As the Clippers’ flight on Friday was en route to Minnesota, the question of whether their prized new addition, Marcus Morris, will play Saturday also remained up in the air.
After being acquired by the Clippers from New York in a trade just before Thursday’s NBA deadline, the 6-foot-8 forward began the administrative side of being traded, from paperwork to taking a physical exam. Though the team did not rule out Morris to play against Minnesota, it was considered a challenge for him to be ready.
But if Morris’ immediate influence on the Clippers remains uncertain, the team’s reasoning for the move was as clear as their long-stated goal of playing for a championship this season.
A ninth-year pro who can guard multiple positions and has made 44% of his three-pointers this season, Morris was viewed as the player who can help unlock the long-term potential both players and coaches say they have yet to come close to reaching.
Though the Clippers are 36-15, have nine victories in their last 11 games and rank sixth in both offensive and defensive efficiency, the front office was not the only group that saw areas for needed improvement as the Thursday trade deadline neared.
“Whether it’s starting the game off or whether it’s closing the game out, there’s slippage in both those areas where I think we can improve,” forward Paul George said Wednesday.
More consistency, forward Kawhi Leonard said, could be accomplished by “getting smarter as a unit.”
“I think we need to get every aspect tuned up,” he added.
The Clippers have alternately labored and ripped through their schedule, ebbs and flows that have corresponded with their health, or lack thereof. A full, healthy roster has played four times in 51 games. Coach Doc Rivers has used 23 starting lineups. After a weeklong run of good health, they will not be at full strength against the Timberwolves after starting guard Patrick Beverley was ruled out because of a sore right groin, the same injury that caused him to sit out three games in January.
Rivers called the gap between production and potential a “good sign.”
“We’re going to get way better,” he said. “I really believe that. We need to actually all be on the floor a little bit more but you can feel it. You can feel guys starring to find their place.”
Said guard Landry Shamet: “The best version of this group, how we need to play, I think we were just trying to search for it earlier in the year, which is normal — still are trying to search for it.”
Morris can’t change all of that by himself, and more reinforcements who may or may not become contributors could be coming. Two open roster spots will be available once Isaiah Thomas, who was added from Washington as part of the three-team trade that included New York, is waived as expected.
The team will be patient in filling those spots, according to a person not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. To be postseason-eligible, players must be signed by March 1. The Clippers will play eight games between Saturday and that deadline and will use the time to reevaluate their needs.
The Clippers believe Morris will mesh quickly because he possesses strengths the front office has attempted to build the entire roster around — toughness, shooting and defensive versatility. His fit was considered best because his size and shooting could allow the Clippers to play him in both bigger or smaller lineups.
One challenge for Morris will be assuming a more complementary role. With the Knicks, he became a go-to scorer while averaging more than 32 minutes per game. Only two Clippers, Leonard and George, average more than 30 minutes and the starting lineup’s offense is built around both.
In fourth quarters, four Clippers — George, Leonard, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell — already average at least three shots, and finding room for Morris’ shots within that hierarchy will be an adjustment. Still, one reason the Clippers have wanted to add Morris since last summer’s free agency was a belief he will not shy away from taking an important shot in a high-stakes moment. Being a credible offensive threat should create more opportunity for teammates.
Morris plays with an edge that can backfire; he was ejected in New York’s preseason opener after bouncing the ball off the head of a defender guarding him tightly. But for a Clippers roster whose players have acknowledged often lackadaisical play, it could be a boost.
“I think we still have stretches in the game where the ball is kind of stagnant and we’re not communicating on the defensive end and I think a lot of games talent is still getting us through,” Williams said. “I think there’s a lot of things that still can be tightened up and worked on on both ends of the floor.
“Are we close? I’m not sure, but we’re still growing. I think we can be really good. I don’t feel like we’ve shown that yet.”
As he finished the answer Wednesday night, Williams was quickly asked a follow-up question: How good?
“I mean, like, championship good,” he said. “That’s what we’re building this team for.”
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Update: The Clippers are 2-0 against Minnesota (15-35) this season but they’ll face a much different opponent Saturday. The Timberwolves moved seven players ahead of the trade deadline and received eight in return, including former Golden State guard D’Angelo Russell. … Minnesota hasn’t won since Jan. 9. … Since missing all five of his three-pointers Jan. 12 against Denver, Clippers guard Landry Shamet has made 43.7% of his three-pointers in his last 11 games while averaging 7.9 attempts.