With a flourish of clever cap management, the Spurs managed to add another big piece in free agency. Marcus Morris will sign a two-year, $20 million dollar contract to play in San Antonio while DeMarre Carroll, who had agreed to a contract earlier in the week will join the team as a part of a trade that will send Davis Bertans to the Wizards.
It’s a move that should improve San Antonio’s physicality and versatility at the expense of shooting. Whether it pays off or not will largely depend on the team finding enough spacing to allow its scorers to thrive, but it’s worth the gamble.
If you are a little confused as to how this works under the collective bargaining agreement, we can’t blame you. The Spurs were reportedly using part of their mid-level exception on Carroll but are now using it all on Morris. They’ve managed to save the exception by engaging the Nets and Wizards on a three-team deal in which Carroll will now be traded to San Antonio while Davis Bertans goes to Washington and the rights to Aaron White and 2014 Serbian stash Nemanja Dangubic go to Brooklyn. It’s a nifty little cap management trick that has essentially allowed the Spurs to upgrade their forward rotation by adding two free agents. They had to attach an extra year to Carroll’s deal to make it work under sign-and-trade rules, but in all likelihood that third year will be non-guaranteed. The two-year timeline is probably still in place.
Beyond the bookkeeping details that will only interest the more cap obsessed of fans, the trade is also smart from a personnel perspective. The addition of Carroll seemed more about bringing in someone with a different, needed skill set than about upgrading the team’s overall talent level, so it was understandable to question it. The Morris signing, on the other hand, accomplishes both. The Spurs are getting more physical defense at the wing while also getting more versatile on offense.
Morris can’t check the quicker wings but he has traditionally done a good job on ball-handling forwards. He’s also been a decent rebounder since largely making the switch to power forward in the past two seasons. Bertans was a better defender than his reputation suggested, but Gregg Popovich clearly didn’t trust him to guard physical forwards, which limited his usefulness. Morris has terrible advanced numbers, but he brings toughness as a one-on-one defender to the table that should allow him to stay on the floor on critical possessions.
On offense Morris is not great at anything but he’s solid at a lot of things. He’s a 36 percent outside shooter who can hit spot-up threes at a high rate while also being able to score in the post in a pinch, creating mismatches for opponents. Morris’ usage is a little high for someone with such a low assist rate, but he’s not too turnover-prone. The man just shoots a lot, but he’s efficient enough as a scorer to not harm his team too much while doing it. The Celtics were actually slightly better on offense with him on the court last season.
In terms of talent and versatility, Morris is simply superior to Bertans. The biggest issue with essentially swapping the two has to do with role and fit. Bertans was a low-usage sniper who demanded opponents’ attention by moving without the ball and firing quickly from beyond the arc when left open. He shot 44 percent on shots in which no opponent was within four feet of him and averaged just about 1.5 second per touch. As a floor spacer, he was vastly superior to Morris, who shot 39 percent on open shots while averaging over two seconds per touch, the equivalent of how much longer LaMarcus Adridge held the ball last season. Considering how precarious the Spurs’ shooting situation already was and the fact that they’ll need to integrate yet another ball handler in Dejounte Murray, Pop could have a hard time finding possessions to assuage Morris’ thirst for the ball.
The signing could also affect the youth movement negatively. Morris is on a two-year deal with a player option in the second season and is close to turning 30. He’s not a part of the Spurs future but will take up minutes that could have gone to Lonnie Walker IV and Luka Samanic. We’ve already covered how the Carroll addition jammed up the rotation a bit, but now San Antonio will have three veteran combo forwards along with DeMar DeRozan taking most of the forward minutes. It will probably be a necessity to give playing time to the more seasoned members of the team if the hope is to make the playoffs in the crowded Western Conference, but at some point the Spurs will need to pivot into a full on youth movement if they hope to remain relevant. Having so many veterans who need minutes around can delay that transition.
Despite the very real concerns about shooting and fit, swapping Bertans for Morris seems like a good decision overall, at least when considered on its own. Gregg Popovich will have to figure out how to maximize the strange roster he helped build for the Spurs to be better than the sum of their parts, but he’s surely up for the challenge.
If things work out, San Antonio will have a deep roster that should excel at defense and could grind out enough points to win most nights. That doesn’t sound like the most thrilling team around, but Spurs fans have been happy to trade excitement for wins in the past and will gladly make that bargain once again.