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NBA Saturday: Morris Situation Creates Uncertainty in Phoenix

Once considered part of the Suns’ bright future, the Morris twins have created uncertainty in Phoenix.

Jesse Blancarte

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Morris Situation Creates Uncertainty in Phoenix

It wasn’t so long ago that the Phoenix Suns were considered a team on the rise. Suns general manager Ryan McDonough was making moves to usher Phoenix out of the Steve Nash era and into the future. For the 2013-14 season, Phoenix had a core of Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragic, Alex Len, Channing Frye and the Morris twins (Markieff and Marcus).

The Suns went 48-34 that season, barely missed the postseason and were one of the surprise teams of the year, exceeding all preseason expectations. With an aggressive rebuild, a talented new head coach in Jeff Hornacek and confidence from a near playoff berth, the Suns’ future seemed bright. A big part of that bright future was the Morris twins.

Phoenix drafted Markieff 13th overall in the 2011 NBA draft. Marcus was selected with the very next pick by the Houston Rockets. Less than two years later, on February 21, 2013, the Suns acquired Marcus from the Rockets in exchange for Phoenix’s 2013 second-round draft pick.

In the Suns’ official press release, Suns President of Basketball Operations Lon Babby said that acquiring Marcus was based largely on pairing him with his twin brother Markieff.

“We have been intrigued for quite some time about the potential synergy from having both of the Morris twins on our team,” said Babby. “So we are excited to have the opportunity to welcome Marcus to the Suns.”

The Suns were under the belief that the Morris twins would play better if they were on the same team. In the early going, it seemed as though the Suns’ front office was correct. In their first full season together in Phoenix, Markieff averaged 13.8, six rebounds and 1.8 assists per game, while Marcus averaged 9.7 points, 3.9 rebounds and 1.1 assists per game. Both Morris twins put up some of the best numbers of their respective careers and each looked as though they would continue developing alongside one another in Phoenix.

In September of last year, the Suns signed the Morris twins to four-year contract extensions. Markieff signed for $32 million and Marcus signed for $20 million. After agreeing to the extensions, the Suns front office again spoke about the importance of having both Markieff and Marcus playing together.

“We are particularly pleased to have reached extension agreements with Marcus and Markieff before the start of training camp,” Babby said in a statement. “There is an extraordinary bond between these twin brothers; they make each other better players and better men. We take pride in their growth and look forward to their bright futures.”

McDonough shared similar sentiments regarding the agreement with the Morris twins.

“We are excited to be able to extend the contracts of Marcus and Markieff,” McDonough said. “They have had great success playing together at every level of basketball, including last season with the Suns. They have made great strides over the past year and we feel like they will continue to grow and improve. They are just entering their primes and we think they will play the best basketball of their careers over the course of the next five years.”

Unfortunately, the extensions did not work out as well the Suns had hoped.

Riding the wave of their surprising success, the Suns pursued LeBron James as a free agent last year. James ultimately signed with the Cleveland Cavaliers, however, and the Suns ended up signing free agent point guard Isaiah Thomas. The signing of Thomas was an odd move, as the Suns already had two starting-quality point guards in Bledsoe and Dragic. Coach Hornacek managed to play both Bledsoe and Dragic together effectively and it seemed like Phoenix was going all in on their point guard experiment by adding Thomas. Unfortunately, the three-headed point guard experiment failed and Dragic forced the Suns to move him in a trade or risk losing him for nothing as a free agent after the season. Dragic and Thomas were both moved in separate trades, the Suns’ roster struggled with chemistry issues and Phoenix again missed the postseason.

In addition, the Morris twins dealt with several off-court and on-court issues. On May 7, both Markieff and Marcus pleaded not guilty to two counts each of felony aggravated assault. They are accused of helping three other people beat a man outside a Phoenix recreation center on January 24. The legal proceedings are ongoing, which leaves open the possibility that both players will miss time moving forward.

In addition, both Morris brothers, along with other Phoenix players, received a large amount of technical fouls last season. It got to the point that Coach Hornacek implemented a rule where any player who received a technical foul would sit the rest of the game. Then, on January 7, Marcus lost his temper during a timeout and berated Hornacek on national TV. Shortly after, Markieff scored 35 points in a win against the Cleveland Cavaliers, but refused to speak to the media after the game. He later stated that he was being “childish,” and needed to be “smarter” about how he deals with the media.

On March 1, after losing to the San Antonio Spurs by 27 points, Markieff went after Suns fans for not supporting the team.

“They don’t boo but they don’t cheer much, either,” Markieff said. “I know we’re a lot better than that. I know Phoenix fans are a lot better than that. We have a lot of genuine fans that cheer for us, the ones that’s in the first row, the second row, the third row. But once you go up you feel like people are just at the game watching.

“I just think we expect more from the fans. That’s basically what I’m getting to. We expect more. We expect this to be a home-court advantage every time we step on the court no matter if we’re playing Orlando or we’re playing Cleveland.”

All the positive energy and confidence earned in the 2013-14 was wiped out last season. The Suns were still a dangerous team on any given night, but it wasn’t the season Phoenix fans were hoping for.

Entering this offseason, the Suns again were aggressive, looking to acquire a big-name free agent. This time, the Suns sets their sights on LaMarcus Aldridge. Aldridge was being courted by several teams, but the San Antonio Spurs seemed to be his likely choice. However, the Suns made a surprising move, trading Marcus, Reggie Bullock and Danny Granger to Detroit in exchange for the Pistons’ 2020 second-round draft pick. The deal was a salary dump so the Suns could sign Tyson Chandler. The idea was to add Chandler as a true center, which would allow Aldridge to play at power forward – as he prefers.

The strategy almost paid off, as reports indicated that the Suns were serious contenders for Aldridge. However, Gregg Popovich met with Aldridge a second time and persuaded the All-Star power forward to join the Spurs.

One of the consequences of trading Aldridge was splitting up the Morris twins. After stating repeatedly how important it was that Markieff and Marcus play together, the Suns took the risk for the shot at landing Aldridge. Marcus called the move “a slap in the face,” and has since engaged Suns fans and critics on Twitter.

Now, the latest chapter in this ongoing saga is a report from John Gambadoro of Burns and Gambo, stating that Markieff wants out of Phoenix after his brother was traded to Detroit and that he’s refusing to talk to anyone within the Suns organization. This is not a surprising development considering how close the Morris twins are. However, it does present more challenges and uncertainty for the Suns.

As previously stated, the Morris’ ongoing legal issue leaves open the possibility that both brothers could miss significant playing time. It also brings their character into question, which other teams will take note of when considering whether to make a trade offer to the Suns for Markieff. While trading Markieff may make the most sense for both parties considering how much the relationship has already been strained, the fact is that the Suns are unlikely to receive anything close to equal value in return for the big man.

In addition, trading Markieff leaves the Suns without a proven, starting quality power forward on the roster. Furthermore, Markieff is still just 25 years old, has shown that he has a versatile, developing game and is on a very team-friendly contract (four years, $32 million). Consider that with the rising salary cap, players like Enes Kanter (four years, $70 million) and Thaddeus Young (four years, $48 million) among others received massive contracts this summer. Having young talent on cost-controlled contracts is a major asset in the NBA, and giving up one for less than equal value is a less than ideal situation. To be clear, Markieff is very talented and will draw a lot of interest from teams, but, as we recently saw with Ty Lawson and the Denver Nuggets, there is a strong chance that if he is traded, it will be for less than what he is worth.

It’s not clear how the Suns will handle this situation, but what is clear is that the Morris twins have created uncertainty in Phoenix and, in part, have put dimmers on the bright future the Suns once held.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong

Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.

Matt John

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It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.

Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.

Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.

1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.

A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.

Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part.  Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.

Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.

Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.

Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.

Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.

Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.

The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.

The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.

To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.

For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.

To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.

Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.

On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.

Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?

Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.

Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.

In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.

For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.

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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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