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What the Spurs’ starting lineup change means for the team

Moving Dejounte Murray to the bench in favor of Derrick White may shore up the problems with the starting unit, but it only raises questions in the short term and future.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Something had to be done about the Spurs’ starting lineup woes. Slow starts had them almost consistently playing from behind by the 2nd quarter, one of the key factors in their disappointing 5-11 start. The script was familiar in most of those cases, with the group of Dejounte Murray, Bryn Forbes, DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge and Trey Lyles producing an abysmal 101.3 offensive rating ( and a net rating of -8.9) in 148 minutes of floor time. Not even one of the league’s better 2nd units could be counted on to consistently make up that differential.

The team’s response is a surprising one, even if it feels necessary given the circumstances. After turning to a couple of combinations on rest nights for Murray — still under orders from the medical staff to play limited minutes and miss back-to-backs — Gregg Popovich appears to have found a more long-term solution by reverting to what worked at the end of last season, with Derrick White and Jakob Poeltl taking the place of Lyles and Murray.

The results thus far are at least promising, with the new-old unit putting up a +4.1 net rating in 23 combined minutes on the floor. If you want a larger sample size, that group played together for 187 minutes last season and had a -4.6 net rating. Still, the temporary improvement makes sense, both in the return to familiarity and the better fits between the pieces. In White the Spurs have a steadier hand orchestrating the half-court offense while retaining a strong defender at the point of attack. Lyles has shown plenty of potential in his starts, but gets replaced by a better rim protector in Poeltl, who will have to make up for his lack of spacing with plenty of screen-setting and smart off-ball movement.

This all felt fluid until the end of Monday’s loss to the Lakers, when Pop for the first time put White over Murray in the starting unit, to some positive results: the Spurs started stronger than usual against one of the league’s best teams and had a fighter’s chance until one of their other bugaboos (poor finishes) reared its ugly head. Even in defeat, the coach’s post-game exchange with a reporter suggests, in so many words, that we could expect more of this in the coming games:

Pop: “I thought we did a good job... I thought the energy was great. I thought we did a lot of good things... but all in all I was pleased with a lot of things that I saw. We’re on the right track.”

Reporter: “Bringing Derrick back to the starting lineup — does that just bring familiarity back to that unit?”

Pop: “Sure.”

Reporter: “Is that one of the things that you’re pleased with?”

Pop: “Yeah.”

Pop’s brevity can be interpreted in a few ways — it’s Pop, after all — but it’s hard to ignore the subtext of the Spurs’ perhaps indefinitely benching not just any player in Murray, but a man the organization is heavily invested in. Between the stories on Tony Parker’s passing of the torch to him, the $64 million contract extension, his return to the starting role White kept warm for him last season, and even his recent shoe deal with New Balance, there are optics at play with reeling back the only player currently on contract through the 2022 summer. Nobody wants to shake the confidence of a young talent who still has plenty of upside, and that’s before considering that the team may want to be a bit more delicate with player relations in a post-Kawhi timeline.

The starting lineup's underlying issues weren’t all Murray’s fault. It’s hard to start making good on being the point guard of the future when your offensive weaknesses are compounded by another non-shooter in DeRozan, and when the unit on the whole tends to prefer playing the half-court rather than running up and down the floor the way Murray is better suited. Aldridge gives Murray a fine release valve in the pick and roll, but he’s also not a rim-running big that puts maximum pressure on defenses to give his ball-handler room to work. In an ideal world, you’d surround him with the right pieces and, in an ideal world, he’s not on a post-ACL-tear-minutes-restriction that prevents him from playing alongside White rather than taking turns with him, settling in more with the starters, and appearing in back-to-backs.

Hindsight may suggest that reinserting Murray into the starting lineup after a year off was overly optimistic. Few guards have ever posted statistical extremes like his, in ways both good and bad, and the starters’ slim margin for error couldn’t account for a ball-dominant player who’s still learning how to read defenses and getting his legs back under him.

The payoff should be immediate for the Spurs in how they start games. Murray now joins a unit that’s the inverse of the starters, and one that could be a good fit in a handful of ways: they play at a faster pace, the floor is spread out, and it still has a go-to guy in Rudy Gay to save possessions that stagnate. There's a world in which this is the better environment to foster the next stage of his development. Either way, the hope is that there’s less of that than what we saw with Murray’s time with the starters, and that any hit that’s taken from removing Poeltl and White from the potent second unit is mitigated by the positives in the aggregate.

“All players adjust in one way or the other, right?” said Pop when asked about whether Dejounte will need to get re-acclimated. “It’s part of the deal.”

The assumption until anything suggests otherwise is that Murray’s taking this in stride. Still, in the bigger picture, the Spurs will need to cope with the fallout of the demotion in a number of ways. Those include when (or if) he’ll make his way back to the starting lineup for good, and what that path will look like. Does he eventually replace White — again — or do the Spurs look to use some hybrid and closing lineups to start to develop the chemistry they haven’t been able to in just 7 minutes of playing time through the first 17 games of the season? They’re all valid, compelling concerns to mull over, but ones that a winning team can deal with down the line. That’s what the Spurs hope to be as a result of this move, which feels both lamentable and necessary.