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2016-17 Pistons review: Who’s afraid of Marcus Morris?

Morris fills several important roles for the Pistons, but has this become a stale marriage of convenience?

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Detroit Pistons Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

I’m going to lede into this story in a way I don’t think I ever have before: by explaining the headline.

That probably means it’s a bad headline. A good headline doesn’t need explained. But I like it just the same.

It’s a somewhat obscure reference to Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. And Albee’s title is a pun on the tune Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf, from Disney’s version of Three Little Pigs. Perhaps “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Mook” would be an easier reference to pick up, but that comes with its own cons, such as using a bit player on a bad team’s nickname, even Pistons fans might not be aware of it.

But I think the reference works well with Morris on a few different levels. First, who is really afraid of Marcus Morris? Is anyone? Morris started each of the 79 games he played this season for the Pistons, started all 80 of the games he played for them last season. Is there a more underwhelming player who is so entrenched in the starting role in the league? Andrew Wiggins is the only player in the league who has started so many games over the past two seasons with fewer win shares to show for it.

Deeper though, I think the reference to the play works. Albee’s script tells the story of two folks in a marriage of convenience, much like Morris and Stan Van Gundy. On the Pistons, Morris has the first steady residence and role of his career. Morris is competent and cheaply paid, which is convenient for SVG. But convenience doesn’t always make for a good marriage.

Like in the play, the couple is thoroughly entrenched with each other and marriage has evolved (or perhaps more accurately, devolved) into one of playing bits. Sometimes it’s charming. Overall it’s destructive.

Morris plays the bit of the isolation guy who bails out the offense. While at times it drones on to the point of weariness, it’s actually a plus for Morris and the Pistons. He finished the season 17th in the league in field goal attempts off of isolations and in the 90th percentile. Only two of those players with a higher volume was as effective as Morris.

He was also effective in the catch and shoot, making 37.6 percent of his three point shots off the pass. Overall, his effective field goal percentage in catch and shoot spots was 55.1 percent.

Which leads me to wonder, how the hell did he wind up with a true shooting percentage of 50.8 percent? Between isolations and catch and shoot jumpers, what else does he really do that drags his efficiency down so much? And how did he manage a negative net rating and poor win shares figures? If he does what he’s supposed to do so well, why weren’t his overall results better?

Morris is a sneakily high volume shooter. And most of those other shots outside of those situations are extremely ineffective. He finished with 10 or more shot attempts in 64 of his 79 games. He finished with a true shooting percentage of 50 percent or less in the majority of them. By the time the season ended, he was second on the team in shot attempts. If the trivia question of “Who was second on the team in shot attempts this season?” came up before I had a chance to check it, Morris would likely have been my fifth guess behind Tobias Harris, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, or Andre Drummond.

Morris had the second lowest true shooting percentage in the league of any player with more than 1,000 field goal attempts. The Pistons had the lowest true shooting percentage of the league. Clearly, Morris is a significant contributor to that.

It also bears mentioning that Morris was perhaps the Pistons’ most effective defensive player from the wing. He held opponents to 41.9 percent on their shots, 4.1 percent below their averages.

While the emotional leader for the Pistons, that came out in ways both positive and negative this year. He was the ringleader and loudest voice after a team meeting when Reggie Jackson returned from injury, which had the stink of positioning Jackson as the scapegoat and that the rest of the team wouldn’t play defense if they weren’t getting their shots. They followed that team meeting by going 1-5 over the next stretch. Perhaps the message wasn’t really on point.

But there were also times like when the Pistons came out weak against the Cleveland Cavs late in the season, opening the game with a 27-12 deficit. Before Van Gundy could unload on the players, Morris stepped in with an “I got this” and chewed into them with an expletive-laced tirade that both prompted a comeback and for Tobias Harris to take Mook to church with him the next Sunday.

There’s another reference to the play that came from some long-time friends, a band called Murder by Death who had a song back in the day called I’m Afraid of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. The idea that being stuck in a stale marriage of convenience is rather terrifying. We may be getting to that point with Morris.

He remains a value contract who brings some good things to the table. He’s an emotional player for a team that can have a tendency to listlessness. But he’s also an inefficient player for an inefficient team who looks to play a key role for the foreseeable future. Heir apparent to the job Stanley Johnson still looks far from ready to even push Morris into fewer minutes. Nothing seems ripe for a change in a situation that would likely benefit from a change.

My lede from Marcus Morris’ season preview two years ago before he started with the Pistons was “Who is Marcus Morris?” Is he the guy who can thrive in the right role, being held to his strengths? Or one who is just a net negative player.

5,421 minutes played later, heck if I know.