Together, Murray and White can be a transcendent pairing for the San Antonio Spurs.
Of the last three NBA Champions (‘21 Milwaukee Bucks, ‘20 Los Angeles Lakers, ‘19 Toronto Raptors), defensive-minded guards have been at the helm of every lineup.
Despite his offensive woes, Jrue Holiday asserted his will in the most recent Finals with smothering perimeter defense against Chris Paul and Devin Booker. LA managed to win it all with the defense-oriented guard rotation of Alex Caruso, Rajon Rondo and Danny Green leading the way. Before that, Kyle Lowry solidified his stature as one of the NBA’s elite point guards with excellent defensive instincts and leadership in the NBA Finals.
Needless to say, guard defense is more essential to team success than it’s ever been. With more players operating on the wing, someone has to step up and contest perimeter shots.
Most teams wish they had one guard as impactful on that side of the ball as White or Murray; let alone two of them. When you deploy two guards with the length, quickness, and technical ability as sound as these two, teams have to transform the way they operate around the perimeter.
For many years prior to the ‘Beautiful Basketball’ era, the San Antonio Spurs beat their opponents by wearing them down on defense. It was a recipe for success that lasted through the 2014 Championship when the Spurs combined innovative, fast-paced offense with methodical, switchable, and borderline positionless defense.
With Murray and White on the floor together, the jobs of any backcourt tandem become considerably more difficult. While Murray is more likely to rip the ball from an opponent’s hands or pick off a quick pass, White may sneakily slide into place to draw a charge or stick to the ball-handler’s hip like glue. Each is gifted in their own way, underscoring their matchup’s weakness and exploiting it for the team’s gain.
Offensively, White and Murray fit wonderfully. As the former has become more comfortable launching long-balls off of screens or catch-and-shoot looks, the latter gets to his spots on the floor with ease and beats defenders off the dribble en route to the basket. While neither is a perfect shooter, they’ve each worked diligently to improve this aspect of their respective games.
Each of White and Murray has exceptional playmaking skills from the pick-and-roll, which is the basis of this group’s offense. In White’s absence last year, we got to watch as Murray blossomed into a more impactful playmaker. However, that burden will be eased a bit when White, who ranked in the 86th percentile of pick-and-roll ball-handlers in 2020, returns to the floor full-time.
Last season, the Spurs were 9.4 points per 100 possessions better with White on the floor and 8.9 points per 100 possessions better with Murray on the floor. This is the season for San Antonio’s front office brass to assess whether this tandem actually works together after injuries derailed that experiment for the better part of four years.
It doesn’t make sense to split up this backcourt tandem before getting a chance to see if all the years envisioning them together was worth the investment for San Antonio.
If Marvel Studios' ambitious new anthology series has taught us anything, it's that answering the question "What If?" is better than leaving those stones unturned to be pondered for years to come.