The Phoenix Suns were full of pleasant surprises last year, not the least of which being that they were actually competitive and good at basketball. Most NBA pundits had them pegged for the bottom of the Western Conference barrel, but the Suns obviously missed the memo, going 48-34 and only barely missing the playoffs.
They got as far as they did by having practically every player in their main rotation put up a career year in the same season (of the nine players who played more than 1,000 minutes for the Suns last year, Channing Frye was the only one not to post career highs in win shares and win shares per 48 minutes). Just last summer it seemed like Phoenix was in for a long rebuild, now they’re seemingly too close to being great to turn back.
In an attempt to keep on the upward trajectory, the Suns sign-and-traded for the constantly underrated and under-appreciated Isaiah Thomas this summer to complete a three-headed point guard monster of Thomas, All-NBAer Goran Dragic, and budding star Eric Bledsoe. While that move certainly gives the Suns a formidable backcourt, their admittedly weak frontcourt got even weaker with the loss of Frye to the Magic in free agency.
That’s why a lot of the team’s success next season will lie on the shoulders of Markieff Morris.
Morris’ first two seasons in Phoenix were hardly noteworthy, as he played around 20 minutes per game, shot roughly 40% from the floor and averaged close to 8 points per contest in both. Last year, however, ‘Kieff broke out and finished fourth in Sixth Man of the Year voting.
One could even make a case that he probably deserved to win it for being a true sixth man in the purist sense of the term, coming off the bench in every one of his 81 games played. In fact, his 6.4 win shares last year was the 10th highest number ever accumulated by a player in a single season without starting a single game (in case you’re into completely useless trivia). He also had the second-best nERD rating on the Suns, trailing only Dragic.
His averages of 13.8 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 1.8 assists per game and 48.6% shooting from the field last season all represented career highs, coming in a career-best 26.6 minutes per game. With Frye gone, Morris seems more than likely to open the season as the Suns starting power forward, with his twin brother Marcus and newly acquired Anthony Tolliver there to back him up. If Markieff gets a full complement of starter minutes to go with the new job, we can probably expect another leap; especially if his per-36 numbers from last year are any indication of what he can do:
There were only ten players that hit the 18 and 8 mark in the NBA last season in points and rebounds and that list is a who’s who of great power forwards and centers in the league. If Morris gets the minutes and continues to produce at the level he did last season, he’ll have a chance to start sneaking into Most Improved Player conversations as well (an award often swayed by good players getting more minutes).
Still, there are areas where Morris still needs to get better. He’s somewhat of a stretch four (and we all know how important those are nowadays), but not nearly to the level Frye was/is. He’ll also need to work on his rim protection if he has to go up against the LaMarcus Aldridges and Blake Griffins of the Western Conference on a nightly basis.
|2013-14||3PM/36||3PA/36||3P%||Opp FGA at Rim||Opp FG% at Rim
There’s some hope for his three-point shooting to boomerang, as he hit 1.3 threes per 36 minutes at a clip of 34.7% in his rookie season (and 42.4% in his last year at Kansas). He’s shot fewer long balls and at a worse percentage in each subsequent year, but if he’s done it before, you have to believe he could do it again. His percentages from every single other distance from the hoop universally hit career highs last season, so now he just needs to put it all together.
|FG% by Distance (Feet)||0 - 3||3 - 10||10 - 16||16 - 3P line||2P||3P
As for the rim protection, we’ll just have to see. At the very least, the Suns were a better defensive team last year with Morris on the court (103.0 points allowed per 100 possessions) than with him off (104.9). He’s got decent size and a wide base for staying in front of his man, so there’s still reason to think he can improve on that end of the floor with more reps.
It’s hard to imagine any of the eight teams that made the playoffs out west last season falling out of the picture to let the Suns in, but they should still be on track to be better (and there are always unpredictable injuries, trades, breakouts, and meltdowns that lay to waste our initial expectations, anyway). The addition of Isaiah Thomas gives them the best point guard rotation possibly ever and Markieff Morris is in position to alleviate the loss of Channing Frye. Soon to be 25 and going into his fourth season, Markieff could be on the verge of breaking out in an even bigger way than last year.
If he does, it might finally get easier to tell him and his twin brother apart.