In addition to being the best basketball players in the world, NBA players are among the top 0.00001% of the population as competitors. So of course it’s not going to be easy for any of them to hear they aren’t in the rotation for their team. The Lakers have seen that play out over the last few weeks with Markieff Morris and Wesley Matthews.
Neither player has created a problem in the locker room, and both have said all the right things. Since they both returned to the lineup two games ago, Matthews has said “I want to play every single game” while acknowledging that he appreciates how Lakers head coach Frank Vogel has handled the difficult situation, and Morris has been just as candid.
“It’s tough,” Morris said after the Lakers beat the Thunder in overtime on Wednesday in his second game back in the lineup since missing the prior four.
“It’s not an easy thing being told that you’re not in the lineup right now and that they’ve got to try to find minutes for other guys,” Morris continued. “But this is a tough season for everybody. The thing that makes us great is that we’ve got a deep team. Me and Wes, we’ve just got to stay ready. When our time comes, we’ve just to be ready to play but, you know, as competitors like me and Wes are, it’s tough not to get out there and battle with your team every night. We’ve just to got to stay ready.”
Even going through the situation with a fellow veteran like Matthews doesn’t make it any easier to sit out for a prideful veteran who was an x-factor in the Lakers’ 2020 title run and who Vogel has credited as one of their keys in the NBA Finals.
“Hell nah it don’t make it easier,” Morris said. “Shit, I was here before Wes. Wes my dog, but damn… It’s regardless of who is sitting out. If I was sitting out with my brother, it wouldn’t make it easier because I’m a competitor. I’ve played at the highest level, we’ve all played at the highest level, so it’s not easy.”
Understanding-but-frustrated reactions like this are why — as easy as it is for people on the outside to say — it’s hard for coaches to actually shorten their rotations like Vogel did for the last couple of weeks during the regular season. No one on the team doesn’t want to play, and that goes double for a team as deep with talented players that are used to getting minutes as the Lakers are.
It should also be pointed out that Morris has sacrificed as much or more than any Laker to put the team in this position. Morris gave back more money in his buyout with the Detroit Pistons than any other player did last season so that he could chase his first championship with the Lakers. Then, after the small-ball versatility and toughness he gave them proved invaluable in the playoffs, he still had to pass up on bigger offers from other teams to return to the Lakers on a veteran’s minimum deal to defend their title. Now he’s being asked to give up playing time, and while he’s accepted his situation — even willingly sitting out a game earlier this year so Talen Horton-Tucker could get some run in his hometown of Chicago — that doesn’t mean it’s easy to do so.
“I’d never been in that position before so it was hard,” Morris said of the conversation when Vogel told him he was going to be out of the regular rotation for a while. “Me and coach went back and forth about a couple of different things. For me, the whole thing was: I was just in the rotation in the Finals, so it’s hard to take that step back and be ready when time comes.”
Still, he’s trying to look at the bigger picture.
“Everything happens for a reason. I have fresh legs, I’ll be ready when it’s time,” Morris said, adding that he’s been playing pickup with Jared Dudley and other players that are out of the rotation to try and stay fresh and prepared to contribute.
“But it’s tough. I’m a competitor, I’ve been in the rotations since I’ve been here, so it was a little tough,” Morris said.
Vogel has won plaudits from his players for being a stellar communicator and making sure everyone understands and accepts their roles, but this might be his biggest challenge yet. Morris and Matthews are back in the rotation for now, but what happens when Anthony Davis and Alex Caruso return? How long can Morris and Matthews miss games and continue to say the right things while remaining content?
Former Lakers coach and legendary NBA executive Pat Riley coined a ton of phrases during his long and storied career, most notably trademarking the word “three-peat” as his team tried to go for one. But it was another phrases — “the disease of more” — that has been coming to mind most often during the lead-up to and during this current Lakers journey. Riley used the term to describe how on a title team, the fallout from the ultimate team success can pull players in more individualistic directions. Everyone, no matter their job, generally wants more once they’ve shown they can compete at the highest level. NBA players are no different.
This isn’t to say the Lakers have been infected by the spiritual disease Riley named. Far from it. But it is a reminder that it’s something the team will have to ward off and manage well.
And whether it’s the way Vogel is communicating these demotions or just the temperament of the team, so far they’ve done so. Even Morris (somewhat begrudgingly) agreed that this is what’s best for the team.
“It has to be, man,” Morris said. “Guys that are of the caliber of players that me and Wes are, I think you can put us on any team in the NBA and we’d both be getting quality minutes, but like I said before, that just shows the sacrifices that we’ve made being on this team: Me coming back knowing we were going to have a deep team, Wes (joining us) knowing that we have a deep team.
“But it’s just for the time being, man. Anything can happen during the season. You’ve just got to stay ready. I know me and Wes have missed a bunch of games, but I don’t see it finishing like that. I’m still trying get into tip-top shape. We didn’t have any training camp and I’ve been playing — before I sat out — I think 14-15 minutes a game. That’s tough at this point of my career when you’re trying to get in shape. My shooting numbers are down a bit, but it’s a long season. You tend to forget about what happened the first quarter of the season. Until the end of the season comes, we’re going to keep working and keep getting better.”
Until then, Morris says he and Matthews will stay ready.
“It’s a long season,” Morris repeated. “The goal is to win a championship and that’s what all of us are focused on. Regardless of where coach need us to play, we’re going to have to do it. It’s just part of our goals as a team that’s 10 deep and a championship team.”