The Time for Experimentation is Over:
Play Anthony Morrow or Trade Him
Billy Donovan used the 2015-16 regular season as a laboratory for experimentation. Who could blame him? He was a rookie coach in the NBA after two decades at Florida with a brand new roster of 15 players to become acquainted with. Cam Payne was yanked around several times, going from riding the pine to full-time backup point guard before being relegated back to the bench again. Kyle Singler and Anthony Morrow bounced in and out of the rotation throughout the season. Westbrook and Durant played almost exclusively together for much of the season before Donovan began staggering their minutes after the All-Star break.
Donovan had the luxury of experimenting due to the unique circumstances the Thunder found themselves in. Once the Spurs and Warriors exploded out of the gate, it became clear that OKC couldn’t catch them, and the Thunder were essentially locked into a 3 or 4 seed in the West from very early in the season. Simply having Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook on the roster was always going to be good for 50+ wins, so the risk of experimenting was incredibly low.
We saw this experimentation pay off massively during the playoffs. Armed with a full season of data and observations of a vast array of lineup combinations, Donovan deftly utilized the versatile roster Sam Presti built by adapting to each opponent and situation. Against the Spurs aging big men, he deployed the Stache Brothers™ combo of Steven Adams and Enes Kanter to gash San Antonio on the boards. Against the Warriors “death lineup,” he rolled out the “megadeath lineup” (h/t Danny Leroux). With Serge Ibaka at center, Kevin Durant at power forward, and Andre Roberson and Dion Waiters at the wings, OKC could play at a furious pace while switching every screen on defense.
With KD’s departure, OKC’s margin for error has been erased. A first-round home playoff series is now a lofty goal for the Thunder. They will need to put their best product on the floor as often as possible. The team will likely look much different with the subtraction of Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka along with the addition of Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova, and Domantas Sabonis. However, with a year of NBA experience under his belt and decent familiarity with most of the roster, experimentation is less likely to be necessary for Donovan in 2016-17.
Anthony Morrow’s minutes were especially volatile last season. He saw 15 minutes or less of playing time in 44 of OKC’s 82 games, and unsurprisingly, he had the 2nd-worst shooting year of his career. That simply cannot continue in 2016-17.
NBA players in general crave consistency. This desire for consistency is why Kevin Durant resisted staggering his minutes with Russell Westbrook for so long. For players whose games rely primarily on jump-shooting, consistency is especially crucial for getting into a rhythm. Two of Anthony Morrow’s closest peers in the NBA are Kyle Korver and JJ Redick. All three are elite shooters, and all three have spent time as both starters and reserves. A stark pattern emerges when analyzing their shooting against their minutes played. Quite simply, as shown in the graphic below, the more minutes they played per game, the better they shot from 3-point range. (I’ve also included Marco Belinelli and Kyle Singler in this graphic because reasons).
There is an issue of selection bias here. Players are clearly more likely to be kept on the floor when they are shooting well and more likely to be benched when shooting poorly. However, all five of these players also shot better as starters than as reserves, which lends greater credence to the conclusion that consistent playing time leads to better shooting numbers.
(These numbers also illustrate why I might be the only human alive left out here on Singler Island.)
Alas, however, there are two sides of the floor. Morrow’s defense is what has kept him from getting consistent minutes for most of his career. While Korver and Redick have worked hard to become passable defenders, Morrow has never even been able to attain mediocrity on that end. He really just isn’t that athletic for an NBA player, and has extremely poor lateral quickness for a guard. However, his bad defense is nowhere near as impactful as Enes Kanter’s, largely because poor defense on the perimeter is far less damaging than poor defense at center. In 2014-15, when he got far more consistent minutes, Morrow ranked 12th among all NBA shooting guards in ESPN’s Real Plus Minus, a metric that accounts for defense. If Morrow can shoot 44-45% from three, the threat his spacing provides is simply too valuable to keep off the floor, even if accompanied by terrible defense.
Ultimately, there is no point in keeping Morrow if the Thunder refuse to maximize his talents by putting him in the best possible position to succeed. Nearly every team in the league could use an elite shooter off the bench, and at $3.5 million for this year, he’s a bargain. It seems very likely that OKC could get an asset back in a trade for Morrow. Marco Belinelli, a very similar player making twice as much (but with a 2-year contract), fetched a first-round pick for Sacramento from Charlotte in exchange for his services.
To a lesser extent, Cameron Payne and Kyle Singler would likely benefit from more consistent playing time. However, they haven’t proven themselves over a large enough sample in the NBA. If they hit a prolonged slump, it’s not a given that they’ll ever come out of it. At this point, Morrow is a known commodity, shooting 42.5% from 3 over his 8-year NBA career. He’s been the same player throughout: super-elite shooting, bad defense, period. If Kevin Durant’s departure and OKC’s now-desperate need for shooting are sufficient catalysts for Billy Donovan to give Morrow consistent run, that will likely pay dividends for the Thunder. If Donovan is going to yank his minutes around like he did last season, Anthony Morrow must be traded.