John Wall’s appreciation for his Wizards’ starting running mates is well-documented. In early summer, just before the most recent free agency bedlam, Wall stated, “Look at our team. We have the point guard, we have the shooting guard, we have the center, we have the power forward... ” Wall’s implication that Markieff Morris is not only a satisfactory power forward, but one who can help the Wizards win an extra playoff series, no trade needed puts a lot of trust in his enigmatic enforcer. Wall may enjoy his alley-oop passes to Morris, but is Morris the guy needed to help D.C. leap into the Eastern Conference finals?
Morris' 2016-2017 statistics make it appear he is indeed the satisfactory power forward Wall was talking about. Morris averaged the most rebounds per game (6.5), second most points per game (14.0), and second most steals per game (1.1) of his career, while receiving his lowest usage rate (20.5%) since 2012-2013, indicating that Morris is embracing his role: scoring easy buckets, grabbing boards, and being active on defense when needed. These surface statistics support Wall’s satisfactory endorsement of Morris as the Wizards starting power forward, a power forward who is trending toward the best version of himself statistically.
A deeper dive into Morris’ game, though, reveals that he is more than just a satisfactory piece on a Wizards team filled with scoring talent and youthful running power. While Morris’ PER of 13.7 in the regular season and 12.3 in the playoffs indicate a regular power forward doing regular power forward work, one key quantity indicates Morris’ actual value to the Wizards: 3.9 fouls per 36 minutes. Yes, Morris hacking, bashing, pushing, shoving, talking, yelling, and throwing (ask Al Horford about throwing) is why Wall wants Morris to run with him in D.C.
While Wall (1.9 fouls per 36 minutes), Bradley Beal (2.3), Otto Porter (2.7), and Marcin Gortat (3.0) were putting together a historical offensive season for the Wizards (111.2 offensive rating, the best mark in Wizards/Bullets history), Morris was fouling at a rate of 3.9 fouls per 36 minutes in the regular season and a whopping 4.4 fouls per 36 minutes in the playoffs. Morris’s career rate is 4.0. Images of Morris getting chippy and edgy in the playoffs (tussling on the ground with Paul Millsap and throwing Horford into the first row of seats) highlight his deviation from the Wizards’ graceful offensive flow. But without Morris, what Wizard is slowing the pace if needed? Without Morris, what Wizard is, according to Paul Millsap, playing MMA if needed? Without Morris, what Wizard initiates the “Death Row D.C.” swagger that wears all black to games if required?
Is overemphasizing Morris’ foul totals foolish? Is claiming Morris’ hacking ability an asset ridiculous? Is defending 4.4 fouls per 36 minutes in the playoffs an indication that Morris is just sloppy? Possibly, but basketball counts fouls, and fouls tend to tell a story of how a player acts physically. Given this, Morris has a better story than anyone on the Wizards.
A few offseason variables have surfaced that may keep Morris out of the lineup for weeks after the regular season begins. Whether his recovery from sports hernia surgery or the stress related to an assault trial in Phoenix dampers Morris’ 2017-2018 season remains to be seen. Wall may not get his satisfactory power forward until November. A good eyeball test will be to see how the likes of Jason Smith, Mike Scott, Chris McCullough, or even Porter fill the power forward role. Don't count on Morris just sitting the beginning of the year out, though. "I will still talk a little s*** to the other team," Morris stated recently after his first post-surgery and trial workout at Capital One Arena. "That's going to be the most important thing, letting those guys know I have their back regardless of whether I'm in the game or not."
During the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, Morris walked into the Cox Pavilion during Wizards’ games as D.C.’s de facto boss (let’s be clear, John Wall is THE boss) watching his potential teammates play. Morris did not sit courtside with the likes of Wall or Beal, but rather discreetly a few rows up in the general admission seats. He signed some autographs for kids, quietly chatted with some passerby NBA players, talked with some friends, and watched some basketball. The Wizards’ summer league roster of players, coaches, staff, and courtside All-Stars did, however, seem to instantly get tougher with Morris in the gym. A satisfactory power forward? Absolutely.