SAN ANTONIO — I asked rookie point guard Dejounte Murray a trick question during the 45-minute player-availability session before the San Antonio Spurs' victory over the Miami Heat on Monday night that was more difficult than it should have been.
Murray is an athletically gifted, 6'5" 20-year-old who is penciled in as the eventual successor to Tony Parker as San Antonio's starting point guard. I wanted to know which floor generals he watched and tried to emulate as he developed his game in Seattle.
Playing in his third straight game since recovering from a hyperextended right knee suffered in the Spurs' stunning season-opening thumping of the Golden State Warriors, Parker had a solid outing Monday, scoring 11 points and handing out six assists as he directed an efficient San Antonio offense that now goes through Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge.
Two nights earlier, he scored a season-high 16 points to go with three assists and a steal during a win over the Houston Rockets. In the seven games the Spurs have opened with Parker at the point, they are 6-1.
I wanted to see if Parker would even make the emulation list of a player who was in the first grade when the Frenchman directed the offense for a San Antonio title team in 2003.
"I watched a lot of Magic Johnson highlights," Murray began, "because I was the type of player who always liked the flashiness. I liked his style. He had a lot of swag to his game with the no-look passes, and I liked that a lot.
"It's funny, though. In today's game, when I was in high school and college, I watched the Spurs because they were always winning, and when you're winning, you're always on TV.
"So I watched a lot of Tony growing up. I always told my family that when it comes playoff time, you can never count out the Spurs because they know how to play the right kind of basketball, the fundamentals. As you can see now, they're getting more athletic but still with the fundamentals, and Tony is right there.
"I also watched a lot of Chris Paul, basically all the top dudes who played on TV. I watched a mixture of the best. And for sure, Tony is one of the best at the position."
Murray is too new to the NBA and too naive for politically correct answers. He meant what he said.
But that makes him an outlier among those who closely follow the NBA. When Sports Illustrated published its annual preseason ranking of the NBA's top 100 players, Parker didn't make the list, though 17 other point guards did. Sports Illustrated's Rohan Nadkarni acknowledged the difficulty of excluding a player who ranked No. 4 on the overall list just three years ago:
Parker was one of the last players cut from the top 100 this season, and his exclusion from the list was highly debated before it became final. Parker is now 34, and he's lost a little bit of the dynamic playmaking ability that made him a shoo-in on previous Top 100s. Parker's defense has also slipped a little bit, which is a concern at one of the deepest positions league wide. Ultimately, while Parker is still an effective player, the Spurs' system is also a large factor in his current success.
Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich sees things a little differently.
"I think he's always been a little underappreciated, without any doubt," Popovich said. "Even years ago, when he was younger, people would talk about the top point guards or whatever, and they would leave him out, almost consistently, all the time. And he's there helping us win championships.
"He didn't have the ball in his hands much because we tried to move it. He was a point guard who couldn't really control the game all by himself with the ball like a lot of these guys do. So they would get numbers, and he wouldn't get numbers. But he was very important in keeping us organized and making sure everything made sense for everybody. He was more about that than he was the numbers and the accolades.
"It always gave me a wry smile when his name wouldn't be included in these top-five guys and these guys and those guys. But you just move on. It doesn't really affect your game or how you play. It's just a fact."
Popovich has adapted his offensive philosophies through the course of his 20-plus seasons on the San Antonio bench—16 of those with Parker as his starting point guard. But no player has been asked to adapt more than Parker, especially over the past two seasons.
After leading the Spurs in scoring for four seasons—17.5 points per game in 2010-11, 18.3 in 2011-12, 20.3 in 2012-13 and 16.7 in the 2013-14 NBA title season—Parker was asked to become more of a facilitator. In 2014-15, his average dropped to 14.4 PPG, second to Kawhi Leonard (16.5). Last season, he averaged only 11.9 points per game, behind Leonard (21.2) and LaMarcus Aldridge (18.0).
After Monday's game—just his second double-figure performance of the season—he ranks behind Leonard, Aldridge, Pau Gasol, Patty Mills and Manu Ginobili.
Through it all, Parker has insisted he cares about only one thing: playing the game as Popovich sees fit.
"As I told you last year, as long as Pop is happy with what I'm doing, my ego is fine," Parker said.
"Sometimes people wonder, 'Oh, you were the man…' But for me, it doesn't matter. Just like Timmy [Duncan], just like 5-0 [David Robinson], just like Manu—that's the mentality. For me, it's very easy to understand that now it's Kawhi and LaMarcus, and I'm fine with it. And I will just try to do my best to pick my spots and be aggressive."
He acknowledges that approaching the game without a mandate to aggressively attack the paint early and often isn't easy.
"Oh, for sure, it's totally different," he said. "But for me, if you're a smart player, you have to adjust. You have to adapt. You have to see different situations. But it's a big change, for sure. For me, it's all about adapting and get it done. Just try to get it done."
Parker's longest-tenured teammate understands both the difficulty of adapting and the danger of failing to realize the consequences if one doesn't.
"Down the road, you're going to have to adjust and accept a lesser role," said Ginobili, who came to the Spurs in 2002 when Parker was already established as the starter at the point.
"You're going to have to be willing to give the younger guys the ball and just play off them. It's the way it goes. And if you don't adjust, you're out."
Understanding that the ball now needs to go through Leonard and Aldridge is no challenge for Parker. Finding the right moment for his own forays to the rim, which in 2008-09 placed him sixth among the NBA's leaders in points in the paint, is the new challenge. This is especially true this season, with Popovich looking to Leonard as the team's crunch-time go-to guy, often in isolation plays.
"Obviously, we have to use Kawhi's iso skills because he can really score, and he's definitely improved in free-throw attempts," Parker said. "So I think we should do it. We just have to find a happy balance and not forget Spurs basketball—the way we move the ball and include LaMarcus and Pau. Let's try to find that happy middle.
"Same way with my career. I had to find the happy middle between passing and scoring. Now, we have to find a happy middle between using Kawhi, who is playing unbelievable, and not forget we have two guys inside who can score and pass and can create double-teams. That is between me and Pop. We have always figured out what is the best way to find the happy middle, and I think the game against Houston [on Saturday], we did pretty good in that, and everybody was involved."
Indeed, five Spurs scored in double figures in the Saturday win at Toyota Center that kept them perfect on the road this season (5-0). Parker matched Aldridge as the No. 2 scorer, behind Leonard, in that one.
Don't doubt it: That is the sort of middle ground he prefers.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Stats are accurate as of November 15.