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Determining how good Dejounte Murray has actually been this season

If things hold up, Murray should be looking at an All-Defensive team appearance and possible MIP.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Indiana Pacers Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Through the first ten games of the 2021-22 NBA season, there’s little debate about who the Spurs’ best player has been: Dejounte Murray. If you need proof, look no further than PtR’s own SVP Leaderboard, where Murray is running away with the lead. (Granted, Jakob Poeltl was right up there with him before his extended absence due to health and safety protocols, but it still all starts with Murray.)

As the Spurs’ longest tenured player who has been given the keys to the kingdom, embraced a leadership role, and is of the team’s most avid offseason gym rats, it’s no surprise to see Murray putting up career highs of 17.6 points. 8.1 rebounds, 8.3 assists and 2.2 steals across the board. In fact, Andrew Lopez of ESPN pointed out this little nugget in yesterday’s power rankings:

Dejounte Murray has continued his strong start to the season with averages of 18.4 points, 8.2 assists, 8.1 assists and 2.1 steals per game. Those statistics would put him in rarefied air if he were able to maintain them throughout the season; only two other players have hit that mark since steals became an official NBA stat in 1973-74: Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson.

That would certainly be some elite company to maintain if he can keep it up, and there’s little reason to believe he can’t at this point. Not even triple-double machine, MVP-winning, known ball-snatcher Russell Westbrook (who has averaged 2 or more steals twice in his career) has ever accomplished that feat.

Speaking of Westbrook, here’s some elite company to two share courtesy of Jordan Howenstine (as of Nov. 5):

And Murray is already putting himself in elite Spurs company, especially among guards, and he figures to continue climbing the record books as time goes on.

A further dive into the advanced stats show he is putting his best box plus/minus (BPM) of his career at 2.9, meaning the team is nearly three points better per 100 possessions with him on the court than off (last year he was just 0.6). He’s currently tied with his career high for Defensive BPM of 2.2, only matched during his second year when he (somewhat surprisingly) made All-Defensive Second Team, and this is currently the first time in his career he is posting a positive Offensive BPM of 0.7 (stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com).

However, there’s another relatively new advanced stat out there that tells an even bigger story, courtesy of nbamath.com, and that’s Total Points Added (or TPA). You can click on the link to get the full rundown, but here’s the gist of it all:

The formula for TPA is rather simple. It’s broken down into two parts—offensive points added (OPA) and defensive points saved (DPS)—and each is calculated in the same vein.

OPA is derived by adjusting offensive box plus/minus (OBPM) to account for the number of possessions the player in question is present for. Similarly, DPS is derived from a similar adjustment of defensive box plus/minus (DBPM) with that same number of possessions. OBPM and DBPM, both calculated by Basketball-Reference.com, estimate the per-100-possessions value of a player on either end of the court.

Add OPA and DPS together, and you have TPA. A score of zero indicates a player was perfectly average (by no means a bad thing for rookies or lifelong end-of-bench players), while anything positive means they were better than an average-level replacement.

NBA Math tracks this stat for every player every day and is a good Twitter follow if you want daily updates, and while at least for the moment the graphic is pretty hard to read thanks to the small sample sizes, it’s not too hard to find one particular Spur among the chart for games played through November 8:

Still hard to see without going through all the trouble of opening the Tweet? Here’s a close-up:

November 9 TPA
nbamath.com

There’s Murray (circled) among that elite group in the top right quadrant (at least beyond the five obvious MVP candidates so far), which is reserved for players who both add offensive points and save defensive points. In fact, as of Nov. 9, Murray leads all point guards in the league with a DPS of 16.13 — or 16.13 points saved per 100 possessions. If that holds up, it should be indicative of at least another All-Defensive selection, if not more.

Of course, none of this is to say Murray has been perfect. Despite the Westbrook, Magic, and MJ company he’s currently keeping, Murray is by no means an MVP-caliper player. His ceiling is likely a one or two-time All-Star (not that I wouldn’t hold it past him to prove me wrong), and as mentioned in a previous article, he’s not exactly the type of player who will raise a team’s ceiling much beyond the middle of the pack as its best player. (Heck, even Westbrook’s Thunder were only the 6th seed and lost in the first round during his MVP season in 2016-17, and he’s been ring-hopping practically ever since.)

Murray has upped his three-point attempts to four per game so far and has shown improved form, but he’ll need to hit them at better than a 32.5% clip. Also, his free throw shooting has dipped from over 79% the last two seasons to 71.4% so far this season, contributing to the team-wide struggles at the line. (Granted it’s on just 2.1 FT attempts per game, but the Spurs are 29th in the league at just 16 per game, so every precious one matters.) Finally, he has tried to be the guy in crunch time, but as has been extensively covered, so far his productivity has dipped, and his efforts haven't translated to wins (which, to be clear, is by no means entirely his fault).

However, none of this should be knock on Murray. He wasn’t drafted to be the Spurs best player/closer one day (that should have been Kawhi Leonard), but he has far exceeded the standards for a 29th overall pick and is doing his best with the hand he has been dealt. For his efforts, he’s looking at another season possibly making the NBA All-Defensive team and should be a candidate for Most Improved Player. He may not be the league MVP, but at least for now, he’s the SVP and is doing all he can to back it up.