In the hours leading up to Thursday’s 3 p.m. ET deadline, both teams were engaged with the New York Knicks in a race for forward Marcus Morris Sr. Over the previous weeks, executives from the Clippers and the Lakers eyed one another as they stalked Morris, a role player with the type of edge that contending teams find valuable.
When the two teams canvassed for information as Feb. 6 approached, they actually wanted to know about the other, league sources told ESPN. Would the Lakers include Kyle Kuzma? Would the Clippers offer Landry Shamet?
Last month, the Knicks were at Staples Center for a back-to-back weekend. Both teams circled Morris, watching his every move, watching each other watch his every move. Morris can be valuable in the postseason, but this hunt wasn’t just about getting a versatile defender who can stretch the floor. This was about the fastest-expanding rivalry in the NBA.
Never before has the league seen something quite like this: two teams, in the same city, locked in a struggle for players, hearts, minds and titles. They’ve breathed the same air for decades. But even in seasons when the Clippers had the better team, they were never seen as equals. Therefore they could never be seen as rivals.
Perhaps it’s a little difficult to fully see the breadth of this just yet, as so much of it has taken place out of sight. Last summer, the tension leading up to July 4 was incredible in both front offices.
The Lakers slammed the brakes on finalizing the Anthony Davis trade with the New Orleans Pelicans because Kawhi Leonard asked them to wait, a sign he might join to create a superteam to end all superteams. Then, Clippers coach Doc Rivers implored owner Steve Ballmer to make a massive trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder, giving up an unprecedented number of assets — not just because the idea of getting Leonard and Paul George was so incredible, but because the alternative was watching the Lakers waltz to more banners for the Clippers to cover up in the arena.
This time it was the Lakers refusing to put their last prized young player, Kuzma, in a deal, as the Knicks wanted. It wasn’t a surprise the Knicks were high on the young forward. Soon-to-be president Leon Rose was part of the group that signed Kuzma at CAA last summer when he switched agents. Rose hasn’t officially been named to the Knicks job, but his influence is no doubt already in play.
No Kuzma meant no deal, and it allowed the Clippers to swoop in and land Morris for Maurice Harkless, a first-round pick, a second-rounder and a pick swap. As a result of the Davis deal, the Lakers had no picks or swaps left to offer. Another round went to the former little brothers.
Next up: the buyout market. With a handful of veterans likely to come free in the coming days and with the possible unretirement of guard Darren Collison — a player both the Lakers and Clippers might want if for no other reason than to keep him away from the other — the two sides could soon be in another contest.
Leonard’s 30 points and a strong fourth quarter won opening night for the Clippers. In the next marquee matchup, on Christmas, Leonard put up 35 in another victory. Both times the games were tied after three quarters, and both times the Clippers succeeded with their new star outdueling LeBron James.
Like those player acquisitions, these were tense moments with uncertain results that ultimately went the Clippers’ way. They’re starting to run up the score a little.
Of course, those results will not get carried over into a possible playoff series. Though Morris is likely immediately headed into the starting lineup, it’s impossible to know what sort of impact he’ll have, making it hard to project what Thursday’s trade outcome will mean in this saga.
But it is looking like this is going to be a saga indeed.