The two contestants in the NBA’s version of Battle: Los Angeles, who double as the two leading competitors for the Western Conference crown, had mirrored each other in their roster construction before Thursday. Though the parallels aren’t perfect, they both built upon one star signed in free agency and another acquired via a trade that nearly emptied their collection of future draft picks. They both surrounded those leaders with a mix of fierce defenders and microwave scorers. They both have played to a similar level this season, ranking in the top six in the league in both offensive and defensive rating.
But the rivals took different approaches to the trade deadline Thursday. The conference-leading Lakers didn’t make a move, seemingly trusting in the post-deadline free-agent market and the camaraderie that has propelled them through an emotional few weeks. The Clippers, meanwhile, swung a three-team trade that emerged as one of the headlines from an ultimately lackluster deadline for the league’s top teams. Which course of action proves superior could help determine the West’s playoff path.
Let’s start with the Clippers, who actually made a deal on Thursday. By sending out a 2020 first-round pick, Jerome Robinson, and Moe Harkless, the Clippers added Marcus Morris to a roster already full of veteran scorers. The Clippers also gave the Knicks the option to swap first-round picks in 2021, plus a future Pistons second-rounder, and received Isaiah Thomas from Washington, though they reportedly don’t plan to keep the point guard.
In one respect, the Clippers are parting with a lot here—the last first-rounder they can legally trade at the moment (because of the Paul George trade, the Stepien rule, and the rule preventing teams from trading draft picks more than seven years in advance); Robinson, a lottery pick in 2018; and Harkless, a solid defender and staple in the Clippers’ rotation. But on the other hand, no single item is all that costly to depart with, either. The Clippers’ 2020 first-rounder is likely to fall in the 25-30 range, where contributors are hard to find. (As for the option for a 2021 pick swap, well, what are the odds the Knicks will have a better record next season than L.A.?) Robinson has basically stalled at the NBA level, averaging 3.1 points per game in his career, meaning he can’t yet help a win-now team. And Harkless has an expiring contract this summer, plus his reliability will become less valuable in the playoffs, when Kawhi Leonard and George can play every night and soak up more minutes on the wings.
The prize for that middling return is Morris, a 19.6-points-per-game scorer and burly defender whom the Clippers have coveted since last summer. Morris spurned the Clippers (and Spurs) then for the Knicks, but now he’s landed in L.A. despite the Knicks’ apparent “hell-bent” desire not to trade him before he reaches free agency this summer.
He’ll have to fit a different mold on the Clippers, as potentially the no. 5 offensive option, as he did in New York. Morris’s usage rate with the Knicks represented a career high (24.3 percent of possessions), and he had carte blanche to search for his own shot, and only his own shot. Relative to his position, Morris ranks in only the 3rd percentile of his assist-to-usage ratio, according to Cleaning the Glass.
In L.A., he’ll touch the ball less and be forced into a complementary role. He seems to possess the skill set to make such a shift work, with an improved 3-point shot (44 percent this season) that should shine when opposing defenses swarm Leonard and George, leaving open shooters around the perimeter. And as a defender, Morris has the size to match up against the West’s premier wings—most notably LeBron James, whom Morris has guarded well in the past, even if that success came in a small sample.
Even accounting for the relatively low cost it took to acquire him, the Clippers still assume some risk. Morris might not jell with the Clippers’ strange locker room, and he most recently made news for casting misogynistic aspersions toward another player. He might take some time to relearn team basketball after escaping Knicks purgatory. And he likely won’t continue to shoot 44 percent from long distance, either; one of these data points is not like the others.
Still, Morris can help score some buckets if Leonard or George has an off night, and he can help reduce their defensive burden amid the playoff grind. The Clippers added a player sufficiently skilled to join the playoff rotation Thursday—that’s more than the Lakers can say.
Just because the Lakers didn’t make any trades, though, doesn’t mean they can’t get better before April. One avenue toward improvement would be internal; as Jonathan Tjarks wrote for The Ringer, shifting more of Anthony Davis’s minutes to the center position would allow for a more natural fit of Davis, James, and Kyle Kuzma—whom the Lakers reportedly refused to trade for Morris—in the frontcourt. When that trio plays without a center, it has a massive plus-17.3 net rating across 353 non-garbage-time possessions, per Cleaning the Glass.
The Lakers also have external means of improvement. Darren Collison seems ready to join the team after his surprise retirement last summer. The erstwhile Pacer—and, further back, Clipper—is a dependable caretaker at point guard; he won’t unleash 30-footers off the bounce, but he can make the right pass and shoot when left alone (career 39 percent from 3, including 43 percent the last three seasons). If he joins the team, he will help stabilize non-LeBron lineups, which have struggled without a lead creator—even with Davis still on the floor.
Lakers’ LeBron-less Struggles
|LeBron On Court||+11.1|
|LeBron Off, Davis Off||-1.0|
|LeBron Off, Davis On||-4.0|
Collison isn’t the only option the Lakers might encounter outside the trade market. J.R. Smith is reportedly an option to reunite with LeBron, and buyout veterans will surely emerge as well. But as the most notable such addition, Collison would give the Lakers, like Morris gives the Clippers, another serviceable two-way veteran to trust in a shortened playoff rotation. Neither team entered Thursday in desperate need of a trade; both rosters were strong enough, now and spinning forward to the playoffs, that they could have contended without any moves. Both Milwaukee and Toronto stayed pat in the East.
But for relatively little cost, the Clippers found yet another 3-and-D man, and the Lakers seem poised to fill their one glaring hole without losing anyone who’s helped the team to the best record in the West. Morris and Collison won’t fully determine the outcome in a potential clash at Staples Center; that will be mostly up to James and Davis and Leonard and George. Yet with so many contenders with so little separation, even differences at the margins can reap huge rewards in a succession of seven-game series. In just a few months, the two L.A. teams will learn whether they exploited those margins the right amount when they could.