Monte Morris Is the Nuggets’ Unsung Hero

With Jamal Murray down, the Nuggets need their four-year floor general to expand his game in ways he hasn't before.
Author:
Updated:
Original:

Welcome to the Morning Shootaround, where every weekday you’ll get a fresh, topical column from one of SI.com’s NBA writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.

When Jamal Murray tore his ACL in April, Nuggets head coach Michael Malone delivered an obvious yet daunting message to his team: There wasn’t one person in Denver’s locker room who could step up and duplicate their fallen star’s production. Nobody should even try.

Instead, the Nuggets’ goal had to be for every man to become a better version of themselves. “You don't have to have an out-of-body experience,” Nuggets associate head coach Wes Unseld Jr. told me. “But you have to be more locked into every possession.”

It was a painful truth, but so far Denver has fared as well as any similarly impaired group possibly could. The Celtics were ransacked without Jaylen Brown. The Lakers fell out of contention when Anthony Davis strained his groin. The Jazz lost their first playoff game without Donovan Mitchell. The Suns did not look like a title contender when Chris Paul initially hurt his shoulder. Good players matter.

Unsurprisingly, pretty much every team (except the Nets, who own the safest insurance policy in the league) isn’t built to survive without one of their two best players. The Nuggets, with a roster full of second-round picks and offbeat prospects who are used to being underappreciated, doubted and overlooked (most notably NBA MVP Nikola Jokić), have been an exception.

It’s a group effort, with myriad contributions coming all over the place. But at the same time, whenever someone of Murray’s expertise goes down, there must be a literal “next man up,” if not nominally in the starting lineup, then a plug into a positional void, with expanded duties and a lot more minutes. Right now that person is Monte Morris, the 2017 draft’s 51st pick—selected right behind Mathias Lessort and (fellow Nugget) Vlatko Čančar—who rose from a two-way contract and rookie year spent in the G League to become an important part of Denver’s core.

Morris has come to embody the selfless, team-first ethos that helped carry this team to a third seed and the Western Conference semifinals. He was inserted into the Nuggets’ starting lineup after Murray went down, but he strained his hamstring a few days later and was sidelined for about a month. Morris didn’t return to the court until there was about a week left in the regular season, all but forcing Malone to roll with Austin Rivers and Facu Campazzo as his starting playoff backcourt.

There have been internal discussions and debates over the past few weeks about promoting Morris, but Denver’s coaches still prefer his punch as a Sixth Man and how he organizes non-Jokić units. Adjustments are always possible in a playoff series that’s dictated by matchups, who’s playing well and who’s struggling, but from Morris’s point of view there’s no need to change the rotation for the sake of making a change. “I’m not too concerned about starting games as long as I’m finishing them,” Morris told me. “Coach knows that.”

But more important than when Morris plays is who he is in the extra minutes Malone gives him. Already one of the NBA’s surest hands, the Nuggets suddenly need a slightly more audacious version of their backup point guard; against the Blazers in Round 1, that’s exactly what they got when they needed it most. Morris shrugged off his long-held reputation as a caretaker and averaged career-highs in points (15.3, third on the team) and assists (5.8, more than any other Nugget, including Jokić) per game. He logged eight more minutes than in last year’s playoffs, and posted a usage rate that was higher than Michael Porter Jr.’s.

“It’s not nothing new for me,” Morris says. “It’s just, like, I never was asked to do that on this Nuggets team because it was always so deep. So I never just had to go out there and just be ultra-aggressive. I was just doing what the game told me to do. But now they need my scoring.”

monte-morris-nuggets-suns

Overall, Morris has struggled to finish around the basket and maintain his usual efficiency—a byproduct of his swelling independence and the lingering effect of missed time due to that hamstring injury. Before this postseason, at least 50% of all Morris’s shots were assisted. In these playoffs that number has dropped to 34%. (In the bubble, a whopping 46% of all his midrange shots were assisted; in this postseason it’s, um, 0%.)

“Monte is a true point guard,” Jokić said on Saturday. “He didn’t play like that the last couple games. We really needed for him to score and he accepted the role. He was attacking the basket. He was making big shots. He is someone who is not going to make the same mistakes twice.”

NBA veteran Garrett Temple once said those who aspire to carve out a lengthy NBA career should “have a mindset like Monte Morris,” a testament to his calm demeanor and ungrudging capacity to organize sets when others in a similar spot might seek to better their stats.

Coming into these playoffs, Morris was best known as an assist-to-turnover lord, finishing top five in that category every year since he’s been in Denver’s rotation, after towering over the stat during his entire college career. The patience required to be that consistent was honed by a philosophy Morris’s high school coach used to preach. “Steak and potatoes,” Morris says. “You don’t need none of that razzle-dazzle, that dessert. Just keep it simple, plain. That’ll always fill you up at the end of the day.”

And when he was a 120-pound freshman in Flint, Mich., Morris’s mother, Latonia, once saw an older player pick his pocket. She asked why he didn’t protect the ball like it was her purse, something she knew he wouldn’t let anyone steal. “She always been on me about that,” he says. “It’s always in the back of my mind, like, I don’t want nobody just taking my mom’s purse out my hands.”

Latonia coached high school basketball, and instead of passively watching her son’s games, she texts mini scouting reports and live reactions to the action as it unfolds. That includes the best performance of his career, a critical 28-point flex on June 1st that was understandably overshadowed by Damian Lillard’s holy 55-point eruption. Two days later, Morris tallied 22 points and nine dimes as Denver closed the series out in Portland. “Game 6 was a thing of beauty down the stretch,” Malone says. “He made the right play, time and time again.”

That night Latonia sent her son heart emojis, words of encouragement and tactical advice for him to absorb when he checked his phone at halftime. “Bad call, you were shooting,” reads one text after he drew a foul on Carmelo Anthony. Eight minutes later: “Passing great but they need you to score.” Then, “Team calm when you in.” And when the win was in hand: “We got ice in our veins.”

After the series, Morris’s agent, Octagon’s Ron Shade, joked with Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly about how they might have to renegotiate Monte’s contract extension after his performances in Games 5 and 6. Connelly laughed, then said he thought the same thing after the series’ first few games, when Morris struggled to find his footing.

Morris had an opportunity to test unrestricted free agency this summer, but instead he agreed to a three-year, $27 million deal with the Nuggets last December. The pact doesn’t alleviate all the pressure that’s associated with playoff basketball, especially for a role player who has a chance to alter how he’s perceived on a team that can still reach the NBA Finals. But that security doesn’t hurt, either. Before this season began, “Monte was like ‘Look, I don't mind waiting, but will I be nervous, and will I be afraid of injury, and will that play in my mindset a little bit? Possibly,’ ” Shade says.

monte-morris-nuggets-blazers

Morris can’t demoralize a defense like Murray does, but in the first round he responded to new challenges in his own way, repeatedly attacking a Blazers defense that planted larger bodies like Robert Covington and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson on him so they could switch ball screens without creating too detrimental of a mismatch against Jokić.

“It's tough to orchestrate single-side tags and orchestrate any movement against a team that switches,” Unseld says. “So there are times where you’re gonna have to put your head down and attack the switch; make them pay if they want to keep a big out on the floor and try to guard you.”

Morris did just that in the series’ final two games. It was a long way from his first playoff experience two years ago, an experience he still remembers vividly, especially the goose egg three-point percentage that inspired literal nightmares. (Off the top of his head Morris can tell you exactly how many threes he missed against the Spurs and Blazers before the Nuggets were eliminated in the second round.)

“I just didn’t elevate my game how I was supposed to,” he says. “I didn’t know what to expect, like, the physical play got to me. I was rushing things instead of just letting the game come to me.” Last year, inside the bubble, relief washed over Morris when his first three dropped in Game 1 of Denver’s series against the Jazz.

When he missed all of his threes in the first two games of these playoffs, Morris “was feeling like, ‘F---, what if this same thing happens again?’ ” he asks. “But obviously it didn’t.” (Morris drilled 41.7% of his threes in the first round and excelled as Jokić’s primary pick-and-roll partner.)

After the series, he texted Shade a padlock emoji, the symbol they regularly exchange after big games. “I'm f------ locked now,” Morris told him. “They f----- up.”

Game 1 against the Suns was a different story. Morris finished 1-for-10 from the floor and missed all four of his threes. The unusual off night wouldn’t have been so significant had the Nuggets been healthy, with Murray, Will Barton and even PJ Dozier able to spruce the offense with other options. But without those weapons, Morris’s playmaking (he finished with six assists and zero turnovers in 23 minutes) wasn’t enough. His points are a prerequisite for their success right now. For however long they stay alive, Morris is Denver’s mini-barometer; it didn’t feel at all like a coincidence that one of his worst shooting nights came in a blowout loss.

To reach the conference finals in back-to-back seasons, the Nuggets are itching for Morris to function as more than the assured stabilizer he’s always been. Against Phoenix, he’ll have to consistently steer downhill, draw help, hit outside shots and pull-up jumpers, and take full advantage of the galaxy-collapsing gravity that Jokić provides.

Safe, predictable decision-making has long been appreciated as a calling card for backup point guards to contribute without doing more harm than good. But in the fireplace of a tight playoff series, bold thinking that toes the line of recklessness can be beneficial. It’s essential for Morris to rebalance his feed: eat ratio without losing sight of the fundamental traits that make him so valuable in the first place. It’s a lot to ask, but Morris is confident in his ability to lead, knowing one of the most talented teammates he’s ever had won’t be available for quite some time.

“I’m looking to be in attack mode as opposed to sometimes coming out, feeling the game, getting into the flow,” Morris says. “It’s a bigger stage and obviously there’s more eyes watching, so I’m here. I’m all for it.”

More NBA Playoffs Coverage:
Could This Finally Be the Clippers' Year?
Simmons and Young Couldn't Be More Different
Would Anything Be Surprising at This Point in the NBA Playoffs?