The Washington Wizards swung a deal with the Denver Nuggets for two of their longest-tenured players in Will Barton and Monte Morris. Both veterans have proven themselves to be key contributors on a Nuggets team that has made the playoffs in each of the past four seasons.
With Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. basically out for the entire year, Barton and Morris were suddenly thrust as the second and third-best playmakers on a Western Conference playoff team. Acquiring them in that context is an obvious boon for a Wizards side that lacked perimeter playmaking next to Bradley Beal (weird fit with Spencer Dinwiddie notwithstanding) last season.
However, in trying to analyze their recent performances and how they could potentially translate in D.C. one can’t ignore the sizable, Serbian elephant in the room in the form of two-time MVP Nikola Jokic.
The Nuggets ran an offense that completely flowed through Jokic, which meant they played to their strengths arguably more deliberately than any other team in the NBA. That makes it near-impossible to predict how the two will perform outside of the system they’ve played in for the last half decade.
In some ways, they may drop-off, but they could also excel in areas that Denver didn’t prioritize. We’re here to try and figure out what those are. Here’s a closer look at the the Wizards’ newest trade acquisitions: Will Barton and Monte Morris.
There’s a particular sequence during Game 1 of Denver’s first-round series against the Golden State Warriors that caught my eye involving each of the aforementioned Nuggets:
The #Nuggets cut their deficit to 7, as Monte Morris drains the 3-pointer, Nikola Jokic posts up Looney again, and Will Barton in Thrill mode with the crafty layup on the fast break#MileHighBasketball pic.twitter.com/1s68oa5L9c— Joel Rush (@JoelRushNBA) April 17, 2022
First, Monte Morris connects on a catch-and-shoot triple from the wing. Then, Nikola Jokic completely takes over possession on a one-on-one post-up for a bucket over Kevon Looney. And lastly, Will Barton leaks out for an exciting finish on a transition bucket.
This three-possession sequence roughly encapsulates the finer points of the data I’ve dug up on Barton, Morris, and the Jokic-centered Nuggets.
Will Barton can bring some Thrill to D.C.
If there’s one area that Will Barton will instantly be able to help the Wizards, it’s via getting buckets in transition. Washington just acquired Denver’s most potent transition threat in the Nikola Jokic era. He’s led the Nuggets in transition scoring every other year since 2015, hence the nickname Will the Thrill.
Barton ranked inside the top 20 out of 477 qualified players in the NBA at generating transition points last season, doing so with a 1.18 PPP that rated at an above average 58.7 percentile.
His prowess on the break will certainly be a huge boost to a Washington side that ranked as the second worst team at generating fast break points in the entire league last year, just 0.1 away from the 30th place Atlanta Hawks.
It’s also an interesting nugget to mention that Will Barton is Denver’s all-time leader in three-pointers made. More relevant to that area, in the last three seasons he’s shot 37.2 percent on 5.3 3PA per game and was 38.2 percent on catch and shoot three-pointers just this past year.
That’s better than all but two Wizards who attempted at least one three per game last season. The first was Rui Hachimura, who shot like small sample size Stephen Curry with his 47.0 percent clip that will likely fall back down to earth. The other was Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and his 42.0 percent rate on 4.0 such attempts.
Monte Morris needs to prove his efficiency is no mirage
There’s no question that the Wizards will miss KCP’s floor-spacing. He was the only reliable three-point threat on a Washington side that was dead last in threes made per game last season.
Monte Morris may not be top of mind when it comes to knockdown shooters in the NBA. But he quietly turned in a top-shelf three-point shooting season in 2021-22.
A career 39.4 percent shooter from distance, Morris’s efficiency has always been rock-solid. But last season was the first wherein he was able to up the volume, attempting 4.2 deep shots per contest. He did so while still maintaining a 39.5 percent clip overall and 42.1 percent on catch-and-shoot triples, both rates virtually identical to KCP’s in his lone Wizards campaign.
He’s also consistently been the proud owner of one of the best assist-to-turnover ratios in the NBA ever since he cracked the Nuggets’ rotation four seasons ago. His 4.27 ratio last season ranked third in the NBA behind Tyus Jones and Chris Paul, while leading the league in the two seasons prior to that.
Figuring out the Nikola Jokic filter
The huge caveat is that both Morris and Barton posted their numbers while playing alongside the back-to-back league MVP in Jokic.
The Nuggets’ offense skews to certain extremes in order to cater to their superstar’s strengths. This is evidenced by the fact that they were number one in the NBA in several categories while ranking last in certain others.
Denver led the league in passes made per game, with basically every possession being initiated with the ball-handler finding Jokic. They also were tops in the big-man trifecta categories of elbow touches (1st), post touches (1st), and paint touches (6th) for obvious reasons.
The passing ability and gravity that Jokic commands from those spots on the floor could potentially be skewing the shooting percentages quite a bit for guys like Barton and Morris, who feast off his assists.
But in some ways, perhaps Will Barton and Monte Morris could enjoy more freedom to showcase parts of their game that weren’t as encouraged in Denver.
Barton led the Nuggets in drives per game last season at 6.1 on good efficiency. But their team ranked 30th in drives per game by an extremely wide margin.
They also ran the least number of pick and rolls for the ball-handler in the league, since the prerogative in Denver is to feed the big in either Jokic or backup DeMarcus Cousins. Monte Morris has proven to be an above-average finisher on such plays and will likely get more opportunities in Washington.
This is where head coach Wes Unseld Jr.’s familiarity with both players comes in. If he can leverage their underutilized strengths while hoping that the Jokic effect didn’t distort their value too much, then the trade has the potential to be a relatively huge success. Here’s to hoping he’s up to the task.