Editor’s Note: Welcome to our “2020 Lakers Season In Review” series, where we’ll be looking back at every member of this Lakers roster as the offseason commences, and answering some questions about what they contributed (or didn’t) to the team’s 17th championship, as well as discussing what their situation is moving forward. Today, let’s discuss Markieff Morris.
How did he play?
Markieff Morris was arguably the best buyout acquisition in NBA history. Most players in his position don’t even positively contribute to their new team, while Morris was a crucial rotation piece during a championship run.
It didn’t immediately appear that Morris would be so helpful. The Lakers’ biggest need heading into the trade deadline (other than perhaps a playmaker) was a wing defender who could also shoot, and Morris could only fulfill the latter of those two tasks. On a team that was already stocked with bigs, Morris was something of an afterthought during his regular-season appearances, up until the Lakers’ March 8 showdown with the Clippers, when it became apparent just how much the team could use a spacing five.
That moment of clarity defined Morris’ role in the postseason. When the Lakers stayed big, as they did against Portland and Denver, Morris was a mostly unremarkable backup forward. But when the Lakers went small, or at least whatever qualifies as small for a team that still employs Anthony Davis, Morris was a revelation in those lineups. His 3-point barrage in Game 2 got the Lakers going against Houston, and his inclusion into the starting five changed that series, allowing the Lakers to switch and cover the Rockets deep beyond the arc. Morris was similarly valuable in the Finals, as the Lakers needed extra speed at the center position to keep up with Miami’s pace in the halfcourt.
In the first round and the conference finals, Morris averaged 3.6 points and 1.8 rebounds per game while making eight total threes. In the semifinals and NBA Finals, Morris bumped those numbers up to 8 points and 3.3 rebounds per game, and he hit 21 3-pointers over 11 games. In each series, the Lakers’ defense also improved when Morris was on the floor. Maybe he didn’t make many highlight plays, but Morris was solidly efficient for the Lakers, filling a gap that didn’t even appear to exist before he came to the team.
The Lakers had been using Kyle Kuzma as the 4/5 in small lineups before Morris signed, but Kuzma was ill-suited for that responsibility. Morris was a cleaner fit in Kuzma’s role, which allowed Kuzma to shift down to the 3/4, providing the Lakers the extra wing they needed all along. In a sense, Morris’ greatest contribution to the Lakers was giving the team additional lineup versatility, which was invaluable in the postseason.
What is his contract situation moving forward?
Morris is an unrestricted free agent. He gave back $4.5 million to the Pistons in his buyout in February, but made $1.75 million on his Lakers deal, and even if he makes the veteran’s minimum next season, he should recoup the money he forfeited when leaving Detroit.
Will he be back?
The Lakers don’t have any salary cap space to sign Morris unless they use one of their exceptions, but it’s unclear as of now if they view Morris worthy of that level of investment. On the one hand, Morris was a perfect fit with this team, but on the other hand, the fact that the Lakers were able to get Morris off the buyout market demonstrates that it might not be terribly difficult to replace him.
Then again, there were only 30 players in the league other than Morris who averaged at least 9.7 points and 3.8 rebounds per game on 38.6% shooting from 3-point range. Nine of them are current or former All-Stars, and the ones who aren’t on rookie contracts are getting paid a lot more than what Morris made with the Lakers. Centers might be fungible when building a team in the modern NBA, but bigs who can shoot still have a market. If the Lakers aren’t willing to go beyond the minimum for Morris, some other team likely will.
There is one also one additional element to consider regarding Morris’ future. If the Clippers re-sign his brother Marcus, as they are expected to during free agency, Markieff may be more amenable to staying in Los Angeles to be closer to his family. That’s one advantage the Lakers have over other teams, except for maybe the Clippers.
There hasn’t been much chatter from either party regarding Morris’ place on the Lakers next season, but the Lakers should make an effort to keep him around. Role player alchemy is a tricky science, and not every signing works. The Lakers have had plenty of misses in the last two seasons. Now that they have found someone in Morris who fits, it isn’t the time to play around with the formula.