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Monte Morris plays it safe – to Nuggets’ delight

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DETROIT – Monte Morris entered the NBA inauspiciously.

Despite looking like a borderline first-round pick after his junior year, Morris returned to Iowa State for his senior season. He pulled his quad during the pre-draft process in 2017, missing most of his scheduled workouts. He fell to the No. 51 pick. The Nuggets offered just a two-year, two-way contract.

“I was excited,” said Morris, a Flint, Mich., native. “Where I come from, if you get a chance to get to this level, everybody back home looks at you as the hero. So, I was just happy for my opportunity.”

Morris has seized it.

With Isaiah Thomas sidelined most of the season, Morris has emerged as a quality contributor in Denver. Morris deserves strong consideration for spots on Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player ballots. And this could be just the start.

The knock on Morris has long been his ceiling. The 6-foot-3, 175-pound point guard is neither big nor overly athletic. In four years at Iowa State, he developed a reputation for protecting the ball and taking what defenses gave him. Usually, future NBA point guards bend the game more at that level. They use their burst and/or shooting to dictate terms to the defense. Morris left many scouts believing he’d be a career backup in the NBA – at best.

Morris has improved his outside shooting, making 43.1% of his 3-pointers on 2.8 attempts per game this season. But he’s mostly playing the same style he always has, avoiding bad shots and turnovers. It has just translated far better than expected.

Morris’ 6.4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio is on pace to be the best in NBA history. Here are the highest assist-to-turnover ratios since 1977-78, as far back as Basketball-Reference data goes (assists and turnovers per game in parentheses):

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Morris has gone 127 minutes since his last turnover.

“As a coach, that’s what you want in a point guard,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “He’s a throwback.”

Morris is averaging 10.8 points per game, and he competes defensively. Few reserves have produced like him this season.

Montrezl Harrell and Domantas Sabonis are pulling away from the field in the Sixth Man of the Year race. But the ballot runs three deep, and Morris ranks third among Sixth Man of the Year-eligible players in win shares:

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Not bad for someone who spent most of last season in the NBA’s minor league.

Morris played well there, and he has only continued to improve since. He impressed so much in summer league, Denver signed him to a standard contract a year before his two-way deal would have ended. That way, the Nuggets could use Morris more than the 45-day limit for two-way players within the season.

“He embodied who we want to be,” Malone said. “He embodied our culture. Self-motivated. And every time you gave Monte Morris a challenge, he met it head on.”

Judging Morris’ improvement can be tricky. He played just 25 minutes in three NBA games last season. I suspect he could have handled a bigger role, even as a rookie. But there’s a certain amount of guesswork there. (Not so for my Most Improved Player favorite, Kings point guard De'Aaron Fox, who was demonstrably bad last season then has become a near-star this season).

Undeniably, Morris’ impact this season is far greater than ever before.

Here are the biggest increases in win shares (middle) from a prior career high (left) to the current season (right):

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Everything is trending the right direction for Morris. He’s showing the fruits of his work ethic, and he’s just 23. Maybe we can finally view him as someone with upside. But even if this is his ceiling, it’s high enough. Morris is already a productive NBA rotation player.

Perhaps best of all for the Nuggets, Morris is on just a minimum contract.

Here are this season’s win-share leaders among minimum-contract players:*

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*Excluding players who were bought out or just waived in-season then signed elsewhere for the minimum. Excluding players on rookie-scale contracts who had their salaries increased to the minimum by the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Of the 15 minimum-salary players on that leaderboard, only two have contracts that won’t allow them to enter free agency and pursue raises this summer. Spencer Dinwiddie signed a three-year, $34,360,473 extension in December, which he deemed even better than hitting the open market. Morris has two (!) additional minimum-salary seasons on his deal.

By getting him onto a two-year, two-way deal initially, Denver gained immense leverage in negotiations last summer. Morris could have played out his two-way deal and become a restricted free agent next summer. Instead, he took the safe approach with a three-year contract that guaranteed two seasons at the NBA minimum and included a third unguaranteed minimum season.

It’s incredible value for the Nuggets… and delays Morris getting a payday commensurate with his production. But he’s maintaining the same steady approach he shows on the court.

“It’s cool,” Morris said. “I’ve just got to keep being Monte, keep being on-time, keep being a good person, and everything will take care of itself.”

Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert: ‘I think Kyrie will leave Boston’

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Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert said his team “killed it” in the Kyrie Irving trade.

One of Gilbert’s justifications stood out.

Gilbert, via Terry Pluto of The Plain Dealer:

“I don’t know, but I think Kyrie will leave Boston,” said Gilbert.

The league’s enforcement of tampering is so arbitrary. I have a general rule against predicting when the NBA will punish someone for tampering.

I’m breaking it here. This has to be tampering.

Irving is under contract with the Celtics until July 1. A rival owner is publicly predicting Irving will leave. This is the essence of tampering – a member of another team interfering in a team’s contractual relationship with a player. And owners get even less leeway.

Maybe Irving will leave Boston. But it’s wild Gilbert said this publicly.

Pacers’ Myles Turner says it’s “blatant disrespect” he didn’t make All-Defensive Team

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The NBA’s All-Defensive Teams were announced on Wednesday. When it came to the center position, Utah’s Rudy Gobert was named to the first team, and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid the second team.

That left Indiana’s Myles Turner, the league’s leader in total blocked shots last season, off the list. He took to Twitter to vent about that.

His teammates and GM had his back.

The NBA puts players, and by extension voters (selected members of the media), in a box by the use of rigid positions for this award. In an increasingly positionless league, voters for the All-Defensive Teams have to choose two guards, two forwards, and one center for each of the First and Second teams. It’s unlike All-Star voting, for example, where two backcourt and three frontcourt players are chosen, which allows some flexibility. In the attempt to make the All-Defensive Teams (and, also, All-NBA Teams) look like the kind of lineups teams would put on the floor 25 years ago, voters are limited.

Because of that format, Turner got squeezed out. (Note: In an effort at transparency, that includes on my ballot for these awards.)

Two centers only. Gobert is the defending — and soon likely two-time — Defensive Player of the Year, and is the anchor of a great Utah defense. Embiid’s impact on the defensive end is critical for Philadelphia, something evident in the Sixers second-round playoff series against Toronto when he was +90 in a series the Sixers lost (voting took place before the playoffs, but Philadelphia’s defense was 5.8 points per 100 possessions better with Embiid during the season, Indiana was 1.2 better with Turner).

There were three deserving centers — Turner was fantastic this season, he made a huge leap and anchored the NBA’s third-best defense — but two spots and no flexibility. So when the music stopped, Turner was the guy standing without a chair. It sucks, but that’s the way it went.

Turner will use this as motivation for next year. Keep playing like he did last year and his time will come.

Cavs owner Dan Gilbert on Kyrie Irving trade: “We killed it in that trade”

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The Cleveland Cavaliers had no choice but to trade Kyrie Irving back in 2017. Irving asked to be moved, and if he hadn’t been there were threats of knee surgery that would have sidelined him much or all of the next season (he didn’t get that surgery, but then missed the 2018 NBA playoffs due to those knee issues).

The trade they took was with Boston: Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, a 2018 1st round draft pick (which became Collin Sexton) and eventually a 2020 2nd round pick. At the time that didn’t seem bad because we didn’t yet grasp the severity of Thomas’s hip surgery — but the Celtics did. Once Cleveland’s doctors got a look at Thomas the trade was put on hold until more compensation was added, which proved to be the second-round pick.

Looking back now, the Cavaliers didn’t fare well, with all due respect to Sexton (who made the All-Rookie second team). Although that’s to be expected, nobody gets equal value back when trading a superstar.

That’s not how Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert sees it, speaking to the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

“I don’t know, but I think Kyrie will leave Boston,” said Gilbert. “We could have ended up with nothing. Looking back after all the moves Koby made, we killed it in that trade.”

“Killed it?” I didn’t think the kind of stuff Gilbert must be on was legalized in Ohio yet.

This is a matter of semantics. Was it about as good a deal as GM Koby Altman was going to find at the time? Yes. Again, at the time we thought Thomas would return midway through the next season and be closer to the guy who was fifth in MVP voting the season before than the guy we ended up seeing (which is still a sad story, hopefully Thomas can get back to being a contributor next season somewhere). Crowder was in the rotation on a team that went back to the NBA Finals. Sexton showed some promise as a rookie, maybe not as much as some Cavaliers fans think but he can play.

But “killed it?” To quote the great Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Mike Budenholzer no fan of Drake’s free run on Toronto sideline

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Drake is the Mayor of Toronto.

Actually, he does fewer drugs than some former mayors of Toronto, and Drake was not elected, but he’s The Mayor in any meaningful way. The man can do whatever he wants.

Such as walk up and down the sidelines of a Raptors game with impunity, and give Nick Nurse a massage during the game.

Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer has much bigger things to worry about — such as were Eric Bledsoe misplaced his shot — but somehow during his conference call with the media on Wednesday, before a critical Game 5, Drake was the topic of discussion. Budenholzer is not a fan of Drake getting to patrol the sidelines. Via ESPN:

“I will say, again, I see [Drake talking to Raptors] in some timeouts, but I don’t know of any person that’s attending the game that isn’t a participant in the game a coach,  I’m sorry, a player or a coach, that has access to the court. I don’t know how much he’s on the court. It sounds like you guys are saying it’s more than I realize. There’s certainly no place for fans and, you know, whatever it is exactly that Drake is for the Toronto Raptors. You know, to be on the court, there’s boundaries and lines for a reason, and like I said, the league is usually pretty good at being on top of stuff like that.”

Drake responded on Instagram, first with a post that had a series of emojies, and then during an Instagram Live post where he liked a comment to his post where part of it was: “If you don’t want the opposing team to celebrate and dance, prevent them from scoring, winning, or achieving their objective.”

My guess is the league (and maybe the referees before Game 6 in Toronto) will reach out to Drake and tell him he can’t go Joe Biden on a coach during the game, and to stay near his seat. This is precisely the kind of distraction from the game that fans love to talk about and annoys the league office, which wants the focus on the court.

Personally, the more personality around the game, the better. It’s entertainment people, enjoy the show.