, Markieff showed up on media day and it seems that he realizes he may have no choice but to let this situation play out.

Typically, when an NBA player demands a trade, it is a disgruntled star (think Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, etc.). Only a star that is approaching free agency has the necessary leverage to force a trade to his preferred destination. The team can’t afford to lose such a valuable asset for nothing, so if they don’t think they have a good chance to re-sign the player, they trade him.

Anthony’s 2011 trade from the Denver Nuggets to the New York Knicks was a high-profile example of this, as he was moved while in the final year of his contract. He was an All-Star and his camp was telling teams that he wouldn’t re-sign with any team other than the Knicks, so he had a lot of trade value.

That is not the case with Morris.

Morris certainly has improved in each of his four years since being drafted by Phoenix. Here’s a look at how he has played throughout the course of his NBA career:

  • 2011-12: 19.5 MIN | 7.4 PTS | 4.4 REB
  • 2012-13: 22.2 MIN | 8.2 PTS | 4.8 REB
  • 2013-14: 26.6 MIN | 13.8 PTS | 6.0 REB
  • 2014-15: 31.5 MIN | 15.3 PTS | 6.2 REB

Over the course of his time in the NBA, Morris’ role and production have increased. However, he hasn’t even sniffed the All-Star game or reached the heights of a star like Anthony. Therefore, his trade value is much lower.

Markieff and Marcus’ trade value took a significant hit in late April when the twins were accused of felony aggravated assault for an incident at a Phoenix recreation center. The brothers pleaded not guilty and the legal proceedings are still on-going. But according to some reports, including one from Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer, this is when the Suns started to grow tired of the Morris twins’ antics.

That same August article by Pompey is when Markieff first publicly stated that he didn’t want to be with the Suns going forward, which further hurt his trade stock (as well as the Suns’ trade negotiations).

“One thing for sure, I am not going to be there,” Morris told Pompey. “If you want to put that out there, you can put that out. I don’t give a [freak]. I am not going to be there at all. That’s just what it is.

“I’ve got to show up [to training camp], no question. You can’t do that. I will be a professional. Don’t get me wrong. … But it won’t get that far. I’m going to be out before then, should be.”

That sentence – along with a tweet that stated “my future is not in Phoenix” – is what caused the league to fine Morris $10,000 for “a public statement detrimental to the NBA,” according to the league’s announcement.

All of these factors combined together make this the absolute worst time for the Suns to trade Morris. His trade value is at an all-time low, which means it’s practically impossible to get anything significant back for him or even dump him without having to part with other assets.

Additionally, and most importantly, Morris doesn’t have any leverage in this situation. Unlike someone like Anthony, who was in the final year of his contract when he demanded a trade out of Denver, Morris’ four-year extension just kicked in and he is under contract with Phoenix through the 2018-19 season. There are no player options or ways out; he is locked in through the end of his deal.

If Morris was an impending free agent and had significant trade value, this would be a much different story. Morris has neither thing going for him, which is probably why we saw him make a 180-degree turn Monday at the Suns’ media day.

“I want to be here,” Morris said during his press conference. “I’m looking forward to the season, not really trying to look at the past. I don’t really want to talk about what I did in the summer. I really want to look forward to this up-and-coming season. Glad to be back with my teammates and glad to be back with the team.”

That’s sure a different stance. In all probability, the difference in Morris’ tone was that he and the Suns collaborated behind closed doors to set aside their differences and solve the problem internally. They will work together to get Morris out on the court, at the very least making the situation seem as though it is resolved, which would increase his trade value and the possibility of a deal. Then, once he has played well and this situation is a ways behind him, they could acquiesce to his demand and deal him to another team (and potentially get something significant back in a deal, which wouldn’t be the case were they to move him now).

But again, Phoenix could just keep Morris and force him to tough it out since the power forward has no leverage. If this is Morris just trying to act professionally, but he’s still expecting to be traded, he shouldn’t get his hopes.

It makes little sense for the Suns to send him packing as of right now. His trade value is so low that Suns probably wouldn’t be able to negotiate any reasonable trade for him. Although, it should be noted that Suns General Manager Ryan McDonough has done a great job since taking over in Phoenix and his deals are practically never anticipated or leaked until they are completed. Still, he’s no miracle worker and that’s seemingly what it would take to get anything back for Morris after this brutal summer.

That’s why the best move for Phoenix is to hold onto Morris, let him play, put his legal issues behind him and, hopefully, increase his trade value. This could allow them to trade him at a later date.

Or, if the two sides can repair the fractured relationship, Morris could go back to being a key piece for the Suns and part of their long-term plan. In that scenario, perhaps Morris comes to his senses and realizes that this is a business and he didn’t need to be notified that his brother was being traded.

Also, a big factor in Morris realizing his place in the NBA and moving past this drama maturely could be the presence of newly signed big man Tyson Chandler. Chandler is a championship-winner and a strong veteran presence, which is exactly what the Suns needed to add to their locker room. He is a vocal leader on and off the court and, with 14 years in the NBA under his belt, he has a lot he could teach Morris.

Chandler already offered some advice to Morris that he shared with Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic in mid-September.

“It’s not about them,” Chandler told Coro. “That’s no offense to Ryan, the GM, or the owner. Players play for players and the coaches. You’ve got a bond. Management has nothing to do with anything that goes on when you’re on the court. That’s just my thoughts. I’m not saying this for anything against Morris either. He’s a man and he has to go through his own process. But he can be special and I know he will. I feel like all this stuff will be forgotten once we kick off and we’re having success.”

Essentially, Chandler is saying that Morris should move on, don’t worry about the things he can’t control and try to reach his full potential as a player. And Chandler does bring up one good point: this could all be brushed aside with success, as winning does cure most issues.

Morris has a lot to offer on the court. He is solid in the clutch, can shoot that mid-range shot with consistency and is tough down low. As previously noted, he has improved each year he’s been in the NBA and he’s still just 26 years old. He is an integral part of the Suns as their starting power forward, so cutting bait now and receiving little or nothing in return wouldn’t make sense.

Right now, the Suns should just hope that Morris finds peace with management and settles in with the rest of the team. This is a Phoenix squad that could make the playoffs, especially if Morris continues his development. It’s best for all involved parties to attempt to move past this and try to make the situation work for the time being.

Based in Arizona, Eric Saar is an analyst for Basketball Insiders. He has covered the league for several years. He loves to converse about the NBA on Twitter, so follow him at @Eric_Saar. Eric graduated with honors from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.

With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.

The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.

He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.

Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.

He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.

Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.

He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.

One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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NBA

Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards

Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.

Drew Maresca

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It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.

Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.

The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.

But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.

Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old

Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.

But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.

Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.

Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old

Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.

And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.

While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.

If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.

Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old

Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).

Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.

Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.

Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old

Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.

Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.

But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.

Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.

Honorable Mentions:

Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old

Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old

Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old

With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups

With the two matchups going on today, Matt John examines the two teams who could be in the most trouble because of one of their individual stars for opposite reasons.

Matt John

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The second round of the NBA playoffs was hyped up to be one of the most entertaining we’ve had in years. So far, they haven’t fallen short of expectations. We knew that Houston and Los Angeles’ battle of opposite philosophies would make for some twists and turns. We knew that Boston and Toronto would duke it out in an Atlantic Division showdown. We knew that Miami would push Milwaukee to new heights. We didn’t really know if the Nuggets would give the Clippers a good series, but the fact that they have so far has made an intense postseason all the more gripping.

Anyway, today we’re getting two games from two series in completely opposite places. The Lakers and the Rockets will face off for the series lead, while the HEAT will try to finish off the Bucks once and for all. Below, we’re going to focus on two teams who have an individual star that either may be more flawed than we thought or one that may not be as flawed as we thought.

Bucks vs. HEAT: Giannis is great and all, but…

We all pretty much knew this was going to be a good series. We did not expect this.

The buzz surrounding Bucks v. HEAT was that Miami was going to make Milwaukee earn every win they got in this series. If that was the plan, then Miami has failed miserably, because until Khris Middleton went supernova on them on Sunday, Milwaukee had come up terribly short.

Let’s first give Miami the credit that they are due and more. With Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler alone, Miami was going to be a tough matchup for Milwaukee – but to see the Bucks all but roll over in this series is an unpleasant sight. Acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala has paid huge dividends and it’s showing. There are other factors involved, but Miami’s defensive efforts have limited Giannis to 21.8 points a game and that’s played a role in the HEAT being in the driver’s seat of this series.

Speaking of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this series has not been a good look for the Defensive Player of the Year. Especially since it looks like his second consecutive MVP (presumably) is right around the corner. So, to see both him and Milwaukee, once an unstoppable force without an immovable object in sight, get stopped by a sturdy but not immovable squad is saddening.

Nearly a year ago, Basketball Insiders compared these current Bucks to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic from the late-2000’s/early 2010’s. To oversimplify things, both were contenders led by a superstar with a rare physique that made them tough to stop. To put the superstar in the best position, they surrounded them with playmakers and three-point shooters.

While the teams’ roster constructions weren’t exactly the same, their strengths as a team certainly were. Now we’re seeing the Bucks’ flaws just as we did the Magic 10 years ago. If you have the personnel to make the lone superstar uncomfortable, the team doesn’t function as well.

Giannis is near impossible to stop, but the one major flaw is that if you take away his ability to drive and force him into a jumper, he loses his rhythm. Even if his shot is on – never a guarantee – his opponents will let him beat them that way until he makes them pay. Hardly any team can pick on this, but the HEAT are one of them, and now they’re one win away from their first Eastern Conference Finals since LeBron James took his talents out of South Beach.

This ultimately is what puts Antetokounmpo below the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard for now. Those guys are rare physical specimens like him, but their elite games don’t revolve entirely around their natural gifts as he does or Dwight did. At 25 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to change that and, for all we know, he will, but to see him struggle at a time when the conference was supposed to run through him has ignited tons of questions.

Milwaukee’s technically not out yet, but they’ve shown their mortality against Miami. If this really is it for them, then they’ve got to find a quick fix for this problem because if they don’t, then the unspeakable may happen.

Lakers vs. Rockets: Westbrook has been bad and all but…

Shaking off the rust and recovering from a balky knee would be tough for anyone. For Russell Westbrook, it’s killing his productivity and, in turn, the Rockets’ playoff chances. He’s averaging 15.6 points on 39/16/47 splits with a most recent 10-point, 4-of-15 effort from the field which included seven turnovers and air balling wide-open threes sticking out like a sore thumb.

It also doesn’t help that he’s playing the Lakers of all teams. When Westbrook has been in, the Lakers have taken advantage of his shortcomings offensively and it shows both on the court and the stat line.

Most of Westbrook’s damage is hurting Houston on the offensive end. With the All-Star guard in the game, Houston is minus-13.7 with him on the court, the worst offensive rating on the team. The 12 turnovers he’s coughed up in this series probably have something to do with that.

With Westbrook’s struggles and his predecessor Chris Paul coming off of his best individual season since 2016, this, of course, has led to many second-guessing the swap last summer. Or let’s rephrase that: People have been second-guessing that trade since the moment it was announced and, in light of recent events, they’re piling on now more than ever.

Maybe they’re right. Even after playing in the NBA for over a decade now, Westbrook still hasn’t proven that he can control himself enough to reach his potential as a team player. We’ve seen glimpses. On the other hand, Paul showed that he can still pick apart defenses while holding his own on that end.

But replacing Paul with Westbrook was Harden’s idea. He didn’t want to play with Paul anymore and chose to play with one of his closest friends. You may think that the better fit is what’s best for the team, but we’ve seen the damage that can happen when your team’s best players have friction with one another. It hurt Utah this season. It hurt Boston last season. It destroyed the Lakers back in 2013. There’s no telling what it could have done to Houston this season.

Besides, we know that as bad as Westbrook has been, he’s capable of being better. Not a knockdown shooter, not even an efficient scorer, but he has done better in the past when the focus was on him. The more days he takes to shake off the rust from his knee, the more optimistic the Rockets ought to be.

The Rockets have to take the glass-half-full on this one because they don’t really have a choice otherwise.

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