We’re continuing our 213Hoops Exit Interview series, where we go player-by-player through the Clippers’ roster and break down how each player on the team performed relative to their pre-season expectations, and ponder their future with the team. Today, we’re taking a look at the third-highest paid Clipper: Marcus Morris
Weight: 218 lbs.
Age: 31 (will turn 32 before next season starts)
Years in NBA: 10
Key Stats: In 57 appearances for the Clippers last year, started 29 times and played 26.4 minutes per game, averaging 13.4 points and 4.1 rebounds on 47.3/47.3/82.0 shooting splits. In the playoffs, appeared in all 19 games for the Clippers (starting 18) and averaged 12.2 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 1.5 assists on 43.0/37.5/75.0 shooting splits in 31.8 minutes per game.
Contract Status: Morris signed a 4-year, $64 million contract last off-season and just completed the first season of it–leaving him earning $15,627,907 for 2021-22 and $16.4M/$17.1M the following two seasons.
After trading a first round pick for Morris at the 2020 NBA Trade Deadline and immediately thrusting him into the starting lineup, it was clear that the Clippers viewed him as their third option going forward. When they chose to let JaMychal Green walk in free agency last off-season and ink Morris to a 4-year, $64 million dollar contract to make him the third highest paid player on the team, it was an emphatic doubling down on that decision. Now heading into a full season with the team, the pre-season expectations on Morris were pretty obvious: seperate from the rest of the role players and be a clear #3 guy in terms of minutes, shots, and scoring. In the playoffs, the Clippers needed him to step up with his all-around game, giving Paul George and Kawhi Leonard a dependable third scorer in the lineup while also providing solid off-ball offense play and defense across multiple positions.
Morris had a rocky start to the year, as he missed the first couple of weeks of the season with a nagging knee soreness and then clearly needed time to shake off the rust and work himself back into game shape when he did return. One he got into the flow of things, one thing was clear: Marcus was red-hot. He hit 47.3% of the 296 threes he took this season, finishing second in efficiency behind Brooklyn’s Joe Harris at 47.5%. But past making an outrageous percentage of his threes, Morris’ overall impact on games was often a bit underwhelming. While it was admirable for Marcus to embrace coming off the bench in favor of Nicolas Batum after the team’s hot start with Batum at the helm, he wasn’t just taking a backseat for continuity’s sake: Batum was a better player than Morris this season and in the playoffs. It wasn’t all Nico being amazing, either–Morris wasn’t moving well for much of the year, was sluggish defensively, posted significantly worse defensive rebounding numbers than the team’s other wings (his 14.5% DRB% is closer to Luke Kennard’s 13.0% than Terance Mann’s 16.1%), and was often just a corner spot-up guy rather than a real piece of the buildup who could put the ball on the floor and make plays. On the whole, he was a valuable part of the Clippers’ regular season campaign and a definite positive contributor, but he seemed to more blend in with the rest of the pack of role players than stand out as a clear number 3.
Morris’ mobility did improve as the season went along, and we saw a bit more spryness from him in attacking closeouts and creating 2-point FGA for himself. But still, when the Clippers were shorthanded for swaths of the second half of the regular season, it felt like they were more often looking to play through guys like Reggie Jackson and Terance Mann as primary options. Morris had his share of big games (his averages jumped to 28.7 minutes and 15.6 points in the games he started), but he was more often the beneficiary of other creators than a creator himself. If you want a optimistic statistic about Morris’ ability to help shoulder the load in games without Kawhi Leonard next season, it’s those numbers as a starter. If you want a pessimistic one, it’s this: 70% of his field goals last season were assisted–193, while he dished out just 58 assists of his own.
In the playoffs, Marcus did a lot of really important work for the Clippers, particularly in the first two rounds as they played heavy doses of small ball and he was asked to battle with much bigger opposing centers defensively. It really did take a team effort to pull off those coverages as consistently and effectively as the Clippers did late in the Dallas series and against the Jazz, but Morris was an integral part of the scheme. Offensively, however, his historic playoff streakiness made him tough to rely upon: he’s shot above 25% and below 50% from three just 9 times in his 62 career playoff games. This year, the Clippers got 8 below 25%, 3 in the middle, and 8 above 50%. They were 6-2 in his 8 good shooting games, 3-5 in his bad ones, and 1-2 in those in-betweeners. There were moments where he was brilliant, with 5 20-point outings that included a 7-9 from three game 7 against Dallas and 20 first-half points in game 5 against Phoenix with the Clippers facing eliminationg. He also had some duds: totaling 43 points on 19-64 shooting in games 1 and 2 of each series as the Clippers fell into three straight 0-2 holes. Much like the regular season, Morris was important to the Clippers’ playoff success and undeniably a net positive… and yet it was really rough to need to rely on him to be the #3 guy.
Future with Clippers
While anything is possible, Morris seems firmly established with the Clippers, happy to be in LA, and holds a negative-value contract that makes any trade exceedingly unlikely. Marcus is absolutely a positive on-court contributor for the Clippers, but most other teams in the NBA are going to be at best unenthused at the prospect of taking on a 32-year-old who has durability issues and is owed almost $50M over the next 3 seasons. He has more value to the Clippers on the team than he does in almost any realistic trade.
But figuring out exactly what Marcus is to this team going forward is going to be an interesting task. If they just want him to settle in as one of the supporting stable of role players and be a spot up shooter, he’s proven to be pretty lethal at that. Being able to do it in the body of a strong 6’8″ switchable defender is enough to make him a valuable piece of anyone’s playoff rotation. But it’s not enough to make him a must-play 30 minute-per-game guy unless his contributions can be a bit more consistent and well-rounded. As I noted above, Nic Batum was just a straight-up better player this season, still shooting well from deep without matching Marcus’ lethal efficiency but also playing significantly better defense and operating better within the flow of the offense. It wasn’t crazy for Lue to start Batum over Morris during that stretch of the regular season and frankly, when the team made the choice to go back to Ivica Zubac at center in the Western Conference Finals and not play Batum and Morris together at the 4 and 5 so much, it would have made plenty of sense to reduce Morris’ minutes rather than Batum’s.
If there was one main reason why such a move wouldn’t have made sense, it was scoring. Nic hits some shots and makes some plays, but he’s not as hungry for buckets as Marcus can be, and the Clippers were desperate for shot creation support behind Paul George and Reggie Jackson with Kawhi Leonard injured. But that’s part of the conundrum with Morris: he’s the $64 million dollar man and they needed him to support minimum salaried Reggie Jackson in creating offense instead of the other way around. And Marcus didn’t even really do it well aside from his one ballistic first half in game 5. It seems almost certain that Morris will be the Clippers’ starting power forward again entering next season as they look to continue replacing-by-committee Leonard’s offensive production, but the team will need something like New York Knicks Marcus Morris, who averaged 19.6 points and 32 minutes per game on 44/44/82 shooting splits and put up 14.8 FGA nightly. Can he tap into those 40 games–an extreme outlier half-season compared to the rest of his career–again? Can he play that many minutes without his persistent knee soreness issue costing him games?
The Clippers made a series of choices in the last year and a half that essentially married them to Marcus Morris. For at least 1 or 2 more years until his contract becomes short-term enough to cease being unattractive in trades, they’re much, much better off keeping him than trying to give up on him–and he’s been good enough that there’s no reason to look to move on. But one of the defining questions of this era of Clipper basketball, going back the last two years and going forward for the next several as well, is going to be just how good Marcus Morris can be. There’s no doubt that he’s a solid top-8 piece for a contender, but can he be a clear #3 or is he just one of the 3-8 guys? So far it’s been the latter, which is perhaps especially concerning heading into a season where the team may need him to be not just a clear #3 but a clear #2.
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