In a clear signal of their intent to go all-in while hunting an NBA championship, the Clippers pulled off a series of trades ahead of Thursday’s league deadline that culminated in the acquisition of Marcus Morris, a player whose arrival in February is seen as a boost to the team’s chances of playing in June.
A 6-foot-8 forward whose combination of shooting, defensive versatility and toughness made him one of the most sought-after targets in the trade market, Morris was added as part of a three-team trade with New York and Washington, according to several people not authorized to speak publicly about the matter because the trade was not yet official.
In exchange for Morris, who averaged 19 points per game and made nearly 44% of his three-pointers in 43 games for New York this season, the Clippers sent the Knicks forward Maurice Harkless, a 2020 first-round draft pick, a 2021 second-round pick via Detroit and the right to swap 2021 first-round picks.
Guard Jerome Robinson, a first-round pick in 2018 who had yet to crack the Clippers’ rotation, was traded to Washington in part to help the Clippers stay out of the luxury tax. The Clippers received Wizards guard Isaiah Thomas but plan to waive him.
Those moves were set up by a trade earlier Thursday to free up money used to absorb Morris’ $15-million contract. Less than three hours before the noon PST deadline, the Clippers sent reserve guard Derrick Walton Jr. and cash to Atlanta in exchange for a top-55 protected second-round pick that is unlikely to ever materialize for the Clippers, according to two people not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
It’s not yet known whether Morris will be available to play at the start of the Clippers’ upcoming four-game road trip, either Saturday in Minnesota or Sunday in Cleveland, because the timing of his physical exam remained unclear. Harkless, too, must pass a physical.
Morris will be a free agent in the summer and could be a short-term rental but for the win-now Clippers his addition was viewed as a victory in several ways.
In evaluating their team throughout this season, the Clippers considered pursuing upgrades in a few areas. Yet entering the deadline there weren’t nagging issues at center. Starting center Ivica Zubac has flashed glimpses of elite rim protection and Montrezl Harrell averages 19 points per game off the bench. There was no pure ballhandler but coach Doc Rivers has said he doesn’t want his offense in the hands of one guard.
The top priority became a forward — and the Clippers knew just the player they wanted, because they’d attempted, unsuccessfully, to sign Morris as a free agent in July.
Whereas both Harkless and Morris are versatile defensively, Morris adds scoring punch. Before the trades, the Clippers were the only NBA team with four players averaging at least 19 points. Following the addition of Morris, they now have five.
Harkless made 37% of his three-pointers but showed a reluctance at times to shoot when open. Defenses sagged off him and clogged driving lanes for teammates, which stoked fears he could become a liability on offense in the postseason.
Floor-spacing should not be an issue with Morris, who is attempting six three-pointers a game and provided a memorable audition by dropping 38 points on the Clippers in Staples Center on Jan. 5.
Not only did the Clippers keep Morris away from the Lakers, who also discussed options for a trade with the Knicks, they did so while staring down the Knicks during negotiations and holding onto young players valued for their mix of production, potential and — especially important — their affordable contracts.
Earlier this week the Knicks made clear they wanted second-year guard Landry Shamet as part of the deal, according to several people with knowledge of the discussions. His inclusion was a non-starter for the Clippers, however, and hours after Shamet made six three-pointers and scored 23 points Wednesday night in a victory against Miami, the team held firm that he would not be made available. Clippers rookies Terance Mann and Mfiondu Kabengele also were part of discussions Thursday but remain on the roster.
Holding onto young players on team-friendly contracts, such as Shamet and Zubac , was seen as vital because keeping the Clippers’ roster intact in the future could get very expensive with Morris and Harrell both set to hit the market as unrestricted free agents.
The deal was aided by the Clippers’ nimble maneuvering last summer. By helping Miami and Philadelphia facilitate a trade for guard Jimmy Butler as the third team in the deal last July, the Clippers added Harkless and received a first-round draft pick without giving up anything. That pick was moved within days as part of the Clippers’ offer to land Paul George from Oklahoma City, but it allowed the team’s own 2020 first-round pick to remain available for future use.
That possibility became reality Thursday.
The Clippers’ whirlwind of activity ahead of the deadline left two open roster spots. The 6-7 Harkless was adept at using his nearly seven-foot wingspan to guard smaller players and the Clippers could explore signing guards in the buyout market to address that void.