Marcus Morris brings offensive versatility and defensive grit to the Celtics. But the enigmatic combo forward offers even more than that.
Marcus Morris is the consolation prize after Boston was financially forced into trading Avery Bradley. Given where Danny Ainge's trade leverage was, Morris is a more than respectable return. The 27-year-old combo forward is signed for two more years at an affordable $5 million per season. He's coming off of his highest usage rate (20.3) since his rookie season in 2011.
Morris's most overlooked attribute is that he stays healthy. If the best ability is availability, he could be the poster child. He was a mainstay in the Detroit starting lineup and has played in 79 or more games in each of the past four seasons. Morris's health will be a refreshing change from his transactional counterpart. Bradley has appeared in 65 or more games in just two of his seven NBA seasons.
Morris could thrive as a starter or in a bench role due to his offensive versatility. If Morris plays off the bench, and I think he should, he'll have the ball in his hands a lot. Boston's reserves were 16th in bench scoring last season, but the second unit lacked a true isolation scorer. They added Jayson Tatum to the offensive mix, and Morris is one of the more underrated one-on-one scorers around. Per NBA.com, Morris shot a surprising 14.8% of his attempts in isolation and was in the 90th percentile in isolation offensive efficiency. Playing alongside the lumbering Andre Drummond, Morris was heavily relied upon to create his own offense at the end of shot clocks. Morris led the Pistons in field goal attempts with 7 seconds or less remaining on the shot clock, according to NBA.com. Stan Van Gundy was contented placing his trust in Morris, as evidenced by the play below.
Here, the play is designed to get Morris on the wing going to his right. Morris is the ball handler in a 4-5 spread pick and roll with Andre Drummond. After Morris receives the pass, the other three Pistons spread out, leaving Morris as the sole decision maker. There is no off-ball movement. It's all on Morris to make a play. After using Drummond's screen, Morris looks to attack the basket. He glances to see if Drummond is rolling down an open lane. When he lags behind, Morris looks for his three drive and kick options. The perimeter defenders don't slide to help, and Morris recognizes that he's one-on-one with Brook Lopez. Lopez doesn't come out to challenge him, and Morris shows the guard-like maturity to shoot the simple pull-up jumper. That's a lot for a 6'9 forward to mentally evaluate in two or three seconds. Most players his size lack that kind of floor awareness skillset. Morris truly has an innate feel for the game.
Overall, Morris is a polished and multifaceted offensive player who can be used as a ball handler, pick man, in catch and shoot, or in isolation. The Celtics can feel comfortable putting the ball in Morris's hands. As Detroit reduced Reggie Jackson's usage last season, the Pistons placed more trust in Morris to make plays like the one above. Last season, the Celtics lacked a decisive playmaker off of the bench. Possessions too frequently ended with a low percentage contested fadeaway jumper. Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart will quarterback most of the second unit offense, but Morris could fill the role of a part-time maestro. Morris's swiss army knife flexibility will be a huge weapon for Brad Stevens.
At this point, I can't foresee Morris starting. He won't surpass Jae Crowder or Hayward at small forward, and Al Horford is predisposed to thinking that he's a power forward. If Boston decides to start Morris, he will be used as a floor spacer. Playing alongside Isaiah Thomas and Gordon Hayward, Morris can expect to see fewer isolation shots and more spot-ups. Last season, he fired 4.1 field goals per game off of catch and shoots at 54.6 eFG% clip. He's a career 35.5% shooter from distance, which is well above the league average for power forwards. Below is a clip of Morris hitting six first-half triples in a game against Milwaukee. Pay attention to the way that Morris moves without the ball. He shows elite awareness of court spacing. Note the small steps he uses to create shooting space for himself, as well as easy passing lanes for his teammates. Even coming off of screens, Morris has a quick release and solid balance on his catch and shoot jumpers. Penetrating into the paint and kicking for three is bread and butter for the Celtics offense, and Morris should be a massive beneficiary.
Morris's defensive versatility stands out. He locks down 3s and 4s, chases 2s around screens, and holds up against stretch centers. His potential role with the starters would mimic Crowder's from last season. Boston would lean heavily on Morris's lateral quickness. He would be tasked with guarding the opposing team's best wing or forward, allowing Hayward to focus on offensive production. Alternatively, Morris could be brought off the bench to offset Crowder's minutes. Morris has a solid foot speed and can switch onto ball handlers off screens. Brad Stevens will love his versatility and length. Morris was 66th amongst 486 qualifiers in defensive win shares, placing ahead of defensive stars Tony Allen and Patrick Beverley. Detroit routinely asked Morris to shadow the other team's best scorer in crunch time. Here is a clip of Morris shutting down DeMar DeRozan to seal a Detroit win in February.
The Celtics were 29th in total rebounding percentage last season. Losing the boards battles was a side effect of playing a lot of five-out formations and small ball lineups. What Boston gained by having shooters like Kelly Olynyk and Jonas Jerebko, they lost in interior size and strength. Despite his 6'9" 235-pound frame, Morris has always been a subpar rebounder. He's posted just 4.2 rebounds per game over the course of his career. The theory is that Morris's rebounding ability was held back in Detroit by Drummond, one of the NBA's best rebounders. I don't fully buy that. According to NBAwowy, Morris posted an uninspiring 9.2% rebound percentage when Drummond was off of the court. That's a lower percentage than Jon Leuer, Reggie Bullock, and Tobias Harris, all of whom Morris should be outrebounding. Could his percentage jump up a few notches by swapping out Drummond for Horford? Perhaps. But Morris's rebounding troubles have plagued him for his entire career, not just in Detroit. In Boston, Morris will be frequently positioned near the three point line on offense. Defensively, he'll match up with a lot of small forwards and stretch forwards. Don't anticipate him hanging near the basket very often. Don't expect him to solve the C's rebounding problem.
Morris is somewhat of an enigma. Boston is his fourth team in seven seasons, and it's slightly worrisome that other teams would give up on his bird rights so early. He's always played with an emotional edge, which can be good and bad. Playing the previous two seasons away from his twin brother Markieff was a blessing for Marcus's reputation. He's been less combative with team officials and took on more of a leadership role in Detroit. That said, Morris still has one glaring off-court issue. The twins are implicated in an open aggravated assault case in Arizona. The victim, a former business consultant for the brothers, alleges that the two were part of a five-man group who beat him up him in January of 2015. The next hearing is scheduled for August 24, and the case could be settled by then.
Celtics fans will grow to appreciate Morris. He can be unleashed in an infinite number of roles. His energy and relentless effort should help him garner respect from the Garden faithful. He's a hard-nosed player who consistently plays with passion and grit. He's not afraid to wear his emotions and he doesn't back down from challenges. The Celtics desperately needed some frontline toughness after rostering the mild-mannered Amir Johnson, Al Horford, and Kelly Olynyk. A change of scenery should catalyze Morris's game. He was held back by an unorthodox Pistons team, whose leading scorer (Harris) didn't start and best player (Drummond) was on the bench late in games. Morris's scoring output will inevitably take a hit in Boston, but his efficiency and usage rate could skyrocket if he buys into Brad Stevens's system.