With Kawhi Leonard's Status in Doubt, Is Dejounte Murray Ready to Save the Spurs?

Ken Berger@@KBergNBAFeatured Columnist IJanuary 23, 2018

SACRAMENTO, CA - DECEMBER 23: Tony Parker #9 and Dejounte Murray #5 of the San Antonio Spurs warm up against the Sacramento Kings on December 23, 2017 at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

The news came and went quietly, as it usually does in Spurs Land. So, too, did the inevitable passing of the torch from Tony Parker to Dejounte Murray.

On Sunday, Parker came off the bench for the first time since 2010, giving way in the starting lineup to Murray, a second-year guard from Washington. Most remarkable about the shake-up is that it was Parkernot coach Gregg Popovichwho delivered the postgame news that the change appears permanent.

Where else in the NBA does a four-time champion and six-time All-Star get demoted, then cheerfully announce it to the media?

"Pop told me," Parker told reporters  after the Spurs' 94-86 home loss to the Pacers. "He told me he thought it was time, and I was like, 'No problem.'"

But Murray may have inherited a much tougher transition than the Spurs had hoped after a report surfaced that could crack open San Antonio's usual worry-free cocoon.

Within 24 hours of Parker relinquishing his starting job, ESPN published a well-sourced, thoroughly reported story about friction between superstar Kawhi Leonard and the organization. The issue, multiple league sources confirmed to Bleacher Report, surrounds a "disconnect" (as reported by ESPN) between the team's medical staff and Leonard's camp regarding treatment protocols for the right quadriceps injury that has limited him to only nine games this season.

Last week in New York, prior to a road game against the Brooklyn Nets, the Spurs made the decision to shut Leonard down for what it termed an "indefinite period." It was the latest curious and frustrating twist in a season filled with stops and starts for Leonard, a two-time All-Star and two-time Defensive Player of the Year.

"It hasn't responded the way we wanted it to," Popovich told Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News. "He's given it a shot. He's frustrated as hell. He wants to play badly. But if we're going to err, we're going to do it on the side of health and being wise."

That has always been the Spurs Way; taking care of their players, resting stars in nationally televised games—consequences be damned. It's always been in the name of playing the long game and being healthy and upright when it comes time to hand out the trophies.

Kawhi Leonard's inability to stay healthy this season reportedly has strained his relationship with the Spurs organization.
Kawhi Leonard's inability to stay healthy this season reportedly has strained his relationship with the Spurs organization.Eric Gay/Associated Press

But this time, a complex injury and unexpectedly long healing process has the Spurs and Leonard at odds.

"It's legit," a league source told B/R about the tension between Leonard and the Spurs.

In certain instances in the past, including at least one involving Leonard, the Spurs have been reluctant to entertain second opinions from outside doctors, a person familiar with the team's medical approach told B/R.

"They think their medical people are so great," the person said.

Spurs GM R.C. Buford denied to ESPN that there's a rift between Leonard and the team. But he admitted that the injury has been "difficult for everyone. ... This rehab hasn't been simple, and it hasn't gone in a linear fashion."

While some teams have begun wondering if the relationship has deteriorated to the point where the Spurs would consider trading Leonard, one rival GM said emphatically that's not the case.

"If they didn't trade LaMarcus [Aldridge] when he was off the reservation last year because of jealousy over Kawhi, they're not going to trade the best two-way player in the NBA over a medical protocol disagreement," the GM told B/R.

So now, the Spurs must navigate this quagmire with Leonard—and, most importantly, try to get him healthy and back on the floorbehind a 21-year-old point guard who has started 23 NBA games in his life. But that is OK with Murray, who sat down last week with B/R before taking over the starting job.

"It's been a great opportunity for me because I come from winning," Murray told B/R. "I won a lot in high school, and in college; I didn't make it to the NCAA tournament, and that was my goal. I'm just a winner. Coming in here, I knew I was going to have to work for everything to be where I want to be in life with basketball. I want to be one of the top, and I know I've got to work, work, work and learn, learn, learn."

Dejounte Murray is averaging 4.9 assists and 1.7 steals per 36 minutes this season, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
Dejounte Murray is averaging 4.9 assists and 1.7 steals per 36 minutes this season, according to Basketball-Reference.com.Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

And with Leonard still out and an important relationship in need of repair, the job just became a lot harder—as if being a starting point guard in the NBA wasn't difficult enough.

"Being a point guard in this league, you've got to be ready to roll and have your game sharp every single night on both ends of the floor," Murray told B/R. "You're going to have to score the ball, you're going to have to facilitate and then you're going to have to deal with guys every single night like [Russell] Westbrook, Damian Lillard, Chris Paul—and you could go on and on. Point guard is the toughest position to play in the NBA, and that's a challenge that I accepted and I want. "

The challenge just got bigger. Here are the Spurs, in a semi state of transition and rebuilding while dealing with a rare bout of organizational conflict.

And through it all? They're 30-18 and in fourth place in the Western Conference. The faces change and the turmoil kicks up, but that's one thing about the Spurs that never seems to waver: winning.

     

Ken Berger covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KBergNBA.

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