SALT LAKE CITY — It has hardly been a secret around the NBA that Marcus Morris is the most attractive trade chip the Knicks have on their roster, a veteran with playoff experience, an offensive skill set and an expiring contract.
But the Knicks received another reminder this week of just how valuable he is to them, too. The message could have come Sunday when he scored a career-high 38 points to keep the Knicks in a game that eventually was lost to the Clippers. But it really came Tuesday and Wednesday when he was unable to play.
The Knicks fell behind by as many as 29 points Wednesday as they lost, 128-104, to the Jazz, completing a winless four-game road trip, a mostly lifeless performance and the common denominator in many of their ugliest performances is that Morris is missing.
Morris has been nursing a sore neck after a number of collisions in recent games and sat out a 30-point loss to the Lakers. That was the third game he has missed this season — the first was a 44-point loss in Milwaukee, then an eight-point loss to a depleted Washington Wizards squad. And without Morris again Wednesday the Knicks were never in the game.
The Knicks are 0-4 without him and he is averaging a team-leading 19.1 points per game. But they are trying not to use his absence as a crutch.
Without him the Knicks (10-28) were struggling for offense, getting a game-high 16 points from Frank Ntilikina, who led the Knicks in scoring for the first time in his career. Bobby Portis, stepping in as the starter for Julius Randle, who was not with the team for a personal matter, had 13 points on just 5-for-17 shooting. Adding insult to injury, Emmanuel Mudiay, who was set loose by the Knicks to clear cap space, came off the bench for the Jazz (25-12) and had 20 points. Bogan Bogdanovich also had 20 and Rudy Gobert added 16 points with 16 rebounds.
“It was tough. We missed them a lot today,” said RJ Barrett who had 10 points. “It can’t be an excuse, no matter what circumstance. You’ve got to go out there and play hard . . . They were getting too many easy everything -- layups, threes, everything was just easy. On a good team like that, with those kind of shots it’s going to be a hard night.”
“Obviously, it’s great to have them,” Knicks interim coach Mike Miller said of Randle and Morris. “We have a lot of confidence in all of our guys. Julius and Marcus have really played at a high level here. That was the way it goes throughout the course of 82 games. Those things happen and it gives other guys opportunities, gives them opportunities to do something and further their play.”
What Morris has tried to avoid, and mostly succeeded at, is getting caught up in the trade rumors that have already been surfacing ahead of the February 6 NBA trade deadline. Morris may hold value elsewhere, and even if he is not dealt away he figures to be an attractive free agent in the summer. But for now he insists he isn’t thinking about being anywhere else.
“I love our team,” Morris said. “I love our future. I just want to be a part of helping these young guys grow into the great players they’re going to be. That was the reason why I made the decision to come here, going back on the decisions I made, along with a lot of other things. I’m here and I enjoy this organization, I enjoy the players they got here and I want to be here long term.”
And for the Knicks he holds a strange value — as a trade chip to continue to build pieces for a better future, but also as a key piece to the plan that was put in place last summer. That plan already has gone awry, the record far from what the Knicks hoped for when they put together a roster with seven veteran free agents as they sought to establish a credibility that last year’s 17-win season didn’t provide.
But if the Knicks trade Morris away for a pick or a lesser player they would find themselves down that road again — as the first few games without Morris on the active roster would seem to indicate.