The Los Angeles Lakers made the signing of veteran forward Markieff Morris official on Sunday with an announcement. While terms of the deal weren’t disclosed, per team policy, Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported that the Lakers will sign Morris using the $1.75 million disabled player exception they were granted in September as a result of the devastating ACL injury DeMarcus Cousins suffered in August.
Morris, a 6’9” power forward, doesn’t fill the Lakers’ need for a ball-handler, nor is he the wing defender they were searching for leading up to the Feb. 6 NBA trade deadline, but he has a few skills that could make him a valuable rotation player on a championship-hopeful Lakers team. Let’s take a look at where Morris can help, plus the areas that he likely won’t.
The most appealing part of Morris’ game this season has easily been his shooting from behind the arc.
Through 44 games — including 16 starts — for the Detroit Pistons, Morris has shot a career-high 39.7% from behind the arc on 4.3 attempts per game (also a career-high). At 39.7%, Morris has the second-highest 3-point percentage of anyone on the Lakers that has attempted at least three 3-pointers per game this season. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is ranked first at 40.6%.
However, as impressive as Morris’ raw 3-point shooting percentage is, the amount of ground he covers from behind the arc is what makes him so valuable. Most shooters have their sweet spots, and while that’s true for Morris, too, he’s had success from just about everywhere outside of the 3-point line this season.
Having a true “stretch-4” in Morris will give Lakers head coach Frank Vogel the opportunity to stop playing Kyle Kuzma like one. Kuzma’s had some success from behind the arc this season — particularly from the corners, where he’s shot 56.8% on 44 attempts — but he’s still shooting just 32.2% while averaging 4.4 attempts per game. By making Morris the primary backup power forward, Vogel can play Kuzma down a position at small forward, where Kuzma will be able to handle the ball more on the perimeter and either create his own shot or facilitate some pick-and-pop action with Morris. That’s exciting.
Now, if you’re thinking to yourself, “Couldn’t that same logic be applied to lineups featuring Kuzma and Jared Dudley?” — the answer is yes. In fact, if we were to use Morris and Dudley’s career numbers, Dudley (39.4%) is a more reliable threat from behind the arc than Morris (34.5%). But Morris is four years younger than Dudley and is therefore better equipped to play a big role on the team. Plus, he’s the more athletic of the two, making him a viable option for LeBron James or Rajon Rondo in the pick-and-roll. In other words, as long as Morris doesn’t have the ball in his hands for too long, he’ll be valuable on offense.
The Lakers surely would have preferred to add a 3-and-D wing, but that player never became available and Morris was a perfectly fine backup plan. Ultimately, replacing DeMarcus Cousins with someone that can actually contribute this season was a win for the front office.
Defense is the biggest question mark with Morris’ game, and that’s not because it’s hard to draw a conclusion by looking at his numbers from this season — by nearly every metric Morris is a bad defender.
According to Cleaning the Glass, the Pistons allowed 1.8 points more per 100 possessions with Morris on the floor. Additionally, he’s posted a defensive rating of 111.3 this season, which, ironically, is the same defensive rating that his twin brother Marcus Morris has posted. Markieff’s defensive rating has dragged his overall net rating down to -5.3.
The good news is that there’s reason to believe that Morris will be more valuable on the defensive end on a winning team like the Lakers.
According to FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR metric, the last time Morris was a positive for a team on the defensive end was during the 2016-17 season, when he was on a decent Washington Wizards team. It’s also worth noting that the Oklahoma City Thunder were 2.1 points better on defense with Morris on the floor just last season, although the sample size (24 games) is considerably smaller.
The Lakers don’t need Morris to be a defensive stopper, but they do need him to play some defense, particularly in the post where Kyle Kuzma has struggled this season because of his size, or lack thereof. Morris has an inch and about 40 pounds on Kuzma, so, at the very least, he’ll offer more resistance against players that prefer to do most of their work in the post.
When it comes to defending in space or transition, the Lakers will need to lean on Kuzma. Time will tell if that works out for them, but Kuzma’s shown some encouraging signs this season, and with his frame, he may be better suited to defend the perimeter in the end.
Is a Kuzma-Morris defensive going to stop the likes of Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Jayson Tatum or Giannis Antetokounmpo in the postseason? No, but barring unforeseen circumstances they won’t need to — they’ll just need to keep them and the opposing team’s bigger wings honest, or at least more honest than Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has this season. That’s not a knock on Caldwell-Pope; there’s just nothing he can do about his height.
The Lakers’ next game will against the New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday. It’s unclear if Morris will be available to play then, but if he is, it will be a great test for him, as the Pelicans have Zion Williamson, Nicolo Melli and Derrick Favors.