The Celtics left us these three quotes as bread crumbs for figuring out Brad Stevens’ rotation:
• “I already play 32 minutes a game now. I think that’s the least amount for where I am in my career, so nah, I’m not cutting down on minutes.” — Kyrie Irving to reporters on March 11, when asked if dialing back his playing time was a possible prescription for his ailing left knee
• “There’s going to be a lot of players next year, so I’m not 100 percent sure where I fit totally yet. It’s just something I’m still kind of wary about.” — Marcus Morris to The Boston Globe’s Adam Himmelsbach on May 27, when asked how Gordon Hayward’s return impacts his status
• “We’re going to rest guys a lot more this year. … We’ve got the depth to sit guys here and there and not miss a beat. We’ll steal rest in games whenever we can, too. There is no need to push guys to play much beyond 30 minutes a night with the depth we have.” — a Celtics staffer to CelticsBlog’s Keith Smith earlier this month, when asked about the crowded depth chart
Within lies the answer to the question: Does Marcus Morris have a role on the 2018-19 Celtics?
Thirty minutes per game, if not slightly more, sure sounds like the dividing line between stars understanding the strategic need to limit their workload in order to maximize their preparedness for the playoffs and the same players figuring, Hey, you’re really limiting my effectiveness here.
Morris is not a star player, although every contested long jumper he attempts is more proof he believes he is. Starting nearly half of his 54 regular-season appearances last season, he played 27 minutes per game — roughly a 20 percent drop from the 34 a night he averaged over his two previous years in Detroit. That figure climbed back up to 30 per game in the playoffs, when his bench scoring and defensive grit were integral parts of the C’s Eastern Conference finals run.
Since Hayward suffered his ankle injury before Stevens made a single substitution last season, we never had an inkling of how minutes might be doled out in 2017-18, but conventional wisdom suggests Hayward will eat those 30 minutes a night, leaving little room for Morris in the rotation.
Because of injuries, rest and whatever other quirks are bound to unfold this coming year, it’s unwise to think of the rotation as a 240 minutes-per-game entity. It’s better to think of a team in terms of allotting 19,680 minutes per season. (More specifically, 7,872 for the backcourt and 11,808 for the frontcourt, including 3,936 for the center position). Let’s extrapolate that out a bit.
1) Projected starters Irving, Hayward, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Al Horford each average 30 minutes over 70 games — a figure that builds in substantial in-game and scheduled rest but does not take into account the possibility of major injuries (knock on freaking wood);
2) Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart each average 25 minutes over 70 games;
3) Aron Baynes averages 15 minutes over 70 games;
4) Daniel Theis and Semi Ojeleye each average 10 minutes per game over 70 games;
5) and Brown splits his time between shooting guard and small forward, as he did last year
… you are left with 1,222 unclaimed minutes in the backcourt and 2,008 in the frontcourt, averages of 15 and 24.5 over an 82-game season, both of which allot for substantial roles.
Consider Shane Larkin, Kadeem Allen, Jabari Bird, Jonathan Gibson and Xavier Silas played 1,044 total minutes in the C’s backcourt last year, when Irving and Smart missed 50 combined games, and you figure those aforementioned averages over 70 games are too conservative. Still, even if you were to project the minutes Irving, Brown, Smart and Rozier averaged when healthy in 2017-18 over 70-game 2018-19 campaigns, there’s still room for recently signed guard Brad Wanamaker to play the sort of minutes Larkin did a year ago (775 over 54 games).
In other words, the guard rotation makes sense.
Let’s apply this to Morris. Say he plays 20 minutes a night for 70 games — a lower average, but only slightly fewer total minutes (1,400) than last season, when he missed 28 games battling minor knee pain. That leaves the remaining 608 frontcourt minutes for Guerschon Yabusele and rookie Robert Williams III — in the ballpark of the 731 that Yabu and Greg Monroe played last year. And because Morris can play three positions, an injury to anyone in the frontcourt and/or underperformance from Ojeleye, Yabu or Williams would push him further into the fold.
In other words, worries over Morris’ fit this coming season are overblown.
There has also been some talk that Morris is the prime candidate for a salary dump if the Celtics are looking to delay the starting gun on the dreaded repeater tax penalty — an even more prohibitive rate on every dollar spent over the luxury-tax line that kicks in once a team’s salary exceeds that line for three seasons in a four-year span. The Celtics will almost surely be taxpayers every year moving forward, when extensions for Irving, Brown and Tatum are in order.
They will be $2.5 million into the luxury tax upon waiving Rodney Purvis, whose non-guaranteed salary they just acquired to rid themselves of Abdel Nader’s partial guarantee. Dump Yabusele’s $2.67 million salary, you say? Well, teams are required to carry 14 players, and dumping him brings the roster to 13. So, the theory goes that the Celtics would shed Morris’ $5.375 million salary, fill the 14th roster spot for the veteran minimum and skate just below the luxury-tax line — pushing the repeater penalty to at least the 2021-22 season, when who knows what the NBA’s financials will be, while earning a non-taxpayer’s share of luxury taxes paid this season.
(Here’s how that might look: Trade Morris to the Clippers for Patrick Beverley’s non-guaranteed $5 million contract, waive Pat Bev, and sign free agent Trevor Booker for the veteran minimum.)
This minutiae is not what the average fan wants to bother themselves with, but we’re nearing August, when these matters are all that’s left to talk about on a team that’s running it back with the same roster, and you’re not the average fan. You also don’t need to worry about it, either.
Even if they were to find a trade partner for Morris — a short list of playoff teams in need of veteran help with either the cap space, trade exception or non-guaranteed contract to absorb his salary — it’s unlikely they find a player of his caliber at the veteran minimum. Which means the Eastern Conference favorites would be making themselves worse, by whatever small degree, to save a fraction of the profits they stand to earn as a primetime team next season.
So, here’s all you really need to know about Morris: It would be dumb of the C’s to dump a guy now who might be squeezed out of the playoff rotation later, especially one whose toughness is respected in the locker room, and it would be cheap of them to dump a guy who improves their title chances, especially since ownership has repeatedly vowed to pay the tax for a contender.
The Celtics are not dumb, and they have not been cheap.
There is one last hope for the C’s to skirt the luxury tax. Half of all player fines are exempt from taxable salaries, so if they earn $5 million in fines, they help out the owners. Few players were fined more than Morris last season, but even for him, that’s an awful lot of butt-tapping officials.
Maybe he’s got it in him, and the possibility of that alone is worth keeping him around.
Never fear, folks: August will feature a ton more original content. I wish I could spill the beans on what I’ve been working on the past month, but it’ll be revealed soon enough. I think you’ll like it.