Despite a rough stretch of road games that included four losses and only one win, the Phoenix Suns, at 22-16, are still one of the league's most impressive stories.
A lot of the team's success is owed to the starters, such as Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe and Miles Plumlee.
But off the bench, nobody else has been quite as surprising as third-year twins Marcus and Markieff Morris. Both players were criticized for a plethora of reasons by Suns fans at the end of last season, and it seemed as if the twins might not have a long-term future with Phoenix.
Now, however, as both players are having career-best seasons, it is hard to imagine that either one will be dealt in the near future. Though the Morris twins are not franchise cornerstones, they have established themselves as valuable role players, which is something that every team must have.
There is still plenty of room for improvement from both players. But it is difficult to complain about their increased production in virtually every major statistical category.
Evolution of Two Twins
Let's start with the evolution of Marcus Morris.
When Marcus arrived in Phoenix last season, he struggled. Despite some early success with the Houston Rockets, the 6'9" forward shot just 41 percent from the field in 23 games with the Suns. And by the end of the season, head coach Lindsey Hunter barely played Marcus at all.
This year, the 14th overall pick of the 2011 draft has looked like a completely different player. In 22.7 minutes per game off the bench, Morris is averaging 10.1 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.0 steals per game.
Perhaps most encouraging about Marcus is that his shooting stroke appears to be back. Marcus has connected on 51-of-134 three-point attempts this season (38.1 percent), making him one of the team's greatest sharpshooters.
And on top of that, he is rebounding at a career-high rate, grabbing 7.0 rebounds per 36 minutes and posting a total rebound rate of 10.6 percent. For a 6'9" tweener, those numbers are clearly not amazing. But even so, they do show some slight development and improvement in rebounding.
And what about Markieff Morris?
The truth is, many Suns fans seemed ready to give up on the Kansas alum before the season started. Despite a good stretch of games to end the 2012-13 season, Markieff's production remained fairly stagnant over his rookie and sophomore seasons.
On the other hand, it would be difficult to argue that Markieff is not a changed man now. He is averaging 11.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 0.9 steals per game while shooting a career-high 47 percent from the field. He even won Western Conference Player of the Week honors early in the season, an incredible achievement for a bench player.
What is it that we can attribute most to Markieff's success?
He isn't settling for the same three-point shots that he took in his first two seasons.
In his rookie year, 28 percent of Markieff's shot attempts were from behind the three-point line. And despite such a high frequency, he shot 35 percent from downtown, which is certainly solid for a big man but not spectacular.
The next season we saw much of the same, though Markieff's three-point attempt rate went down to 21 percent.
This year, only 11 percent of his shots have come from deep.
The result? A much higher field-goal percentage. While Markieff still does not attack the basket as much as most other power forwards, his field-goal percentage rose significantly as soon as he stopped taking threes.
Just look at the graph below showing the correlation between three-point attempt rate and field-goal percentage.
But as great as it is that Markieff has stopped settling for three-pointers, it does not mean that the twins are attacking the basket at a frequent rate.
Both are still settling for shots on many offensive possessions. The only difference is, instead of threes, they shoot long two-point attempts, often with a man in their face contesting the shot.
Right now, Markieff takes 3.8 mid-range jumpers per game, whereas Marcus attempts 2.7. That may not seem like a lot, but compare it to other players around the league. Markieff takes as many mid-range jumpers per game as LeBron James and Josh Smith, two star players who both receive at least 10 more minutes per game. And Marcus is shooting as many mid-range shots as starters such as Jeff Green, Thaddeus Young, Nicolas Batum and David Lee.
In the age of advanced statistics and analysis in the NBA, most people would tell you that those are inefficient, harmful shots to take so often.
Head coach Jeff Hornacek seems to disagree. In an article written by Matt Moore of CBS Sports, Hornacek reveals his opinion of the mid-range jump shot:
When you get in the playoffs, those are the shots you get because the defenses are so locked in, and you know how everyone plays, that those are the shots that come available, those 18-foot mid-range jump shots. And that's when you gotta make them. And if you haven't taken them all year long and then you're in the playoffs and you gotta make them, how's that going to work?
Hornacek certainly has a point. In the NBA today, more coaches are encouraging their players to shoot fewer mid-range shots while taking more shots both beyond the perimeter and inside the paint.
So in clutch moments during games—and especially during the playoffs—defenses may try to force the offense into taking long twos.
By that theory, Markieff and Marcus Morris, who shoot from a generally inefficient zone with above-average efficiency, should become more valuable in the playoffs. After all, other forwards such as LaMarcus Aldridge and Dirk Nowitzki have become famous for their ability to make mid-range shots.
But I also had to put Hornacek's theory to the test. I looked at the amount of mid-range shots taken by playoffs teams, both in the regular season and in the playoffs, for the past five years (from NBA.com/stats). This was to see if active defenses truly forced opponents to take more 18-footers, as Hornacek suggested.
The graph shows no obvious correlation between taking mid-range shots in the regular season as opposed to taking those shots in the playoffs.
And there was only one year on the graph (2012-13) in which teams actually took more mid-range shots on average. Even then, it was a very small difference.
This does not mean that coach Hornacek makes a poor point. It is important to have efficient mid-range shooters when an active defense is preventing the team from getting good looks in other areas.
However, one might also expect one of the greatest mid-range shooters of all time to defend his own style of play.
Furthermore, while the twins are solid from mid-range, it never hurts to learn to attack the basket more frequently and find high-percentage shots—especially when the statistics do not prove that mid-range shooters are much more valuable in the playoffs.
If there is another trait about the Morris twins that must immediately be addressed, it is temper.
Marcus has three technical fouls, which is tied for 25th in the league. Again, that's a poor rate for a player who isn't even a starter.
Two games ago against the New York Knicks, Markieff was ejected in the early second quarter after picking up two technical fouls. One was for arguing a call, and the other for a small conflict with J.R. Smith. Considering that the Suns only lost that game by two points, perhaps Markieff's play down the stretch could have helped them earn a win.
Then, against the Los Angeles Lakers, Marcus Morris was fined and given a technical foul after shoving Nick Young in the second quarter.
This type of behavior cannot continue to be tolerated. The two twins have already combined for 11 technical fouls this season, and Markieff was even suspended. There may be more suspensions for him in the future if he reaches the season limit.
Both Marcus and Markieff have obviously improved this season, but there's also a question of how much they will continue to develop.
The truth is, though both have shown flashes of brilliance, neither one is consistent enough to be considered a future All-Star.
But what about a starter? The Suns have experimented with starting Markieff in the past, and he wasn't disappointing. However, the current starting lineup with Channing Frye at power forward provides better spacing and three-point shooting.
As Frye is a veteran who will begin to regress, there is a chance that Markieff could take his starting spot eventually. However, it is very unlikely that he will be the starting power forward of the future. If the Suns want to contend for a championship, they must make finding stars at the forward positions a priority. Although the Morris twins are still growing, neither one is a star.
Marcus Morris is also at a disadvantage because he is a tweener. His rebounding and post defense are below average for a power forward, and yet he is still slower than a lot of starting power forwards. Do not expect him to enter the starting lineup in the near future either.
But even if the Morris twins aren't starters on a contending team, both could be fantastic role players or sixth men. If they would only become more consistent, a second unit led by the Morris twins would be one of the most dangerous in the league.
A Package Deal?
The Morris twins are very lucky to be playing together in the NBA. It is something that only one other pair of twins, Dick and Tom Van Arsdale, has done.
As great as it is to see two brothers playing together, the NBA is still a business. Though the Suns may keep the Morris twins together for now, it is hard to imagine that both will stay together for their entire careers.
With that being said, if the Suns were put in a position where they had to prioritize one over the other, who do they choose?
Again, it's a tough decision. Though they look the same, both twins bring something different to the table. Markieff is capable of playing power forward or center, and is a superior rebounder and low-post scorer. Marcus, on the other hand, is a small forward/power forward tweener who spends more of his time launching three-point shots than he does attacking the basket.
Right now, both brothers are about equal. Though Markieff has had a slightly more successful season, there is no point in trading either one unless it is a package for a star player.
In the future, however, watch the twins closely. As they continue to develop, one may clearly become more valuable than the other. And that is when the trade rumors could begin.
All stats courtesy of NBA.com or Basketball-Reference.com, unless otherwise noted.