When the NBA’s free agency frenzy opened in July of 2015, names like DeMarre Carroll and Danny Green were frequently floated as Detroit targets. With a roster virtually devoid of talent at small forward (save for 19-year-old rookie Stanley Johnson), filling that gaping hole was job one for Jeff Bower and Stan Van Gundy. When Carroll accepted a $60 million offer from Toronto, and Green gave San Antonio a hometown discount of $40 million, it looked like the Pistons would have to go shopping at the bargain basement store.
Instead, in an unexpected development, Detroit was offered three candidates at once by Phoenix, which was trying to clear cap space so they could sign LaMarcus Aldridge. For the mere pittance of a second round pick, Reggie Bullock, Danny Granger and Marcus Morris became the newest Pistons. Of those three, Morris was the main target. A four-year veteran and former first round pick (14th overall) by Houston, he was quickly penciled in as the new starter.
2015-16 Year in Review
While no one could complain about the price the Pistons paid for Morris, there were plenty of questions about how acceptable he was as a solution. After a revolving door at small forward in 2014-15, stability was an obvious goal. But there were good reasons to wonder if Morris himself was stable enough to meet that need. Upset about being sundered from his twin brother Markieff, with an assault charge hanging over his head and a reputation for being hot-tempered, "Mook" might have sulked most of the season in Detroit as Markieff apparently did in Phoenix.
Instead, Morris was a model citizen in the Motor City, and became one of the team’s most dependable performers. He logged more minutes than any other Piston, and his average of 35.7 mpg was second only to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. While he frequently went to the bench early in the first quarter for sixth man Johnson, this was mainly so he could return earlier in the second quarter to exert a stabilizing influence for the second team.
A look at the stats shows that Morris’ performance was in line with his career averages. Per36, he has been good for 14.7 ppg and 6.0 rpg. He gave Detroit 14.1 ppg and 5.1 rpg last year. He shot .362 from three; his career average is .363. What those numbers do not reveal is how his performance after the All-Star Break helped spark the Pistons’ offense. Making only .309 of 3.4 threes in his first 53 games, he shot a sizzling .444 on 4.3 attempts in his last 27 outings.
Morris was an even more effective weapon in the playoff series versus Cleveland, averaging a team high 17.8 ppg on 11.8 shots – the same number he took during the regular season. This increased output was due to him shooting .389 on three-pointers and converting .870 on 5.8 trips to the foul line per game.
2016-17 Projected Production
Detroit should have a stronger bench unit this season, and second-year-pro Johnson is expected to press for more minutes. So it’s certainly possible that Morris will see some decrease in his court time. But as the oldest returning starter (he turned 27 last month), Van Gundy is hoping that the former Kansas Jayhawk will step into a larger leadership role. According to his head coach, Morris has earned the right to lead:
"He’s universally respected on his team. You talk to our guys and ask ’em about leaders and guys they look up to and his name will come up as the first name from a lot of ’em. One of the things I’ve said to him is that he needs to use that and take on more of a leadership role. He’s already earned the respect and that’s step one. But he’s not a naturally vocal guy – and that’s fine; there’s other ways to do it – but he needs to really embrace that role."
Morris has also acknowledged the increased responsibility that now rests on him:
"It’s something that I have to fill. Coach sat me down and told me that’s what I need to do, so it’s not even a question. That’s what I’m going to do. That’s what I have to do and that’s what I need to do for the team to be better."
This season Van Gundy plans for Morris and Tobias Harris to be essentially "interchangeable" at the forward positions, able to adapt to whatever will be the best match-up on either offense or defense. Pistons’ fans can hope that this tandem will be as effective together in 2016-17 as they were after the All Star Break.
While he has missed three preseason contests due to some tendinitis in his knee, Morris practiced Tuesday and was returned to action in Wednesday’s game versus Toronto. While his starting job could be challenged in time by Johnson, Jon Leuer or rookie Henry Ellenson, expect him to hold on to it this season and make modest improvements in his overall efficiency as he takes on the mantle of leadership.
33 minutes per game, 15 points per game, 5 rebounds per game, 2 threes per game, 37% three point percentage.