Tony Parker is a six-time NBA All-Star, four-time champion and former Finals MVP, but the San Antonio Spurs are a machine that’s operated on high for two decades, and parts eventually must be replaced.
So it was, then, that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich informed the well-worn Parker on Sunday that he had lost his starting job to the franchise’s shiny second-year point guard, Dejounte Murray.
“Pop told me,” Parker said, via the San Antonio Express-News, after coming off the bench in a 94-86 loss to the Indiana Pacers. “He told me he thought it was time, and I was like, ‘No problem.’ Just like Manu (Ginobili), just like Pau (Gasol), you know that day is going to come. If Pop sees something that is good for the team, I will try to do my best. … I will support Pop’s decision, and I will try to help DJ as best as I can and try to be the best I can in that second unit with Manu and Patty (Mills).”
Parker is 35 years old now, 17 seasons removed from being selected as a teenager by the Spurs with the 28th pick in the 2001 draft. He played professionally in France before that, and he’s participated on the French national team on and off throughout his career, so the treads were bound to wear thin.
They wore thinner in the Western Conference semifinals in May, when Parker — long hampered by back and leg injuries — ruptured his left quadriceps. He did not return until the end of November. Prior to Sunday, he had started every game he appeared in for the Spurs since an injury-hampered end to the 2009-10 season. He has started all but 22 of his 1,386 career games, including the playoffs.
Meanwhile, the 21-year-old Murray emerged as a bona fide option in Parker’s absence, splitting starting duties with veteran backup Patty Mills. Murray has averaged 8.9 points, 7.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists in 25 minutes over 15 starts, all while the Spurs rolled without injured star Kawhi Leonard.
Parker started his first 21 games back from injury this season, resting a handful of times in between, but he ceded that responsibility to Murray on Sunday. The young guard started and played 28 minutes in the loss to the Pacers, finishing with eight points, seven rebounds, four assists, three steals and a plus rating. Parker collected 12 points, five assists and three rebounds in 20 minutes off the bench.
Parker is a future Hall of Famer, and players of his stature don’t always pass the torch so easily, but Popovich has a way of massaging the transition. That’s why the Spurs are the Spurs, tied for fourth place in the West despite Leonard missing all but nine games and the starting point guard spot in flux.
San Antonio has been less consistent since Dec. 30, when the Spurs began alternating losses and wins for 10 straight games before their current two-game skid, so it seemed some wrenching was in order.
We shall see how Murray adapts to the starting role. His shaky shooting (41.4 percent from the field and 18.8 percent from 3-point range) and decision-making (1.51 assist-to-turnover ratio) has lended to inconsistent production, but the security of a starting position may do wonders for his confidence.
Should Parker stay healthy, he should further solidify what’s been a top-five bench. Spurs reserves have outscored opponents by 3.5 points per 100 possessions this season, thanks to the addition of Rudy Gay, the emergence of Davis Bertans and the resurgence of Ginobili alongside Mills’ steady hand. Add Parker to that mix, and they will wash waves over opponents, especially once Leonard returns.
It will also be interesting to monitor Popovich’s end-of-game rotations. He subbed Murray for Parker with nine minutes remaining in Sunday’s game, and the Spurs slashed a 13-point deficit down to two possessions in the final minutes, but will San Antonio continue to trust the youngster in the clutch? That depends on whether new parts ever stop working as well as the old ones in the Spurs machine.
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