On paper, the drop-off between Anthony Davis and Markieff Morris is probably bigger than the gap between any other starter in the NBA and his replacement. Joel Embiid and Mike Scott also come to mind, but it’s safe to say that the Lakers were built to start a max player at power forward, not one on a minimum contract.
And with the way Morris played to start the season, to the point that Frank Vogel excised him from the rotation for a little while over a week back in January, it was fair to wonder what the 10th-year forward would be able to contribute in Davis’ absence.
As it turns out, Morris has been indispensable for the Lakers since the All-Star Break, and not because the team doesn’t have other players to replace him with. He’s just the consistent, professional presence that the Lakers have needed. While several of the rotation players on the roster are specialized role players, Morris has played a smaller role because that’s what was asked of him. When that ask expands, so too do Morris’ capabilities.
“He’s been like the unsung hero of this stretch,” Frank Vogel said about Morris after the team’s recent win over Toronto. “I don’t think anybody’s talking about Keef’s contributions enough, and it’s not just on the offensive side of the ball like he scored the ball tonight. He’s having to guard seemingly an elite sort of 3/4 each night, and doing a great job with that while carrying some of the load offensively as well... His toughness exemplifies who we want to be in terms of being a team that plays more physical than our opponent.”
On the offensive end, Morris has increased his usage rate — the percentage of Lakers’ possessions that end in him shooting, assisting, drawing free throws or turning the ball over while he’s on the floor — from 14.5 to 17.9 percent in the absence of the two stars, and he’s simultaneously upped his efficiency from the field, a combination that doesn’t always go hand-in-hand. After spending the first part of the season massively struggling from the field, Morris’s effective field-goal percentage has been almost league-average for his position over the last 10 games. If that sounds like damning with faint praise, consider that the Lakers’ offense has been nearly last in the NBA in efficiency since LeBron James went down, and league average is a real accomplishment.
Morris has scored in double figures seven times over the last ten games, and he’s been decisive. While there’s been an overpassing epidemic among the Lakers as players continue to hunt the great shots they were getting with LeBron James on the court, Morris has been more decisive in taking the first good look. It’s a simple adjustment, but a necessary one to avoid stalling the team’s offense even further.
Although the shot diet for Morris still consists primarily of threes in this recent stretch, he’s diversified a bit more without James and Davis available. He can attack mismatches, whether that’s powering over a smaller guy like Buddy Hield in the paint or using his speed to get past centers that are stashed on him. Morris has also been more intuitive about ducking into the paint, which is useful when Marc Gasol or Andre Drummond is stationed on the perimeter and can loft the ball over the top to him.
His offense isn’t just coming against compromised defenses, either. At the end of this clip, Morris went deep into his bag to isolate against Jimmy Butler Thursday, using a rip through to get past Butler and then finishing over the help defender.
And as Vogel noted, Morris’ contributions aren’t limited to offense. Morris spent postseason as a small-ball five in a switching defense and has now adapted to entirely different responsibilities. The Lakers are mostly back in a drop, and that means Morris has to battle individually against perimeter threats since he’s starting at power forward instead of center. He has been the primary defender for a number of high-volume scorers, like Pascal Siakam, Harrison Barnes, or his brother Marcus.
That last matchup didn’t go his way, but Morris has acquitted himself well otherwise. He uses his strength and his length and plays within the system. Look how he completely drapes Butler in the fourth quarter after Butler had comfortably walked into pull-up jumpers against Drummond and Montrezl Harrell earlier in the period.
At the start of the season, it was unclear where Morris would fit on this roster. He doesn’t have any dominant skills that stand out, and that made him an easy casualty of the rotation numbers crunch earlier in the year.
But what this latest stretch has reminded us about is that Morris is simply a professional who understands how to play, and knows how to do so within this system now that he’s been around for over a year. He takes the shots that are available, and he can create looks for himself when the team is light on playmakers. He doesn’t turn the ball over, and he rebounds well on the defensive glass, which is a nice complement for a center like Gasol who plays further away from the basket. He sets good screens, dives for loose balls, and consistently makes little plays that make you happy to have him on the court.
Here, Morris battles for an offensive rebound and saves the possession, which results in free throws for Harrell. There’s no stat accumulated, but it’s another example of Morris filling in the gaps as needed for his team.
Morris’ on-off numbers don’t impress, and that’s to be expected since the Lakers starting lineup is outmatched from a talent perspective on most nights. But he holds down the fort, sprinkling in some early points so the second unit isn’t battling back from an untenable deficit, and setting the tone with his effort so opponents at least know they’re in for a fight.
Just this year, Morris has been a tenth man in the rotation, out of it altogether, and a starter. His offensive and defensive roles have changed accordingly, and yet Morris continues to produce. Considering everything the Lakers are going through, that versatility is an achievement worth recognizing.