With the San Antonio Spurs falling in each of the first four games of this year’s Rodeo Road Trip, it’s hard not to wonder how different this team would be with Dejounte Murray.
Uneasy times are upon the San Antonio Spurs. For a franchise so devoted to its hometown, the Rodeo Road Trip has historically been a time of celebration as the team makes its rounds of the NBA and scorches the competition. Things haven’t gone as planned this year with the Spurs losing on all four stops in the first leg of their tour: Sacramento, Golden State, Portland and Utah.
San Antonio finished the 2017-18 season with the fourth best defensive rating in the NBA at 104.1, largely due to the All-Defensive campaign of point guard Dejounte Murray.
The Seattle-native transformed the Spurs on that end, oftentimes guarding the opponent’s best player and intercepting errant passes frequently. Murray is one of the most fundamentally sound individual defenders in the game, so adjusting to life without him has been terribly difficult for a team that’s already poor at guarding the perimeter.
— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) November 17, 2018
For an organization that has historically emphasized defense above all, the Spurs are uncharacteristically lackluster this year. With a defensive rating of 111.5, San Antonio ranks 23rd in the NBA in defensive rating. They’ve also dropped from 11th in the league in rebounding to 22nd with 44.1 boards per contest.
It’s abundantly clear that this iteration of the Spurs was set up to have Dejounte Murray in a featured role. Both Derrick White and Bryn Forbes have filled in admirably, but Dejounte was anticipated to take a large step after an offseason dedicated to his growth. His hustle, dedication and explosiveness make him an excellent running mate for DeMar DeRozan.
After years within the Spurs system, Dejounte is accustomed to head coach Gregg Popovich’s intended style of play. If not for the tragic ACL injury that he suffered in the offseason, the Spurs’ playoff outlook would be noticeably less bleak.
Next: Maintaining control of the glass
Maintaining control of the glass
Rebounding has been a major issue for the San Antonio Spurs this season. While All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge remains one of the game’s smartest and most consistent rebounders, the rest of the squad has failed to pick up the slack left by Murray’s injury. During his sophomore campaign, Murray averaged 5.7 rebounds per game in 21.5 minutes; making him one of the most tenacious young rebounders in the league.
Allow me to remind you: Dejounte Murray is a point guard.
In the 2017-18 season, Murray ranked third in rebounding for guards starting in 20 or more games. He hustled on the backboards as much as any guard not named Russell Westbrook or Ben Simmons with the third most rebounding chances per content at 13.
Once implemented as a full-time starter, it became clear as day that Murray’s intensity on the glass would set him apart from the pack. His record-shattering consistency when attacking the boards is one of many aspects that San Antonio has missed this season.
Second chance points were huge for the Spurs with Murray on the floor, but opportunity have become scarce this season. After finishing ninth in the league in second chance points last year, San Antonio ranks 27th in the league in this category. To be fair, San Antonio has run smaller lineups this year with an emphasis on floor spacing off the pine. If Jakob Poetl were to find a greater role in the rotation then the team could improve those numbers, but Pop doesn’t quite seem to trust the third-year center yet.
One thing is for sure: Popovich could always rely on Murray to clean up the glass.
Next: Guarding the Perimeter
Guarding the Perimeter
The aforementioned Derrick White has been a spectacle for Spurs fans to witness this season because of his supreme playmaking skills and sky-high defensive IQ. With that said, White is only doing a fraction of the job that Dejounte Murray did last year.
Murray was the go-to perimeter defender for San Antonio with Kawhi Leonard in a perpetual state of “Return from Injury Management.” The lengthy point guard is built like a stout defensive two-guard but uses his quickness to smother opposing guards. Much of the Spurs’ success last season came from gritty defensive effort, but something changed throughout the league this season. Players are having an easier time scoring because of the league’s refined ‘freedom of movement’ rules, forcing many defensive-minded players to focus on scoring.
Now would be the perfect time for Murray to show his skills as a perimeter defender. Shooters are firing away at the higher volume and the presence of an All-NBA defender would reconfigure the way teams view San Antonio. Elite Western Conference guards such as Damian Lillard and Stephen Curry have had their way with the Spurs this year, firing from range and coasting to easy victories.
If Murray was healthy and available to play, those teams would have a much harder time of generating offense because of his suffocating defense around the wing.
Next: Energy and Intensity
Energy and Intensity
More So than anything else, the Spurs have desperately missed Dejounte Murray’s on-court intensity. Few players actively play with as much heart as Murray, whose constant hustle could breathe air into a team desperately looking for an extra spark. Both DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are susceptible to slow shooting nights, especially on the road.
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What separates Murray from the rest of the pack is the energy that he exerts on a nightly basis. There’ll be some uncertainty surrounding his return, especially considering his explosive style of play displayed in his sophomore campaign. Thankfully, Murray relies more on his skill and smarts than physical attributes. This should ease his transition back into the rotation once fully healthy toward the end of 2019.
Whether he was stripping the ball from opposing playmakers, jumping in front of passes or hustling on the fast break, Murray always manages to make his presence felt. The Spurs aren’t a team that’s been reliant on single players often; team-based basketball rules supreme. For this reason, Murray is a perfect fit in Popovich’s system.
Everything that Murray does both on and off the court is for his team — his dedication is unmatched. The 22-year-old bleeds silver and black, through and through and it shows through his social media presence over the course of his rehab.
It’s truly unfortunate that the Spurs are trucking on without Dejounte Murray, but the future is bright in the Alamo City.