Like being coach of the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers, starting point guard for the San Antonio Spurs is not a job that comes open very often.
Steelers coaches since 1969: Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher (1992), Mike Tomlin (2007).
Spurs starting point guards (not counting guys who’ve started there occasionally over the years because of injuries) since the 1994-95 season: Avery Johnson, Antonio Daniels/Terry Porter (2000-01), Tony Parker (2001-02), Dejounte Murray (2017-18).
Four point guards in almost a quarter century. As my friend Tony likes to say: that’s it. That’s the list.
That there was little fanfare in San Antonio when Murray took over for good on Jan. 21, was ... because San Antonio. The Spurs wouldn’t make any public noise if the duplex in which they were all living burst into flames at 3 a.m. Hello, 911. There is a combustion event occurring at our domicile. Please do not send any assistance. We just thought it prudent and appropriate to inform you that we will be attaching a hose to the nearest available hydrant. No, we’ll do it ourselves. Thank you for your time.
But it doesn’t mean it wasn’t a big, big deal. And even a young guy like Murray understood the significance of it, and was willing to fall in line to do it "The Spurs Way." He knows that, one day, he’ll be at the other end of this.
“As you see, they do the right things,” Murray said at the Spurs’ practice facility last week. “They’ve got the right people, the character, people that’s willing to help you get better, from watching film, to strength, to shooting, to ballhandling. They have everything. Everybody’s comfortable with each other; everyone respects one another. It’s just a blessing to be around so (many) great people. There’s not one person that I can tell you steered me the wrong way. Everybody is supportive of one another, we respect one another. The love is all one. It’s a family here.”
Parker -- even an older, diminished, oft-injured, 35-year-old Parker -- is a seminal figure in Spurs history, a man and player who commands respect in that locker room because of what he’s accomplished over 16-plus NBA seasons. A rookie starter at age 19. A six-time All-Star. A Finals MVP. A future first ballot Hall of Famer. And someone who killed himself when he absolutely did not have to in order to get back on the court this season.
When he told me he thought it was best for the team, me coming off the bench and play with Manu, maybe we’ll bring some energy and stuff like that, I believe him. I trust him. And if he thinks we can do something even better with for team, I’m fine with it."
It took Spurs coach Gregg Popovich a couple of days to summon up the nerve to finally have the talk with one of his all-time favorite players, the tough love combined with allowing Parker to spend summer after summer playing for his beloved French national team over the years manifest of that feeling. It wasn’t a long talk between coach and player. The message was simple: it’s time. And, this is permanent.
It would be a lie to say Parker was happy. He’s a mighty competitor. But he accepted Popovich’s decision, just as Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili and others in recent years have as their roles were changed and reduced.
”A lot of people don’t understand the relationship I have with Pop, the respect we have for each other,” Parker said. "And so, for me, it’s like, I’ll trust him. Whatever happens. I have a feeling that he’ll take care of me my whole career, and I know he will until I’m finished. When he told me he thought it was best for the team, me coming off the bench and play with Manu, maybe we’ll bring some energy and stuff like that, I believe him. I trust him. And if he thinks we can do something even better with for team, I’m fine with it. I’ve been very blessed to be with the Spurs all those years, and that’s part of our mentality. Me, Manu, Timmy, always sharing for the team.”
Often, ’culture’ in an organization means ’we do what the best player wants us to do.’ That’s not culture; that’s appropriation masquering as standards. The Spurs have true culture. It’s a culture that could make David Robinson see he had to take a back seat almost immediately to Duncan, that saw Daniels realize the team would win more with Parker starting, that got Duncan to know when it was time for the offense to stop running through him and to start going through Kawhi Leonard. It is a culture that has seen Popovich reinvent the team over and over for 20 years.
Most every player in the NBA wants to win. But most of them want to win without making any real sacrifices to their numbers -- shots, money, whatever. (This is also true of many coaches, whose egos are just as big as most players. Trust me.)
Parker is one of the winningest point guards of his generation -- four championships, including that Finals MVP in 2007 as he led the Spurs to a four-game sweep of a young LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. But he is no longer that guy, even though he’s getting paid like it ($15.4 million this season).
“You have to look at the big picture,” Parker said. “For me, as a professional, that’s what you have to do that, anyway. You have to rehab. They pay me a lot of money, and so that’s part of it. I never saw it like that. My relationship with Pop goes deeper than that. He knows how hard I worked to come back, and R.C. (Buford, the Spurs’ general manager), too. So that’s why, for me, I just look at the big picture. I really believe that they will take care of me.”
Murray does not lack for confidence. But he was still surprised to get the keys to the car so quickly.
"It just shows how much of a pro he is, how much he’s willing to sacrifice for the team,” Murray said of Parker last week.
"...I just try to motivate him to keep going. I always tell him, out of everything you did -- winning championships, all the points you scored, anything -- the thing that surprised me and shocked me the most and made me respect him even more was when he got hurt last year. To see him in here every day, coming in on crutches, trying to get to running and shooting, he was dedicated to get back. He said he was going to get back to play again, and that was the best thing that I’ve seen from him.”
Murray looks like a colt during his two-year-old campaign -- not ready for the Derby, but all legs and arms, potential pouring from his pores. His length makes him a more than capable defender already. The 3-point shot is not not his strength at present as he’s made just 4 of 18 (22.2 percent) of them this season. That has to improve. But, he’s not afraid of anybody.
“1,000%,” DMs Jamal Crawford, the Wolves’ guard and Murray’s mentor; he’s been shepherding Murray since the latter was a high school star in Crawford’s native Seattle.
Crawford has stayed on Murray since he came to the L, too, telling him “Every night, consistency. Not getting too high, or too low. It's a long journey, keep enjoying the process.”
Murray inhales rebounds at his position and became the third player in league history to grab 13 boards in a game in which he didn’t score a point – which he did last week in a 106-104 win vs. Denver. The other players to accomplish the feat: Dennis Rodman and Petur Gudmundsson. (Petur Gudmundsson?) His 5.3 rebounds per game are sixth in the league among point guards, per NBA.com/Stats, behind Russell Westbrook, Ben Simmons, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Lowry and Chris Paul.
Murray started eight games out of injury necessity last season, but wasn’t ready. He started the first seven this season while Parker was still completing the rehab from the quad injury that ended his season in Game 2 of the 2017 Western Conference semifinals. But after Murray struggled with consistency and his shot in October and early November, Popovich started Patty Mills 11 games to try and get some offensive punch on the floor.
Coming off the bench in November, Murray’s offensive rating rose signficantly. And when Parker got back on the court, while the team was still managing his starter minutes, they placed Murray down the stretch in several games. But that was off-Broadway stuff. The Spurs always had plans for the day their 2016 first-rounder would be the guy. They decided not to wait any longer once they were able to see Parker play a month’s worth of games.
“Internally, this probably hasn’t been any different than it appears externally,” Buford said. ”Just as Timmy allowed Pop to coach him, and Manu allowed us to present our team in the best way possible, Tony, the day the discussion took place with Pop, those were his sentiments ... we couldn’t have done this without the professionalism Tony displayed -- and the mentorship he continues to show to Dejounte.”
At least Murray’s had half a season to get ready. Parker became the permanent starter in 2001 in his fifth professional game. He started all but one game the rest of that year, including all 10 playoff games.
“I think the biggest thing is staying positive, because you’re going to have your ups and downs,” Parker said. “Now, a lot of people are going to have a lot of expectations of him, and you know how hard Pop is. You know how he is. At the point guard position, it’s not easy to play for him …
“I’m just trying to be there for (Murray), you know -- support, whatever questions he has, and using all my knowledge that I have. I think I know the system even better than Pop. I’m just trying to help him as much as I can. It’s not going to be an easy transition, because as we play better teams, and playoffs, you know how hard it is.”
This regular season hasn’t exactly been a cakewalk for the Spurs. Their 34-21 record belies the incredible job they’ve done patching together lineups and wins. With Kawhi Leonard having played just nine games as recovering from his own quad injury has proven much tougher than expected, and Rudy Gay (heel) out since just after Christmas, San Antonio has had to make do with almost no proven scoring on the floor around All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge for long stretches.
Murray is just one of several young players -- as well as Brandon Paul, Davis Bertans, Bryn Forbes and Derrick White -- who’ve all played meaningful minutes already this year.
All these banners, they did that. It’s crazy. But at the same time, it’s the next man up. ... If I’m the next man up, I’ve got to be ready to go. Like I said, I’m working every day, and I’m showing them that I’m here to learn and get better every day."
“We’ve had to invent ourselves almost every night with a different lineup,” Buford said. “Pop’s not going to let us feel sorry for ourselves. And it creates great opportunities. Do Bryn Forbes, does Davis get these chances in other places, if the circumstances had been as linear? I don’t know.”
The Spurs, though, despite being outstanding again defensively (first in the league in points allowed; second in Defensive Rating; seventh in opponent field goal percentage and opponent 3-point percentage), aren’t clicking on all cylinders. San Antonio has plummeted offensively, falling from first in 3-point percentage last season to 17th this season. Their 9-7 January was their worst month since December, 2014, when they went 8-10.
They have missed Leonard terribly, and an ESPN story last month saying that the relationship between the team and its newest franchise player had cooled over disagreements about treatment plans and other issues was noteworthy not because of its content, but because someone was willing to publicly cite disagreement with how the franchise was operating. When the franchise makes mistakes, it’s usually the one that acknowledges them, as Popovich did when he said that he was wrong to try and change Aldridge’s offensive game his first season in San Antonio.
Buford said last week that the issue of Leonard’s rehab is “not chilling; it’s challenging. But no one’s put more time into than our group, and Kawhi, and we’ve put all the resources we can, internally and externally, to get him feeling confident enough to play.”
So, while they wait for Leonard, they must win games with their young guys taking on bigger roles -- and with Parker coaching Murray on the intricacies of the position -- the hardest, by far, in basketball.
“He’s a great kid, and he listens,” Parker said. “He wants to get better. And he understands what it takes to get better. He’s in the gym. He works hard. For me, that’s good to see that he wants to be better.”
It means Murray is getting a real-time education in Popology -- the screaming, followed by the arm around the shoulder, followed by the well-timed moment of inquiry and curiosity at practice, or a video session.
“Pop don’t play that,” Murray said. “It’s not BS. It’s all stuff that makes sense. That’s the big picture about it -- everything he’s talking about, everything he’s yelling about, it all means something. It’s the right thing.”
And it means Murray is around when Duncan and Matt Bonner returned to the gym last week so the Spurs could have enough bodies to run four on four in practice.
“It just shows me their love for the game,” Murray said. “They’re retired. They could be running businesses and never coming to see a court again. They put so much work in. But just to see how much they love the game, and I look at it the same way. I really love the game.
“I don’t do this because I like it or it’s fun, or the stuff that comes with it. I love this. I want to be great. To see Tim come in here -- he comes in here to lift; he comes in here to shoot; he comes in here to play. It’s crazy. Seeing that stuff, it just shows that after basketball, it’s going to be the same thing (for me). I want to be in the gym. You can’t go away. It don’t matter how much money you make, or how much money you got, if you love the game, you always find your way (to) playing the game.”
Speaking of which, Parker is still playing. In his first eight games in his new role, he’s averaging 8.6 points in 18.9 minutes and shooting 45.6 percent. He badly wants to play 20 seasons in San Antonio before calling it a career. That would mean three more seasons after this one. He trusts the Spurs will get him there.
So, he looks at the positives -- a last chance to play next to Ginobili (“I haven’t played with Manu in five years,” Parker said), and a chance to pay it forward.
“It’s not easy,” he said. “You still have to digest and stuff like that. But, for me, I knew it was not going to last forever. I understand that the NBA is a young league. And I was the oldest starter (at point guard) the last three years. So I understand at some point, it’s even better for my career to come off the bench. If, hopefully, Pop gives me my last three years, I can have great energy those last three years coming off the bench.”
There have been more fits and starts this season, maybe, than normal. The Spurs aren’t championship material. But they’re still 34-21, still capable of a push if Leonard comes back healthy at some point this season -- in a perfect world, maybe after the All-Star break. They did throttle the Rockets in the 2017 playoffs and they were up 20 on the Warriors in Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference finals when Leonard landed on Zaza Pachulia’s foot.
They have institutional memory, and they have grit, and now they have a new point guard to run the show until 2030 or so.
“We’re working,” Murray said. “We’re working every day. That’s like, ooh, Tim Duncan to Manu to TP? All these banners, they did that. It’s crazy. But at the same time, it’s the next man up. And that’s how I approach things: if I’m the next man up, I’ve got to be ready to go. Like I said, I’m working every day, and I’m showing them that I’m here to learn and get better every day. That’s all I can say.
“As long as I stay healthy and (with) God’s will, I’m going to work my ass off. I’m going to continue to study the game and learn and learn and learn. ’Cause as the point guard, you’re the quarterback, you’ve got to know everything. I want that. Some dudes shy away from it and are scared of this type of position. I’m built for it. I fear nothing. I’m going to continue to reach for everything I can.”
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