According to Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs coach GreggPopovich told him before Sunday’s game against the Indiana Pacers he thought it was time to make a change at the point guard position.
It was widely speculated that Parker, who took the starting job at 19, would resist his inevitable move to the bench, but it sounds like when the time came he didn’t put up much of a fight.
“I was like, ‘Oh, no problem,'” said Parker. “Just like Manu, just like Pau, that day’s going to come. And if Pop sees something that is good for the team, I’ll try to do my best.”
Obviously getting demoted can’t feel great, and Parker has started at point guard for the Spurs for his entire adult life. He must have mixed feelings about losing the job he has done so well since 2001, but he seems to have graciously accepted his new role.
“I support Pop’s decision,” Parker said. “I’ll try to help [Dejounte Murray] out as best I can, and try to be the best I can in that second unit with Manu and Patty.”
The 35-year-old Parker is making way for the future: a 6’5” athletic stud 14 years his junior. Murray still has a long way to go, especially with his jumper, but he has an extremely polished game for a 21-year-old.
Murray got valuable experience as a starter in the beginning of the year as Parker recovered from a torn quad. The young gun used that opportunity to showcase everything that got him drafted 29th two years ago.
He has clearly grown as a defender, using his 7-foot wingspan to lock down ball-handlers and wreck passing lanes. His defensive ability and affinity for rebounding couples well with his speed and slick ball-handling, making for one-man fast breaks often punctuated with an uncommon exclamation mark for a point guard.
He demonstrated a fantastic understanding of how to run the Spurs offense, from simple things like getting LaMarcus Aldridge the ball on the left block to more complex playbook ideas. Most impressively, he showed a lot of promise as a leader.
So why did Pop decide it was time for a change in January before a home game against the Pacers? He probably wanted to give Parker a chance to show him what was left in the tank after 16 years in the league and a major quad injury. After 22 games, the answer was eight points and four assists in 22 minutes.
The offensive production was limited, and it became clear that Parker can’t defend the best point guards in the league any more. He had a tough time hanging with Dennis Schroder and Kyle Lowry in recent losses on the east coast, and Pop might have woken up screaming after nightmares about Tony attempting to check Chris Paul or Stephen Curry in the playoffs.
If nothing else, Murray gives the Spurs a better chance at limiting those players with his defense. He has the speed and energy to at least run back in transition, and he can use his size and length to cause problems for star point guards on both ends.
On the flip side, Parker will have an easier time doing his thing against reserve players. His quickness is what made him a special player, and in a bench role he should be quicker than the man across from him.
According to Popovich, “we’ll see” if Murray remains in the starting role. Parker seems to believe his benching had a lot to do with the circumstances surrounding it, and says he will probably feel and play better next year.
“When you first come back you have the adrenaline,” said Parker. “I had all the energy, and the first 10 games I was feeling great. Then I hit that wall. Because for seven months you’re working so hard on your rehab to try to come back, and you have the adrenaline, and you have the juice. The last seven or eight games, I felt like I was hitting a wall because I worked so hard to come back fast.”
At the same time I was hitting the wall, I twisted my ankle. So, I felt like it was just bad timing with everything, but at the end of the day, you have to find a way to produce, and I have confidence in myself. I was talking to my doctor, and he told me that’s normal that you’re going to hit the wall. It’s at 10 or 11 months that you’re really, really back. They always say the second year, you’ll play even better than the first year back. So that’s why I have to be patient.”
If Parker thinks this situation is temporary and Popovich does not, that could lead to some friction down the road. It’s hard to believe that on the wrong side of 35 he will improve and recover to a point where he can do the things that he clearly can’t at this point.
The best outcome for the Spurs, and for Parker, is if he slides into the role long occupied by Manu Ginobili. He will run the second unit, still play a considerable amount of time with starting talent, and presumably sip from the fountain of youth.
Much like his successor, Parker was just a teenager who could get to the rim when the Spurs picked him late in the first round. In the 16 years since he has been an All Star six times, won four NBA championships and a Finals MVP.
Parker can teach Murray a lot, and he still has buckets to get. He is supremely overqualified for his new job on the bench, and both he and the Spurs will both be better for it.