The Clippers’ list of top free agents was in place. From the owner to the head coach, the plan was understood.
At 3 p.m. PST on June 30 last year, as NBA free agency started, the dialing began.
“Our first phone call was to Kawhi,” said Lawrence Frank, the team’s president of basketball operations. “Our second phone call was to Marcus.”
Kawhi, of course, is Kawhi Leonard, the superstar forward, two-time NBA champion and Finals MVP around which the Clippers’ entire summer strategy had been built.
Marcus Morris, in contrast, did not possess Leonard’s buzz, nor his accolades. But the ninth-year forward was the team’s second-highest priority because of what he did have: defensive versatility, court-stretching shooting and toughness — a combination the team termed “Clipper DNA.”
Within minutes of free agency’s start, Morris was talking with Frank, owner Steve Ballmer, consultant Jerry West and head coach Doc Rivers.
The promising introduction ultimately went nowhere. On July 4, after negotiations failed to produce a deal, Morris called Frank.
“He said, ‘Hey, just wanted to explain the situation,’” Frank said. “I thought it just showed a lot of character and class about it. We reconnected and I said, ‘You never know what the future holds.’”
Seven months later — after Morris agreed to, then backed out of, a free-agent deal with San Antonio then signed a one-year, $15-million contract with New York, where he averaged 19 points on 44% three-point shooting — he reconnected with Frank again Friday. This time it was in person, aboard a jet bound from New York’s Westchester County to Los Angeles.
Less than 24 hours had passed since the Clippers acquired Morris from the Knicks in a three-team trade that represented the Clippers’ latest effort to do everything possible to ensure that what their future holds is a title.
“Let’s chase what the main goal is, that’s to win the championship,” Morris said Saturday. “I’m happy to be here. It’s a long time coming since last summer. I’m excited.”
Morris underwent a physical exam Friday in Los Angeles and worked out at the team facility the next morning before flying with Frank to Minnesota, where they landed around 4 p.m. Three hours later, the Timberwolves (16-35) used a roster with eight new players to thump the Clippers 142-115 and end a 13-game losing streak.
“That was awful effort,” Rivers said after watching Minnesota make a franchise-record 26 three-pointers.
Leonard led the Clippers (36-16) with 29 points.
Morris, who watched the game in street clothes, is expected to play Sunday in Cleveland. It’s been a long wait for his Clippers debut.
The team tried trading for him during previous seasons, Frank said, and only wanted him more after their summer conversations.
“There’s a really tough competitive spirit about him,” general manager Michael Winger said. “Even before you get to the basketball piece, that’s attractive.
“We feel like he’s a Clipper. He plays like a Clipper, he’s got an edge to him. We liked him even more after getting to know him than before.”
The two sides never met in person but over the phone, Morris got to know the Clippers, as well.
“I could tell it was the main goal here was trying to win a championship,” he said. “And that’s something I wanted to be a part of. Obviously last summer some things didn’t go the way I thought it would but we here now, $15 million richer, so I’m ready.”
The Clippers also received Washington veteran guard Isaiah Thomas in the trade, but officially waived him Saturday afternoon.
Rivers envisions playing Morris, 30, in small-ball lineups featuring five shooters. One look could include playing JaMychal Green at center and Morris at forward.
“You can put me anywhere, I can space out really well, give guys space, score it any way,” he said. “I’m just ready to do what it takes for the team to win. I’m excited to get started but you going to see how well I fit. It’s going to be easy for me. I’m a high-IQ guy, can play any position on the court and I think it’s going to be very beneficial for both sides.”
Though Maurice Harkless was perhaps the Clippers’ most versatile defender, the team worried his offensive liabilities would shrink his role in the postseason. Though he made 37% of his three-pointers, Harkless averaged 5.5 points this season and his defender often cheated off him in help defense.
“We wanted to stretch the floor as much as we could,” Frank said of trading Harkless for Morris. “If possible, we wanted to add another two-way player regardless of position. Power forward was the No. 1 position of need so to double down on shooting, toughness, defense, [Morris] just totally fit what we were looking for.”
Whether that fit continues next season is a question that will be answered in July, during another round of free agency. The Clippers can offer Morris, an unrestricted free agent, up to $18 million.
But before tipoff Saturday, to Morris’ right, one of his former teammates in Houston, Patrick Patterson, stretched on the locker room floor. Another former Rockets teammate, Patrick Beverley, is a Clipper, too. With affection, he called backup center Montrezl Harrell “a dawg.”
“I’m going to fit right in perfectly,” he said.
When: 4:30 p.m. PST, Sunday
On the air: TV: Prime Ticket; Radio: 570
Update: After reinjuring his right groin Wednesday, Clippers guard Patrick Beverley did not play against Minnesota and coach Doc Rivers expressed doubt Beverley will play during the final three games of the road trip, which includes games in Philadelphia and Boston. “That still does not mean he will not or will,” Rivers said. “But I’m not very confident that he will.”