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Ja Morant’s Definitive Case for NBA MVP

Ja Morant’s Definitive Case for NBA MVP article feature image
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Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: Ja Morant

This MVP race is different. It’s rare that you have so many serious candidates without one player definitively above the rest. It’s a different season, for a lot of reasons, and these candidates deserve to be celebrated for what they’ve accomplished.

But who’s the best candidate? Who’s really most valuable? We’ll be presenting the cases here at Action Network. Today we begin with the definitive case for Ja Morant.

The Case In Five Words

Ja Morant is most spectacular.

Every candidate brings their own style to the table, but no player embodies the eye test and jumps off the screen like Morant. Every game feels like a career highlight reel, and every play there’s an electric buzz for what he might pull off next.

Morant is fearless, unrelenting, and above all, audacious. There’s simply not a player he’s unwilling to test or a move he’s unwilling to attempt. He challenges players at the rim constantly, trying to hang in the air beyond what their gravity allows for their contest, to flip a shot at the last moment.

Watch the way he hangs in the air on this play above, waiting for the defender to return to Earth as he adjusts to score. Morant wins the altitude battle nearly every time.

Morant’s most spectacular ability is how he seems to move between space where there is none. He seems to just teleport between spaces. You’ll see above how he navigates two different doubles and still manages to get by them for the layup against a very good defense.

Float City

But the real secret to Morant’s offensive success is his floater. Morant leads the league in floaters attempted and made, shooting almost 44% on those shots.

That’s better than most of the volume players shoot from midrange. It’s a completely different look but the results are still effective. One issue with it is that it’s tougher to get to that shot when defenses switch against him and keep a man on him, compared to a jumper.

However, with his insane burst, he’s able to spin away from contact to create the space necessary:

What’s interesting is that Morant doesn’t really use a pull-up jumper inside the arc in pick and rolls. When he comes off a screen, he’s always looking to get into the floater.

He can get into that move from basically anywhere, even spinning to the baseline:

 

Morant’s body control is ridiculous. He’s able to drift away from the interior wall of defense, quickly get up the shot after making contact, fade away on the floater, make it and draw the foul:

 

His ability to out-hang the defender leads to shots like this, the early season game-winner vs. the Suns:

 

Even if you manage to stop him, you had better box out because Ja’s second-jump ability is phenomenal.

 

Defenders are rightfully going to challenge Morant to shoot. Morant this season as a jump shooter averages just 33.5% from the field (33.6% from 3). Defenses can have success by going under the screen, as long as Morant’s defender gets help building a “wall.”

 

It’s shots like this that are backbreakers for a defense.

 

The Grizzlies are 14-5 when Morant shoots 35% from 3-point range or better. He’s not a consistently good 3-point shooter, but he’s made enough this season to punish defenses. However, Memphis’ offense goes from .98 points per possession when defenses go over the screen to .94 when they go under, a significant drop-off.

Morant’s efficiency in pick and roll actually decreases when he passes. Morant has some good counters, especially vs. those under plays:

 

What’s interesting is that Morant doesn’t really have a two-man game. Morant has only 38 assists all season to Steven Adams per NBA.com, compared to over 60 for Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr.

Ultimately, the biggest impact that Morant provides is in transition. The Grizzlies are the top team in the NBA in points added per 100 possessions through transition via CleaningTheGlass.com and the top team in fastbreak points in the league. Morant is a demon in transition, averaging the 10th-best points per possession mark among players with at least 150 attempts.

Morant ultimately is not a tremendous player in the halfcourt, but he’s a brilliant player in transition. He just has moves on moves on moves.

Again, with the teleporting:

 

If you’re looking for the weak spot, it’s that oftentimes if the defense does not get caught by his wizardry, he’ll get caught in the air, he’ll get blocked.

 

Morant has been blocked the second-most times of any player in the league, per Second Spectrum data. He will oftentimes work himself into situations that he can’t magically get out of.

The elephant in the room with Morant (and the Grizzlies as a whole) is that as spectacular as he is, in the halfcourt, he’s not efficient enough. Morant is in the 49th percentile scoring in the halfcourt, and even accounting for assists, that only improves to the 54th percentile. Compared to his peers, those numbers just aren’t good enough and are a product of his lack of a consistent three-pointer, turnovers, and block percentage.

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Defense

There’s no way to sugarcoat this: Morant’s defense does not stack up to an MVP level.

Statistically, it’s pretty evident. The Grizzlies’ defense is eight points worse per 100 possessions with him on the floor. His individual defense ranks in the 48th percentile league-wide on Synergy.

Morant oftentimes is beaten off the dribble. He has a difficult time with containment, especially on bigger players, and will get caught trying to make things happen too often:

Morant’s size plays a part, he can get bumped, especially in pick and roll coverages. He’s a willing defender, but good screeners are absolutely going to peel him off, the same as they would high profile stars like Steph Curry and Damian Lillard:

Morant is in the 24th percentile defending spot-ups per Synergy, allowing a 58% Effective Field Goal percentage. Now, some of that is scheme – the Grizzlies scheme wants their players helping in an effort to disrupt flow, and that’s going to lead to more breakdowns on spot-ups.

But even then, Morant’s simply not an impactful defender. He’s third in deflections on the team, which is good but not great given how often he’s on the primary ballhandler, and his block numbers are paltry despite this ridiculous one:

That’s a good example of Morant, though. He gives good effort defensively, but given his offensive workload, he’s just not on the level of the other candidates.

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Impact

This is another area where Morant doesn’t really measure up. the Grizzlies are just +3.7 in Net Rating with Morant on the floor, compared to numbers of +7.0 or better for the other major candidates.

More concerning, Morant’s biggest impact is on the offensive end, and yet the offense is just three points better per 100 possessions with him on-court compared to off. Memphis’ 114.9 Offensive Rating with him is stellar, but given their success without him, it’s difficult to put him on the level of Most Valuable.

Finally, there’s the record without him.

I’m of the opinion that what happens when a player is not on the floor should not matter for consideration. It is not Morant’s fault that he has good teammates compared to other candidates, nor should he be punished because the Grizzlies’ front office has had such success.

If you want to ding him for only having played 56 games with just seven remaining, that’s a fair argument when Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic have all already played at least 62, that’s fair. But Morant doesn’t deserve to have his contributions and play invalidated by what has gone on when he hasn’t had the chance to impact things.

Nonetheless, it must be said that the Grizzlies are an outrageous 18-2 straight up without Morant this season. While I do not feel that should be a mark against him, it will be a detriment towards him for most voters.

Narrative

Morant’s play has been spectacular, and the ascension of Memphis has been one of the biggest stories this season. The Grizzlies didn’t just make a leap, they also jumped to contender status. Morant was a huge part of that.

Morant has had epic game-winners and transcendent games. He is fluid, explosive, and more fun to watch than some other candidates; he’s without the plodding foul rate of Joel Embiid and the awkward unconventional nature of Nikola Jokic.

Had he played more games, or had the Grizzlies not won so many without him, his narrative case would be strong. He’s a player whom voters want to reward for how spectacular he’s been.

Verdict

Morant will not win MVP. There’s an argument in recent weeks that Jayson Tatum and Luka Doncic along with Devin Booker have passed him, which is unfair to Morant’s midseason brilliance. But ultimately, his statistical profile doesn’t match up with the others, the story has become more about Memphis’ collective rise, and Morant has missed too many games.

It should not take away from what has been an extraordinary season for the 22-year-old phenom, who has helped put Memphis firmly back on the NBA map this season.

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