Now that the Clippers’ 2020 season has reached its disappointing end, 213Hoops will work through the roster player-by-player for our “Exit Interview” series. Today’s exit interview features starter Marcus Morris.
Years in NBA: 9
Key Stats: In 19 regular season and “seeding” games for LAC, played 28.9 minutes per game and averaged 10.1 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 1.4 assists while shooting 42.5% from the field and 31% from three. In 43 games for the New York Knicks before being traded, averaged 19.6 points per game and shot 43.9% from three.
In 13 playoff games for the Clippers, played 29.8 minutes per game while averaging 11.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 1.6 assists, shooting 50.5% from the field and 47.5% from three. Notably, shot 63.3% from deep in the Clippers’ 7 playoff wins and 31% from deep in their 6 playoff losses.
Contract Status: Unrestricted free agent this off-season, coming off of a one-year, $15,000,000 contract last season. The Clippers have Morris’ non-bird rights, meaning they can give him a contract for up to 120% of his prior salary–$18,000,000–with a maximum length of 4 years and maximum raises of 5%. This means his largest possible contract is 4 years, $77.4 million.
It took a long time for Marcus Morris to end up with the Clippers. Remember, he nearly joined the team as a free agent last summer before instead agreeing to terms with the Spurs, then backing out of that agreement to accept a larger, one-year deal in New York.
The Clippers instead helped the Miami Heat acquire Jimmy Butler by absorbing Moe Harkless’ contract, and got a first-round pick for their troubles. That pick became part of the record-setting Paul George package, while Harkless was eventually flipped–along with Jerome Robinson, the Clippers’ 2020 1st round pick (27th), swap rights for the Clippers’ 2021 1st round pick (unlikely to convey), and Detroit’s 2021 2nd round pick–for Morris at the trade deadline. It wasn’t a back-breaking cost for the Clippers, but simply signing Morris in free agency would have allowed them to hold on to two of the team’s few remaining draft assets.
Morris’ primary contribution to the Clippers was expected to be his three-point shooting. While his 44% from deep in New York this year was clearly an outlier, he’s been a solid 37% shooter from deep over his career and had consistently been more efficient in the playoffs, a major upgrade over a non-shooter in Harkless who had notoriously been left alone to miss open corner threes in prior playoff runs with Portland. Additionally, Morris is capable of creating his own shot off the dribble–although given his often poor shot selection and tendency to be a ball-stopper with the Knicks, that was a bit more of a fear than positive expectation.
Despite Morris’ reputation, the Clippers didn’t figure to improve much defensively by acquiring Morris for Harkless, who is a very good defender in his own right. But the two are different–Harkless is quicker and lankier to contain speedy guards, while Morris brings a strength advantage that’s more effective against bigger forwards. It could pretty easily be argued that Harkless is the better defender in a vacuum, but was slightly more redundant than Morris on a team that already had Patrick Beverley, Paul George, and Kawhi Leonard to throw at opposing guards.
Then, there’s the non-basketball stuff. From a propensity for trash talk and flagrant fouls to his sexist comments after a game this season, Morris can cause distractions. While Doc Rivers repeatedly emphasized that he liked the “edge” Morris brought to the team–and I agree that good teams need supporting players who bring toughness and physicality–it cost the Clippers at times. In game 6 against the Dallas Mavericks, Morris took himself out of the game with a first-quarter flagrant foul, and in game 5 against Denver, Nuggets forward Paul Millsap credited a hard foul and trash talk from Morris with inspiring the momentum that forced a game 6.
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For a player who received as much dramatic consideration as a potential x-factor for the Clippers, both from his supporters and detractors, Morris’ performances for the team were ultimately relatively quiet, and remarkably predictable. He didn’t emerge as the team’s third-best player as some expected due to his offensive output in New York, but he stayed far away from making a negative impact that others feared with selfish offensive play.
Offensively, Morris was even more efficient than expected in a very limited role–over half of his playoff shot attempts were from three, where he made a lethal 47.5%, including 60% from the corners. He went from taking 4.8 pull-up two-point jumpers per game before coming to the Clippers to just 2.8 in the playoffs. Most of the time, it felt as though Morris’ low-quality shots came late in the shot clock, where his ability to get off a comfortable contested look was (relatively) welcome. Overall, the 1-2 questionable plays he made each game may have stuck out for anyone who was watching with worries about his shot selection, but they were no more egregious than any other player.
Defensively, he made a massive impact in the first round as he surprisingly emerged as the team’s best option against Mavericks star Luka Doncic. According to NBA.com’s tracking data, Doncic shot just 8-23 with Morris as his primary defender, scoring 20 points and, significantly, only finding one assist as Morris’ ability to use his strength to stay in front of Luka’s drives enabled the other Clippers to stay home on shooters. But in the second round, Morris was a non-factor defensively, struggling with crafty veteran Paul Millsap, who baited Morris into fouls, overpowered him in the post, and punished him for helping with open threes. In total, tracking data shows Millsap with 30 points on 10-19 shooting against Morris.
Then, of course, there’s the aforementioned non-basketball stuff. While each mistake was unnecessary and unhelpful, they both ultimately feel like minor sub-plots to me. Morris took himself out of game 6 vs Dallas, but the Clippers won the game anyway–if they’d lost, he would have likely been my primary culprit. Similarly, while his extracurriculars with Millsap may have inspired Millsap to fight back in the third quarter, the combination of LAC’s cold shooting, DEN’s hot shooting, and poor coaching all played a bigger role in the team’s game 5 collapse… and their game 6 collapse… and their game 7 collapse. It’s fair to call Morris’ antics foolish and bad process, but it seems extreme to blame a technical foul in the second quarter of game 5 for the rest of the series, given the far more obvious and egregious factors that directly produced those results.
Lastly, I want to touch on the win/loss splits for Morris. He shot 63% from deep in the team’s 7 playoff wins, but just 31% from deep in their losses. I think some folks find that number and think they’ve found a “gotcha!” stat–that when the Clippers lost in the playoffs, it was because Morris went cold. But that’s more than a little short-sighted. These numbers actually point to the lack of shooting LAC got from the rest of their role players. Nobody is going to get hot every single night (imagine if he had shot 63% in all 13 games instead of just in the 7 wins–it would make him the best 3-point shooter of these playoffs by a wide margin, an unreasonable expectation). But Morris was, for the most part, the only Clipper role player who ever got hot. If he wasn’t hitting, nobody was. That says a lot more about Landry Shamet (35.7% from three in the playoffs and just 22.2% in the second round) and Lou Williams’ (23.5% from three in the playoffs and 14.8% in the second round) inability to make floor-spacing contributions than it does Morris’. You’ll take a 47.5% average from three any day.
Future with Clippers
Since Morris changed teams as a free agent last summer to sign his current one-year deal, the Clippers don’t have his bird rights–but they have his non-bird rights (non-bird: 1 year, 20% raise; early bird: 2 years, 75% raise; full bird: 3 years, any raise), meaning they can pay him up to $18,000,000 in starting salary next season. For a non-star veteran in a summer where money is tight around the league, that will be more than enough for Morris. And for the Clippers, who have other needs to address and just the taxpayer mid-level exception to add replacement talent, letting Morris walk would mean foolishly losing a positive (if imperfect) contributor for nothing. The team is well above the cap and would not be able to sign an equivalent player (for example, Jerami Grant–who has a player option–and Jae Crowder are both likely free agents this summer, but the Clippers have no viable avenue to pursue either as a Morris replacement).
The question with Morris seems to be less about whether or not he’ll return, but rather what exactly his new deal will be. Right now, LA has the potential for flexibility in 2021 with both Leonard and George hitting free agency, but it’s almost a no-brainer that embracing a bloated payroll with multi-year role player contracts is worth maximizing the upcoming season of two superstars in their prime (and hopefully convincing those stars to re-sign). Hopefully, the lack of spenders in free agency this off-season will leave the Clippers competing with just mid-level exception offers for Morris, meaning that his new deal could look closer to 3 years, $36 million than a heftier 3/45 or anything nearing his aforementioned maximum possible deal of 4/77 (which would be an absurd overpay).
I fully expect Marcus to be back as the Clippers’ starting power forward next season, probably with a larger regular-season offensive role (as George and Leonard’s minutes and shot attempts go down compared to what we saw in the playoffs) and a very similar playoff role to 2020.
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