The Suddenly Amazing Morris Twins

If the playoffs began today the Phoenix Suns would be the 7th seed in the Western Conference.  And if the Suns were somehow in the Eastern Conference, Phoenix would be the 3rd seed.

Last year the Suns only won 25 games.  So this team has certainly improved.  And of course, we want to know how this happened.

One obvious place is to consider the changes the team made since last year.  This past off-season the Suns made many, many changes.  In fact, only four players who logged minutes for the team this year played for the Suns last year.  Plus the team added a new coach. With all these changes, perhaps it is not surprising that this team has improved.  The question we have is which specific players are responsible for the change?

To answer this question, let’s look at the following table.  This table reports what each  player has done this year (after 21 games, via boxscoregeeks) and what each veteran player did last season.  This examination allows us to do something that I think is quite significant.  The numbers tracked by the NBA allow us to assign responsibility to the individual players for the team outcomes we observe.  In other words, in basketball we can name names.

Suns

Minutes

WP48

12-13

Wins

Projected

WP48

Wins

Difference***

across 82 games

Goran Dragic

629

0.180

2.4

0.198

2.6

1.0

P.J. Tucker

662

0.153

2.1

0.185

2.6

1.7

Marcus Morris

482

-0.021

-0.2

0.197

2.0

8.6

Eric Bledsoe

512

0.155

1.7

0.161

1.7

0.2

Markieff Morris

524

-0.015

-0.2

0.133

1.5

6.3

Channing Frye**

561

0.055

0.6

0.102

1.2

2.1

Miles Plumlee

587

0.019

0.2

0.087

1.1

3.3

Gerald Green

571

0.024

0.3

0.041

0.5

0.8

Dionte Christmas*

95

0.029

0.1

0.029

0.1

0.0

Alex Len*

31

-0.043

0.0

-0.043

0.0

0.0

Viacheslav Kravtsov

26

0.091

0.0

-0.143

-0.1

-0.5

Archie Goodwin*

228

-0.024

-0.1

-0.024

-0.1

0.0

Ishmael Smith

156

-0.022

-0.1

-0.051

-0.2

-0.4

Summation

6.8

12.7

Summation per 82 games

26.5

49.6

23.1

*- Christmas, Len, and Goodwin are rookies, so their numbers are the same in 12-13 and 13-14;**-Channing Frye didn’t play last year, so his 12-13 numbers from 11-12. ***- Difference across 82 games is simply [WINS – WINS Projected] * 82/21.  WP48 12-13 numbers are my own calculation.  WP48 13-14 come from boxscoregeeks.com

The above table suggests three specific storylines.

  • The first story focuses on what we should have expected before the season started.  Specifically, had the veterans the Suns employed last year performed the same this year, this team would be essentially what it was in 2012-13.  In other words, despite all the changes to the roster, we should not have expected a much better team (given the performance of these players last year).
  • Except for Goran Dragic, P.J. Tucker, and the Morris twins (Marcus and Markieff), every other player listed above did not play with the Suns last year.  Of the six veterans added, Eric Bledsoe was expected to be the most important addition.  And his performance is just about as expected.  Of the others, Channing Frye (who was with the Suns in 2011-12 but missed last year due to injury) and Miles Plumlee have improved the most.  But the improvement seen in Frye and Plumlee is only worth 1.4 additional wins after 21 games; and just 5.4 wins across an entire 82 game season.  All of this tells us that the veteran additions are not the primary reason the team has improved.

These two stories point us to the third storyline, a story that gives us the name we were looking for.  And that name is “Morris”.

Prior to this season, the Morris twins (Marcus and Markieff) have each played two years in the NBA.  Not only did each do little last year (as indicated above), both also failed to do much their rookie season.  Here are the career numbers of each player prior to this season:

Markieff Morris: 3,064 minutes played, -1.1 Win Produced, -0.018 WP48

Marcus Morris: 1,650 minutes played, -1.5 Wins Produced, -0.042 WP48

In general, NBA players do not change much from season-to-season. You can see that in the above tables.  For example, Dragic, Tucker, and Bledsoe were above average last year (average WP48 is 0.100) and they are each above average this season.  The remaining veterans were below average last year, and except for Frye (who is just slightly above average), these veterans are below average this year.

The Morris twins, though, were both very poor performers in their first two seasons.  And despite each logging more than 1,000 minutes in the NBA, both have suddenly become above average.  Furthermore, the improvement in their play is the primary reason this team is a playoff contender.  After 21 games, these players are offering 3.6 wins more than you would have expected given their production last year.  And across 82 games, this improvement is worth 14.2 additional wins.

So the Morris twins are the key to the changes we see.  Having named the name, now we need to ask another question: Why are the Morris twins suddenly better?

When we look at the stats this year for Markieff Morris and Marcus Morris (via boxscoregeeks) we can see that each player has improved his shooting efficiency.  And Marcus is grabbing more rebounds.

Okay, but why are these players shooting better (and grabbing more rebounds)?  Well, it could be that 21 games is a small sample and soon these players will return to what we saw in the past.  It could be Jeff Hornacek – the team’s new head coach – has done something previous coaches couldn’t do.  Or it could be the Morris twins just learned how to play in the NBA (something young players tend to do).

Unfortunately, staring at the box score numbers isn’t going to provide the answer to this last question.  The box score numbers allow us to pinpoint the specific players responsible for the changes we observe and tell us what about these players is different.  But why a player is suddenly different… that requires that we go beyond the box score.

And I often conclude our trip beyond the box score doesn’t yield a specific answer.  At this point, any of the reasons cited above could be the key reason the Morris twins are better.  Or something else might be going on.  But I tend to think that given the sample we have so far, it is too early to “know” for certain.

That reality won’t stop people from telling us they do know.  I suspect, though, that many people who think they “know” why the Morris twins are better probably did not know how important these two were to the change in fortunes we see in Phoenix (then again, maybe that isn’t true… after all, what do I “know”?).

- DJ

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