The news came as a shock to fans, but Morris has been reportedly mulling things over for a few days, even refusing to show up for a physical. While the Spurs are said to be confident they’ll get him, the Knicks are clearly a real threat, so let’s try to untangle this mess.
The only reason why the Knicks now have the cap space to offer Morris a one-year, $15 million contract is because their first target at the wing, Reggie Bullock, might not be healthy enough to play the majority of next season. General Manager Steve Mills now has money to spend, and since Morris hasn’t actually signed with the Spurs, he’s technically still a free agent. While reneging on a verbal agreement is not right, and chasing a player who made a commitment to sign elsewhere is not the most honorable thing to do, it’s all perfectly legal under the collective bargaining agreement. As we’ve learned from the DeAndre Jordan free agency fiasco of 2015 and Carlos Boozer’s spurning of the Cavaliers in 2004, there’s not much teams can do when free agents change their minds.
It makes sense for both the Knicks and Morris to consider getting together. The Knicks have a lot of forwards already in place, but Morris is arguably the best player they can realistically get on a short term deal. After missing out on big free agents, the plan in New York seems to be to load up on solid veterans with resell value, and Morris fits the bill.
For Morris a potential deal with the Knicks would be all about maximizing his future earnings. Getting $15 million in New York is not all that dissimilar than getting $10 million in Texas when taxes and cost of living are considered, but securing a larger sum in the summer of 2019 could help him get an even bigger one in the summer of 2020 from his incumbent team. The franchise for which he suits up for this year will have non-Bird rights to him, which means they’ll be able to go over the tax while offering him 120 percent of his 2019/20 salary. In San Antonio, that would amount to around $12 million. In New York, or wherever he lands if he gets traded mid-season, the sum would be $18 million.
A better chance to get a big payday in the future, combined with the possibility of a bigger role, probably makes the Knicks’ offer appealing to Morris. He’s also likely not worrying too much about his reputation, since he’s an established veteran who has already proved his value. A year in a non-star role on the not-contending Spurs won’t likely significantly change how he’s perceived. Morris also had a bad experience with an NBA team reneging on a tacit agreement when the Suns traded him months after signing him and his brother for cheap as a package deal, so he’s likely to be cold and calculating when it comes to his career. It would be misguided to punish the Spurs for something a different franchise did and generally dishonest to not honor a fair deal he agreed to, but there are reasons to believe he could go back on his word and actually join the Knicks.
While missing out on Morris wouldn’t really affect the Spurs’ future in any way, it would somewhat damage their ability to field a more balanced roster this upcoming season. San Antonio traded away a rotation piece in Davis Bertans in order to have the money to sign Morris. The Bertans trade has already been finalized, and having neither was never part of the plan. Although they are replacing Bertans with DeMarre Carroll via that same trade, losing Morris would put them in the same “lack of depth” situation at forward they often faced last season beyond Rudy Gay and Bertans.
The Spurs still have the mid-level exception at their disposal to potentially replace Morris, but the market has dried up. Beyond Suns restricted free agent Kelly Oubre, who will likely command more than the MLE, there are a bunch of cheaper players who might seriously struggle to make the rotation if they are signed. Carrying the exception into the season wouldn’t be the worst thing, since it can be useful in case a veteran gets waived, but it would mean not having depth at the forward spot to start the year, which is an issue the front office spent the entire offseason trying to fix.
All that being said, this is hardly something the Spurs could have prevented. The front office obviously can’t be blamed for the role Bullock’s poor physical and resulting reconfigured contract with the Knicks played in this. Getting the Nets and Wizards to wait until Morris was ready to sign to finalize the Bertans trade would have been ideal but likely not possible, as those other two franchise have their own timelines to prioritize.
What’s unclear is exactly when Morris started to show hesitance to honor the original deal. If it was before the trade for Bertans was finalized, they would have been better off just keeping him and using the MLE on Carroll, which appeared to be the original plan. If it was after, which is more likely, it might have been better for the Spurs to either act quickly and target a different free agent as soon as signing their first target stopped being a sure thing.
Regardless, patience might ultimately prove to be the best course of action. It’s still possible the Spurs actually get Morris, and if they do, this whole situation will be remembered as a curious anecdote by the time the season starts. While the Knicks’ offer is surely enticing for Morris, playing for a franchise with a much better reputation and legitimate chance to make the playoffs has to be appealing as well, especially after getting a taste of postseason success in Boston. His ultimate decision will reveal where his priorities lie.
It’s never good to have summer drama, but the Morris situation should be resolved soon, one way or another. For now we’ll just have to trust that the front office will either get its man, find a good enough replacement, or find an internal solution on the existing roster to make this saga a footnote on a successful 2019-20 season.