With Markieff Morris scheduled to undergo sports hernia surgery Friday, the Washington Wizards must prepare for at least an immediate future without their starting power forward.
Though the precise timeline for his return won’t come into focus until after the procedure, Morris, according to a league source, is expected to miss a month, which would cause him to miss at least a few games. During that stretch, the Wizards will surely feel the absence of a much-needed, 6-foot-10 rebounder, as well as a durable and dependent player.
Last season, Morris ranked second on the team in rebounds per game, behind starting center Marcin Gortat, and missed only six games, which included the regular-season finale when Coach Scott Brooks rested most of the starters. Morris’s toughness is unquestioned; his defining moment of last season was returning to play the entirety of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Boston Celtics after badly spraining his left ankle in the opening game.
During that series, Morris played despite the pain, likely because — as one of the most valuable Wizards — he was needed.
Last season when Morris was on the court, the Wizards outscored opponents by 3.9 points per 100 possessions but they were outscored by 1.8 when he was on the bench, according to statistics from NBA.com. The difference: 5.7 points between when Morris played and when he sat. That ranks third highest on the team, behind stars John Wall and Bradley Beal.
This season, Morris’s absence will be felt at least through training camp. Dr. Alisa Coker, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University who was trained in hernia surgery, said most surgeons would require patients to “rest for several weeks and not put any strain on the abdomen.”
Coker, who has not treated Morris and spoke to The Post to give general information about that type of injury, said not much data exists on the recurrence of the injury and the first approach for treatment would be rest and physical therapy.
“But in people who rely on their sport and activities to make a living,” Coker said, “they often can’t do it, so often we’ll attempt a surgical approach.”
The good news for the Wizards: one important facet of Morris’s impact could be duplicated. Morris has expanded his game to feature more three-point shooting, and the Wizards have a pair of stretch-four understudies who can fill that role.
If Morris does not return by the Oct. 18 regular-season opener against the Philadelphia 76ers, then the Wizards will likely look to center Jason Smith or newly-acquired forward Mike Scott to join the starting lineup.
Smith finds himself in a similar situation to the one he encountered last summer — possibly needing to assume a larger role in light of a teammate’s injury. When Smith signed with the Wizards in July 2016, the intention was to play as the third center behind Gortat and Ian Mahinmi. But Mahinmi’s preseason injury snowballed into problems in the regular season and postseason pushing up Smith to the second unit. Again this year, with the addition of Scott and Mahinmi’s weight loss and improved health, Smith likely would’ve been out of the rotation. Once again, however, Smith becomes the in-case-of-emergency option the Wizards didn’t plan on needing so soon.
At 30 years old last year, Smith decided to make over his game and adapt to the changing landscape of today’s NBA, spending much of the latter part of the 2016-17 season morphing into a shooter. Before last season, the 7-footer averaged fewer than 15 three-pointers per season; in his first season with the Wizards, he finished 37-of-78 from behind the arc (47 percent).
Smith also gives the Wizards flexibility with their big men. Unlike Mahinmi, whose offensive game is centered around the rim — which cancels out the possibility of playing him alongside Gortat — Smith fluctuated between the power forward and center positions while operating in the second unit. Smith even started three times in place of Morris, and enjoyed a career night in one of those games, drilling 3-of-6 three-pointers and scoring 17 points against Chicago on March 17.
Scott, meanwhile, offers another alternative, though he has more question marks.
Scott appeared in only 18 games last year. He missed the start of the season with a knee injury and the Atlanta Hawks eventually traded him to the Phoenix Suns, who waived him. But before things went south for the 2016-17 season, Scott meshed well in Atlanta when the team was constructed for small ball, as he showed flashes of red-hot efficiency as a second-unit player. In the 2014 playoffs, Scott shot 5-for-5 on three-pointers and scored 17 points in a single quarter. During his last full season with the Hawks, he shot 39.2 percent from deep.
Although, Scott, who is listed as two inches shorter than Morris, may actually outperform the regular starter in long-distance shooting, he doesn’t come close to replacing Morris’s rebounding production. Scott has never averaged more than 3.6 rebounds a game and as a slender forward, the 6-foot-8, 237-pounder he could face physical disadvantages when matched up against bigger, more physical power forwards.
Beyond Smith and Scott, third-year player Kelly Oubre Jr. could be a dark horse candidate to start. During the Eastern Conference semifinals in May, when Morris remained on the TD Garden hardwood, grimacing and grasping his left leg, it initially appeared that Oubre would have to step in for the rest of the series. That never came to pass, but the Wizards have embraced Oubre as a defender among the starters and at times last season, used him in a small-ball closing lineup as the four while moving Morris to the five.
While none of these alternatives can likely replace Morris, the Wizards will have to hope to patch this hole in another way: by committee.