Sitting a player who is second in your franchise’s history in minutes played, fourth in points scored and first in assists wouldn’t be easy for anyone. Oh, and that’s without mentioning the four All-NBA appearances and the Finals MVP trophy on said player’s mantle, either.
But in late January, that was the exact decision San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich made when he benched a club legend in favor of a 21-year-old with merely two years of NBA experience.
Tony Parker, being the professional he always has been, took the demotion in stride. Via Clay Bailey of the Associated Press:
“Second-year pro Dejounte Murray has replaced Tony Parker as the Spurs starting point guard and coach Popovich said Parker handled the change with class. ‘He was great. He thought it was good for the team, and giving Dejounte a chance to see what he could do. (Parker) was mature, and really made it easy on me to make a decision like that. He was fantastic.'”‘
Upon first glance, it would appear Dejounte Murray, the young up-and-comer who has been handed the reins of the team, has not disappointed with his new responsibilities. In the 21 games since becoming the Spurs’ starting lead guard, the Washington product has averaged 11.1 points, 7.1 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.6 steals per contest while shooting almost 50 percent from the floor.
For reference, there are only 13 players putting up at least 11 points, seven boards and three dimes nightly for the season; eight of them were All-Stars this year, and the other five are Nikola Jokic, Ben Simmons, Blake Griffin, Marc Gasol and Nikola Vucevic.
Not bad company for Murray to be in.
However, upon closer examination, Murray’s contributions as the team’s primary point guard may not be as impressive as the raw statistics would suggest.
For starters, San Antonio is 9-12 since making the move. The Spurs boast a decent-but-far-from-spectacular +1.3 net rating in that span, a mark that places them 15th overall league-wide. Prior to switching starting lead guards, San Antonio was 30-17 with a +3.8 net rating, the fifth-highest mark of any team in that time frame.
Though Popovich’s men have outscored opponents by 1.6 points per 100 possessions with Murray on the floor since Jan. 21 (when the second-year guard became a starter), that number doesn’t change much when he’s on the bench. With Murray sitting, San Antonio outscores teams by 1.7 points per 100 possessions. (Both numbers courtesy of NBAWowy.)
Simply put: Murray hasn’t quite been the difference-maker many thought he could be. At least not yet. And a lot of that has to do with his lack of efficient scoring punch, as well as his limited vision as a distributor.
According to Synergy Sports Tech, Murray rates as either a below average or poor scorer in five of his six most-used play-types. Those include scoring as the pick-and-roll ball-handler, in transition, as a spot-up shooter, as a cutter and in isolation. The only area where Murray even ranks as an average point-producer is on put-backs, thanks to his rebounding chops and freakish wingspan. Regardless, kind of a weird area for a point guard to excel in.
Murray’s still raw as a play-maker and often relies solely on his decent athleticism to score. Too often, he picks up his dribble and gets stuck in no man’s land, making it unsurprising that his assist-to-turnover ratio is a paltry 1.68 – a lower clip than rookie center Bam Adebayo.
Also lacking in Murray’s game is tact and touch near the rim.
Around the basket, the league’s most effective guards are either freakazoid athletes or magicians with the prowess to put the perfect spin on the basketball, making it deflect off the glass at odd angles and through the hoop.
Murray doesn’t really fall into either category – and the numbers reflect that.
According to NBA.com, 28 players qualified as guards have attempted at least 250 field-goal attempts within five feet of the rim this season.
Murray’s 52.6 percent conversion rate is the fifth-lowest among such players, trailing rookies with their own efficiency issues in Josh Jackson and Dennis Smith Jr.
Lack of explosion and touch really affect the 6-foot-5 point guard’s finishing, and a lot of his misses wind up looking as awkward as this:
With a coaching staff as highly esteemed as San Antonio’s and Murray’s own want to improve, it wouldn’t be shocking to see him greatly improve on these faults over the coming years.
But right now, his offensive game is flat-out ugly.
Further consider the fact he hardly gets to the foul line (Murray has attempted just 109 free throws over 68 games this year) and his total lack of an outside shot (25 triples attempted on the season), and you have the makings of a very inefficient player.
For those who want to argue that Murray’s defensive capabilities are the reason he took Parker’s starting spot, consider that with its new game-opening point guard in the game, San Antonio is giving up 105 points per 100 possessions. That figure would place them outside of the Top 10 in defensive efficiency if extrapolated for the year – a decent rate, but one that is far from elite.
What’s more, per Synergy, the only play type in which Murray ranks as anything above an average defender is against spot-up opportunities (logical, considering his insane 7-foot wingspan which he uses to profoundly affect jump shots).
The young floor general is adept at jumping passing lanes and securing steals, sure, but the rest of his point-stopping game – much like his point-producing game – still needs refinement.
Perhaps Popovich decided to insert Murray into the starting lineup back in late January once he realized Kawhi Leonard not returning this season was a very real possibility, thus leaving his starting five lacking in athleticism. Maybe the baseless the-Spurs-are-quietly-tanking theory holds more merit than many think. (Doubtful.)
Whatever the case, Parker is still undoubtedly a better option, even at this late stage of his career, than Murray.
And if the Spurs do wind up maintaining their place in the Top 8 of the Western Conference once April rolls around, it’s very possible the former ends up playing the bulk of the team’s minutes at lead guard throughout the playoffs, especially in the fourth quarter.
That is, unless, Popovich, without a superstar in Leonard, realizes contention is out of San Antonio’s grasp this season, and fully commits to developing his younger pieces with all-important postseason experience.
You can find Frank Urbina on Twitter @frankurbina_.