When a young team that has been steadily improving for a while finally has its breakthrough season, there are a lot of people who end up getting a lot of attention. The team’s coach, of course, gets a fair share of the spotlight and ends up in awards conversation. The star player ends up at the All-Star Game and pops up in the MVP discussion for a decent portion of the year. In addition to the star, there’s typically a solid veteran or two as well as a couple young guys making leaps that end up drawing attention as well.
This has all gone according to form with the 2018-19 Denver Nuggets, who are on pace for 57 wins after raising their total from 30 to 33 to 40 and then 46 over the past few years. Michael Malone signed a contract extension before the season and he has rewarded the Nuggets for their faith, compiling a 41-18 record, coaching in the All-Star Game and emerging as an inner-circle Coach of the Year candidate. Nikola Jokic is now widely recognized as one of the world’s best players and was discussed in MVP conversations for about half the year. It will not be long before he is universally lauded as the best passing big man of all time. Paul Millsap is having a throwback season next to Jokic in the frontcourt; when Millsap has sat, Mason Plumlee and Juancho Hernangomez have filled the void; Jamal Murray has begun tapping into his immense potential; Will Barton returned from his early-season injury to resume doing Will Barton things; when healthy, Gary Harris has shown why he got paid all that money to contribute on both ends of the floor; and when Harris has or Barton has been out injured, Malik Beasley has stepped up.
But none of those guys is who we’re here to talk about. Instead, let’s zero in on Monte Morris, who is not the Nuggets’ best player, most important player, or more interesting player, but is the one guy on the team who has inarguably been the single best player in the league at his position this season. Morris played only 25 minutes as a rookie after being selected with the No. 51 overall pick in 2017, but he has emerged this season as the NBA’s best backup point guard. It’s not particularly close, either. You could theoretically construct an argument for somebody else, but not without being intellectually dishonest at some point.
Put simply, Morris does every single thing you want a backup point guard to do. He’s proven reliable, as he’s one of three players who has played in all 59 of Denver’s games. He’s averaging 10.8 points, 2.7 rebounds, and 3.9 assists in 24.8 minutes a night while shooting 49.5 percent from the field and 42.5 percent from 3-point territory. The list of backup point guards in NBA history to average at least 10 points, 2 boards, and 3 dimes while shooting better than 42 percent from 3 is currently just three players long: there’s Morris right now, plus Leandro Barbosa did it in 2007 with the Suns and Ramon Sessions did it in 2012, when he split his time between the Cavaliers and Lakers.
Morris provides start-quality minutes off the bench against both opposing bench players and opposing starters. Morris ranks 11th among point guards in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus. One of the 10 guys ahead of him on the list is Marcus Smart, who has only played 7 percent of his minutes at point guard this season. Morris is also obviously first among backup point guards in RPM, and the difference between his RPM and that of the next-closest backup (Fred VanVleet) is equivalent to the difference between VanVleet and the player who ranks in seventh among backups (Tyus Jones).
Morris can work in place of the starter and/or alongside him. Lineups featuring Morris, Jokic, Millsap and any two of Denver’s wings have outscored opponents by 8 points per 100 possessions, almost exactly equal to the plus-8.6 points per 100 possessions mark Murray has posted alongside that duo, per NBA.com. Lineups featuring Morris and Murray together have not been quite as effective as when either of them plays solo, but they have still been quite good, out-scoring opponents by 3.9 points per 100 possessions. Morris and Harris are plus-13.2 per 100 possessions and Morris and Beasley plus-3.7 per 100. The Nuggets excel almost no matter with whom he shares the floor.
Morris can get to the rim and make plays for himself and others. He’s one of 110 players in the league who has driven from the perimeter to the basket at least 250 times, per Second Spectrum tracking data on NBA.com. Morris is shooting 57.2 percent from the field on those drives, far better than the average of 48.3 percent. And it’s not as though he’s a low-volume shooter capitalizing only on easy opportunities. His pass rate of 37.9 percent on drives is actually slightly lower than the league average of 39.2 percent.
Morris leverages his ability to get into the paint in order to work his pull-up jumper game, which is also excellent. He’s connected on 44.9 percent of his pull-ups this year, per Second Spectrum, which is again far better than the 39.8 percent average among players who have attempted at least 150 pull-up jumpers. And all that action moving toward the basket just makes him even more dangerous from the perimeter, where he’s splashed through 46.5 percent of his spot-up 3s, once again far better than the 37.8 percent average for players who have launched 125 or more such shots.
Morris also holds his own defensively despite being fairly skinny at just 175 pounds. He’s almost always in the correct position and he helps cut off driving lanes with active feet and strong hands that get in the way of passing lanes. He’s averaging 2.2 deflections per 36 minutes, which is on par with players like Donovan Mitchell, Klay Thompson, Danny Green, and Mike Conley.
Perhaps his best skill, however, is that he takes care of the ball as well as anybody in the history of the league. This extends all the way back to his days in college when he set records for assist-to-turnover ratio while at Iowa State. He’s on track to set an NBA record in that regard as well. As of this writing, Morris has 231 assists against just 37 turnovers, figures which, if he holds onto a similar ratio for the remainder of the season, would make him the first player ever to qualify for the minutes per game leaderboard and have an assist-to-turnover ratio better than 6-to-1. (The aforementioned Tyus Jones is also on track to join him.)
Morris’ 6.3 percent turnover rate is on track to be the best ever for a player who also assisted on at least 20 percent of his teammates’ baskets, besting the 7.2 percent mark currently held by Michael Jordan and Lou Williams. Typically you’d find such a low turnover rate in a player who is either primarily a scorer (like Jordan and Williams) or one who is simply not an adventurous passer (like, say, Raptors-era Jose Calderon). But neither of those really describes Morris, who is primarily a playmaker and whose passes turn into assist opportunities at a higher rate (16.4 percent) than either Jokic (16.3 percent) or Murray (15.9 percent). He just takes incredibly good care of the ball, with only 21 bad-pass turnovers on 2,594 passes (0.08 percent). Compare that to the aforementioned Fred VanVleet, who is also in the conversation as the league’s best backup point guard, but who has twice as many bad-pass turnovers (42) on several hundred fewer pass attempts (2,074), yielding a bad-pass rate more than twice as high (2.0 percent) as that of Morris.
As the Nuggets move through the remainder of the season and head into the playoffs, they can feel extremely confident that whenever they turn to Morris, they’ll be getting starter-quality minutes. That’s not a luxury a lot of teams have with their backup point guard. And that makes Morris himself incredibly valuable.