Site Manager Ryan Blackburn is beginning a new offseason series that will post every Monday titled “The Climb” which focuses on the journey of the Denver Nuggets during the Michael Malone era. From how the Nuggets recovered from obscurity to how they win their first championship, this will be an open editorial for the next however many months until the new season begins.
Next up is Monte Morris, the forgotten man of the 2017 NBA Draft.
Sometimes, numbers are funny. Even when they come from a place of distress.
The 2017 NBA Draft was one of those moments for the Denver Nuggets. In a divided draft war room, the decision was made to pass on the 13th pick in the NBA Draft and instead trade down to the 24th pick while adding Trey Lyles from the Utah Jazz. The Jazz selected Donovan Mitchell, who turned into an absolute star almost immediately. The Nuggets had a plan, but that plan was quickly foiled by the Toronto Raptors who selected OG Anunoby — the player the Nuggets had their eye on all along and quickly became a star role player — at 23rd overall. Instead, Denver’s pick at 24 was Tyler Lydon of Syracuse who has played just 96 minutes in the NBA thus far and may never see an NBA floor again.
Basketball Reference has a great 2017 NBA Draft page with data on all 60 draft picks that can be sorted in different ways. When sorting by Win Shares, one of their signature metrics, the normal names rise to the top as the most productive in that category: Jarrett Allen leads the stat as a big man who has racked up minutes and rebounds in his young career.
Here are the Win Shares leaders from the 2017 draft along with their draft pick selection:
- Jarrett Allen - 20.0 win shares (22nd pick in the draft)
- Bam Adebayo - 19.5 (14th)
- Jayson Tatum - 18.9 (3rd)
- John Collins - 16.4 (19th)
- Donovan Mitchell - 15.7 (13th)
- OG Anunoby - 10.7 (23rd)
- Monte Morris - 10.2 (51st)
That’s right. Monte Morris, drafted 51st overall in the 2017 draft, ranks seventh in the draft class in win shares despite playing 25 minutes in his rookie season.
It can be easy to overlook Monte Morris, even as a Denver Nuggets fan, because of how unassuming his game is and how straightforward his contributions can be. He’s as efficient as they come, from his decision making to his movements to his shot selection. Morris entered the Nuggets rotation as one of the best backup point guards right away, dictating the flow of the game and holding serve with his minutes while Denver’s starters rested and recovered. Even when players went down or became ineffective, Morris has always stepped up to fill the void.
As mentioned above, Morris played just 25 minutes in his rookie season. As the 51st overall pick, he wasn’t expected to play but rather spent most of his time in the G League. He was successful at that level, but the Nuggets never fully tested out his NBA readiness because they had other players they needed to worry about. 2015 seventh overall pick Emmanuel Mudiay and 2016 seventh overall pick Jamal Murray filled the majority of the point guard minutes prior to the 2018 NBA trade deadline. When it was clear that Murray was a player the Nuggets needed to keep around but an upgrade was still needed, Denver sent Mudiay to the New York Knicks in a three-team trade that netted Devin Harris from the Dallas Mavericks, Harris was a great player for Morris to watch from afar due to their similar size and play style at the NBA level, and for the remainder of the 2017-18 season, Harris captained Denver’s bench unit.
Harris was in his age 34 season at that point though, and the Nuggets had a two-way player on their roster who appeared more than capable and deserved an opportunity to win the backup point guard job behind Murray. In the 2018 offseason, the Nuggets signed Morris to a three year contract that would later prove to be an insane bargain, because when Morris ultimately won the job, he was to be paid roughly $4.6 million across three seasons to fill an important role on the roster.
Throughout the 2018-19 season, Morris’ first year in the fold, the Denver Nuggets bench went from a weakness to a strength of the team. Along with Malik Beasley and Mason Plumlee, Morris was one of the key members who raised the floor of Denver’s roster to new heights and afforded the team wiggle room every single night. The aforementioned trio played every single regular season game (except for one that Beasley missed due to injury) and Denver won 54 games because of their stability. Morris and the bench struggled mightily in the playoffs, but it was the lone dark mark on an otherwise excellent first true season for Morris. He proved he could hang and even thrive in the NBA.
2019-20 was more of the same for Morris. Though his individual numbers dropped slightly across the board, it was good to see that they didn’t drop off entirely. Morris’ contributions in his first year clearly weren’t a fluke, and with more time in the league, opponents grew to understand and counter Morris’ favorite moves. It was always going to be a grind in the second year of being a rotation member, but Morris handled it like a pro.
The best way to illustrate Morris’ sustained play is to remove the games in 2019-20 in which Morris played under 20 minutes. In only the 44 games when Morris exceeded 20 minutes played, he averaged 27 minutes, 10.8 points, 4.0 assists, and only 0.8 turnovers while shooting 48.3% from the field and 35.5% from three-point range. Those are pretty solid numbers, comparable to his 2018-19 year, and perfectly encapsulate a complementary player who puts the ball in position to be scored on a consistent basis. They aren’t remarkable numbers, but they’re good, and that’s the embodiment of what Monte Morris is at his core: good.
The real test would come in the playoffs though. Morris struggled in his first playoff run and head coach Michael Malone only played him 16 minutes per game in the 2018-19 playoff run because of it. This playoff run, Morris averaged 21.4 minutes per game, and though his per minute assist and rebound numbers were down, Morris was infinitely better as a scorer this time around. He shot 49.6% from the field on 133 shot attempts, and though he only shot 30% from three, he hit 12 three-pointers this time around, which was 12 more than he hit the first time around.
The performance above in Game 7 against the Jazz was less about being a high impact star and more about simply being a player the Nuggets could count on in the toughest moments of the season. He made simple plays, hit some shots, executed the defensive scheme well, and played his part well. He racked up seven points, five assists, three rebounds, and three steals in just under 25 minutes. Is he capable of better? Sure, but the Nuggets didn’t need better. They needed good.
Morris scored in double figures in 10 of Denver’s 19 playoff games. He generated at least three assists in 11 of the 19 games. In the playoffs the year prior, he scored in double figures in just four of the 14 games and had three assists or more in six of the 14. It’s clear that he’s making progress, and even within the capacity of a backup point guard role, he continues to maximize what he can offer the Nuggets from game to game.
How Morris’ consistency impacts “The Climb”
As the Nuggets continue to learn how to go from good to great, there’s a certain luxury in having a player like Morris available to them at a fraction of the price of what he’s truly worth. Morris will make just under $1.7 million in the 2020-21 season, whenever that happens. It will be the last year of his deal though, and it’s a good transition into the larger organizational picture. The Nuggets are officially at a crossroads for the entire organization as to whether to trust continuity or make big offseason moves.
The Nuggets can’t pay everyone going forward. It’s why they moved on from Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez at the trade deadline back in February. The presence of Michael Porter Jr. afforded Denver that luxury as a potential star. Denver knew they’d rather commit to Porter than Beasley and Juancho based on a multitude of factors.
What’s most important is this: the Nuggets are paying rookie max contracts to Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray. They are already slated to pay Gary Harris and Will Barton a combined average of roughly $34 million for the next two seasons. If Denver re-signs Jerami Grant and decides to add someone else in free agency using the mid-level exception, their space below the luxury tax line is sure to disappear. Because of that reality, the Nuggets will almost certainly be frugal when it comes to shelling out extra money going forward for players that project to come off the bench.
Which brings us back to Morris. The 25-year-old is extension eligible this offseason and might (correctly) expect the Nuggets to engage him in those discussions. Here are some contracts that Morris’ camp will almost certainly utilize as the baseline for extension talks:
- Patrick Beverley - Three years, $40 million, $13.3 million average annual value (AAV)
- Cory Joseph - Three years, $37.2 million, $12.4 million AAV
- Patty Mills - Four years, $48 million, $12 million AAV
- Dante Exum - Three years, $33 million, $11 million AAV
- Fred VanVleet - Two years, $18 million, $9 million AAV
The baseline for a high quality backup point guard is at least bordering on eight figures, potentially even higher than that for younger players with the potential to improve and exceed that value with their play going forward. Morris is sure to want an extension in the above range, and the Nuggets are in the unenviable position of deciding whether to pay a premium for backup point guard play.
The Nuggets have PJ Dozier as a possible replacement for Morris if they decide to go that route, but it’s not quite the same as replacing Beasley/Juancho with Porter. Dozier’s value to the Nuggets is mostly theoretical because while he showed flashes in the regular season and playoffs, his best time was mostly as a combo guard playing next to another ball handler. The best part of Morris’ game is that he can be placed into almost any situation and succeed. Ask him to be the primary ball handler on the second unit? Done. Ask him to play off ball next to another point guard? Done. Ask him to be aggressive as a scorer or passive as a facilitator for the rest of the offense? Done.
Can Dozier do all of that as a replacement of Morris? Doubtful.
If the Nuggets lose Morris, either in a trade this offseason or in free agency the year after, they will almost certainly feel those effects in a difficult way. It’s easy to forget what the Nuggets have in Morris because for the longest time, the backup point guard position has never been in doubt.
Heading into this offseason, the Nuggets have some questions to answer.