Trade Analysis: Marcus Morris to Los Angeles

The 2020 trade deadline was a bit odd compared to most years. Usually, it’s the best teams in the league scouring the non-contenders for the best available players to bolster their strength for the upcoming playoff run. This year, there wasn’t as much of that – the Bucks, Lakers, Jazz, Celtics, and Raptors all did nothing, Philadelphia made two end-of-rotation additions, and Denver shuffled some non-rotation pieces around and got a late first-rounder for their trouble. For a while, it seemed as though the only team aggressively looking to improve was the Rockets, as they seemingly always are, but the Clippers joined them, swinging the bat around on a deal for Marcus Morris that dramatically improves their chances at the title this year.

The full terms of the three-team trade:
The Clippers receive Marcus Morris and Isaiah Thomas, who was immediately waived.
The Knicks receive Maurice Harkless, the Clippers’ 2020 first-round pick, the Pistons’ 2021 second-round pick (which the Clippers owned from the Blake Griffin trade two years ago), 2021 first-round swap rights between their pick and the Clippers’, and the draft rights to Issuf Sanon, the No. 44 pick in the 2018 draft.
The Wizards receive Jerome Robinson.

Morris is on a one-year deal signed with the Knicks last summer for $15 million, so it wasn’t easy for the Clippers to cobble together enough salary to match that number. Los Angeles was too close the luxury tax line to send Harkless out by himself for Morris, which is what necessitated Robinson’s inclusion in the deal. Washington got involved to alleviate the Knicks from having to take on Robinson, as they already have a number of guards in whom they’re invested. Harkless and Robinson was enough outgoing salary for the Clippers to get Morris and Thomas without going over the tax, although that wouldn’t be the end of the world for a team with clear title aspirations in a relatively short-term window.

Morris is a fantastic upgrade for the Clippers. They held back their 2020 first-rounder from the Paul George trade with Oklahoma City for this express purpose and found the perfect use for it – a late first-rounder isn’t super useful to a team with such a short time horizon to be competitive. That rookie was very likely not going to be able to help the team win a title next season and after that, both George and Kawhi Leonard can be free agents. As well-built as the Clippers are, there’s a chance the entire thing lasts just two years, so it’s vital that they put their best foot forward while they can. Winning a title would help convince those guys to stick around long-term, though we just saw Leonard leave a Raptors team that won the title and was extremely well set up to defend their throne with him this year and into the future.

The defensive wing/forward trio of George, Leonard, and Morris, with Patrick Beverley harassing opposing guards and Ivica Zubac protecting the rim, is going to be an absolute brick wall. None of the statistical samples in Los Angeles for the four-man combination of Beverley, George, Leonard, and Zubac are very large thanks to all the injury management they use to keep George and Leonard fresh for the postseason, but the on-paper idea behind that five-man lineup is quite good. Morris will help them on the other end of the floor as well, as he’s put together two strong shooting seasons in a row and provides a lot more of a spacing threat than Harkless did.

There is some risk for the Clippers here; Morris is a strong personality, to say the least. There have already been some rumblings around the club that all is not as perfect as it should be for a team as successful as they are. Bringing Morris into that situation may be adding fuel to a fire the Clippers don’t necessarily want to see get out of control. The off-court issues could leak into their play on the court, but if they’re able to keep that at bay, the Clippers have solidified their standing among the true championship contenders.

After waiving Thomas, Los Angeles stands at 13 players and have $1.29 million to spend below the tax. They have no available exceptions after using the entire Room Exception on JaMychal Green, but they’ll be able to sign a minimum or two without going over the tax. They’ll be in the buyout market for perhaps another shooter or a big man, though Morris’s fit as a shooter who can play the forward spots lessens the need for a perimeter player. The speculation surrounding Los Angeles was that they’d go for a big man with their trade assets, but with Zubac and Montrezl Harrell, that never felt to me like the primary need they had to fill. Then again, they don’t seem to like Zubac as much as I do – he’s a great screen-setter, rebounds very well on both ends, and is huge at the rim defensively. On a team with as much two-way talent as they have, the center position doesn’t need to be another high-usage scorer and Zubac gives them a really strong low-usage, high-efficiency defender whom they should lean on more heavily.

This trade is all about this year, but the Clippers do inherit Morris’s Non-Bird rights to retain him this summer. With no real picks in either round to their name (they have their own second, but that’s going to be so late that it’ll probably be useless), they should walk into the summer with about $30 million in room below the luxury tax and nine players under contract. Morris could take up a chunk of that, as would Green if he opts out and wants to stick around. Factor in Green’s option and they’re up to ten players and down to $25 million in tax room, but that should still be more than enough to get done what they need to do.

Harrell is also a free agent this summer and retaining him on an expensive contract could eat up most of that tax room. They already have Zubac under contract at a reasonable number for the next three years (with a team option on the final year), but Harrell is a huge part of what they do offensively off the bench and his market may be more tepid than it was before the flurry of deadline moves. Only a few teams will have cap space this summer and most of them are set at center: Atlanta just moved for Clint Capela and Dewayne Dedmon, New York has Mitchell Robinson, and Miami is set with Bam Adebayo. Phoenix could have real money to spend this summer, but they’re invested in Deandre Ayton. Charlotte could be the lone strong suitor for Harrell, as he’d fit nicely in pick-and-roll next to Devonte’ Graham and Terry Rozier.

New York’s disaster of a season has provided few positives, but Morris’s continued production in the face of all that dysfunction was a twinkling star in the darkness. In the last few weeks, it seemed as though they wanted to hold onto him and potentially bring him back in the summer, but eventually they did find the right move to get a first and a second for him. They weren’t going anywhere this year anyway, so the downgrade to Harkless won’t hurt them. He’s on an expiring contract as well and there’s no long-term damage to their cap sheet. The Knicks may even work a buyout with him, which would certainly make a contender quite happy. He would be ineligible to return to the Clippers, but every other contender would love to see him hit the market.

The Knicks are just over the cap this season and are slated to have $37.63 million in room this summer, a number that already factors in their two first-rounders but would see them walk away from Bobby Portis, Taj Gibson, Wayne Ellington, and Elfrid Payton. There isn’t a whole lot of high-end talent for the Knicks to chase in this year’s free agency class, so they’re likely looking to roll over their space to 2021, when they’ll once again go after the best players in the league. I’m sure we all have an inkling about how that’s going to work out for them.

Washington improves slightly with this move – Thomas was truly one of the worst players in the league this year and replacing him with anybody else should be a positive for them. It’s immensely unfortunate for Thomas that he never got the payday he so richly deserved when he was with the Celtics, but the timing of his free agency and the hip injury really hurt him. Now that he’s been cut by the Clippers, it’s more likely than not that we’ve seen the last of him in an NBA uniform.

Robinson is hardly much better than Thomas – he sports a career 45 percent true shooting and is just a slight positive defensively, though that sample isn’t massive. His fourth-year option decision is due by October 31 and would pay him $5.34 million if the Wizards pick it up. It’s touch-and-go for Robinson, who was overdrafted by at least 15 spots in 2018 and therefore has an outsized salary for that final year. Although Washington isn’t slated to have significant spending power for the 2021-22 season, the prospect of paying him that sort of salary isn’t fantastic.