There is never a good time for a devastating knee injury, but the context surrounding Dejounte Murray’s torn ACL—announced by the Spurs on Monday—seems especially cruel. This season was supposed to be Murray’s moment. With Manu Ginobili retired and Tony Parker now playing in Charlotte, the training wheels were off for the third-year guard. San Antonio needed Murray to mature as a ball-handler and was poised to give him every opportunity. How quickly things change. All of the intrigue and optimism will have to be shelved as Murray slowly works his way back through thankless rehabilitation. The Spurs, meanwhile, have just nine days to reorient their playing rotation before their regular season opener.
The culprit, as is so often the case, was an utterly typical play. Murray led a preseason fast break against the Rockets on Sunday night, shifting directions as he drove to feel out the best opportunity. When he attempted to make a move against James Harden, Murray planted his right foot and found no lift whatsoever. His knee had buckled. It was all Murray could do to write on the baseline, drawing the concern of his teammates as play came to a halt. A wheelchair was brought to the court for Murray, but he waved it off—preferring instead to walk off under his own power, uncomfortable as that may be. It could be the last time that Murray is on an NBA court this season.
Earlier that same weekend, Spurs rookie Lonnie Walker IV came up limping after a jump shot. He was later diagnosed with a torn meniscus, according to ESPN.com, and is expected to miss six to eight weeks. Even for an organization as buoyant as San Antonio, the compounding nature of those injuries deals quite a blow. Murray was the single best individual defender on one of the league’s best defensive teams last season. To lose him alone leaves the Spurs vulnerable to the never-ending hordes of high-quality point guards in the West, all in a playoff race likely to leave little room for error.
Writing off San Antonio at the first sign of trouble would be foolish. This is a franchise that last missed the playoffs midway through the Clinton administration, which is not only a credit to Ginobili, Parker, Tim Duncan, Gregg Popovich, and Kawhi Leonard, but also a continuing capacity to adapt. Just last season, the Spurs survived Leonard’s curious absence and went on to win 47 games in stride. San Antonio walks into damn near every regular season game as the best-prepared team and walks out of it the best-executing one. Whether that’s enough depends on the opponent—a variable that tilts further out of the Spurs’ favor with a player like Murray in street clothes. For every minute that Murray cannot play, more will be demanded of Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli, and Bryn Forbes, none of whom is especially suited to an outsized role.
There is some comfort for the Spurs in knowing that LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan can turn touches alone into functional offense. Neither explicitly needs their looks created for them; isolating through either scorer for possession after possession isn’t exactly a straight line to high efficiency, but both are more than capable of turning out decent looks on command. San Antonio will need that. So few Spurs present a real shooting threat from beyond the arc that any ability to manufacture offense from tight spaces will be not just welcome, but necessary.
What’s unknowable, at this present juncture, is how San Antonio will respond to the loss of further institutional knowledge. Murray, even as a third-year player, is among the longest-tenured Spurs. He may not always play to Popovich’s exact parameters, but there’s a base of knowledge and best practices baked into his game that could prove difficult to replace. Keep in mind: the Spurs are now without four of their top eight players in overall minutes last season, which doesn’t include Leonard or Parker. There’s no Danny Green to chase the most dangerous shooter on the floor around every screen, no Kyle Anderson to keep the offense moving in just the way the coaching staff likes, and now no Murray to hold down both sides of the starting point guard job.
This year’s Spurs could turn out to be a more talented team than last, for the simple reason that DeRozan will add far more value in uniform than Leonard did on sabbatical. They also stand to be fundamentally different than any Spurs team in recent memory, and with Murray likely gone for the season, that much less predictable.