It’s of the slightest irony that many view the remedy to the Blazers’ problems to be a player whose numbers have been on the decline since his rookie season, and one who attempted a whopping three fourth-quarter shots over a seven-game playoff series loss this spring. But such is life in what has been perhaps the most remarkably ominous offseason in recent Portland Trail Blazers memory. The pressure is on for Neil Olshey to make a move to send a message. Blazers fans have set their eyes to the East Coast, where Ben Simmons resides — (or at least that’s what Philadelphia is hoping?) — as well as the likes of Pascal Siakam and Domantas Sabonis.
But what if the lower-risk solution to Portland’s problems was a player that already has roots to the Pacific Northwest?
Two weeks ago, The Athletic’s Zach Harper reported that San Antonio Spurs guards Dejounte Murray and Derrick White “could both be gettable” in a trade package this offseason. From the perspective of the fanbase, all of the eggs are, ironically, in the basket of a player who won’t shoot baskets in Simmons. It’s certainly true that the benefits of adding the three-time All-Star are plentiful. But if the asking price is too hefty in Philadelphia, is it worth readjusting the scope to another defensively-minded do-it-all guard with a tad bit more ambition?
The case for aggressively targeting Dejounte Murray:
Because defense. If you observed any portion of the Blazers’ 2020-21 season, this answer is probably enough to at least break the ice. Portland’s defense was at times so futile that they deserved to rank 31st in a 30-team league. Guard play was a key reason why; despite facing a backcourt headlined by Facu Campazzo, Austin Rivers, and Monte Morris, Portland hemorrhaged the fourth-most points to opposing backcourts in the postseason (67.5).
It wasn’t too long ago that Dejounte Murray surpassed Kobe Bryant to become the youngest player in NBA history to earn an All-Defensive Team selection. And though he’s regressed from that caliber, he’s still among the NBA’s feistiest, most versatile defenders. BBallIndex’s tracking paints him as follows:
— 90th percentile in matchup difficulty (how often he’s taking on the opposing team’s most potent scorer)
— 81st percentile in defensive versatility (how often he’s guarding different positions)
For the Blazers, the search for capable free agents can be simplified even further within two questions: 1) Can he defend? 2) Is he in the NBA? If he fits those two criterias, he deserves consideration. Think specifically about what they did in 2020-21: at the start, Derrick Jones Jr. would often take on the onus of guarding the opponent’s perimeter player, often a guard. That shifted Lillard onto two-guards and CJ McCollum towards forward-type wings. Adding a player like Murray allows the Blazers to reallocate those resources elsewhere and have balance throughout. (Though, any Murray-based deal likely means McCollum is out of here, so replace him with Norman Powell in the above example.)
Hypothesizing over what a Billups-coached defensive backcourt would look like helps put Murray further into a positive light. A lot of the same statistics we used to spotlight Robert Covington’s disruptiveness apply to Murray; he ranked seventh in the NBA in deflections and defended 337 shots. There’s a grittiness and fearless competitive spirit that’s similar to a Wesley Matthews or Gary Trent Jr., and on a lesser level, maybe Patrick Beverley.
There wouldn’t necessarily be the need to iron out new wrinkles in bringing Murray along, either. Within Gregg Popovich’s defense, that drop coverage was a principle tenet, just as it was for Billups’ Clippers and the Blazers’ past regime. Murray — especially before his torn ACL in 2018-19 — was among the NBA’s best on rearview pursuits in a drop, magnetizing onto ballhandlers on pick-and-rolls and using his 6-foot-10 wingspan to hang slightly behind and pluck and contest shots, like follows.
Most of Murray’s blocks now come in either getting level with scorers as a transition defender or in the “free safety role” sneaking into the picture at the last second to contest shots at the rim. But it’s tried-and-true, and his compilation of hustle plays are endless. Both are avenues the Blazers could solely benefit from going forward, which leads into a different discussion.
Imagining Murray’s fit with Lillard:
Regardless of the actual name, Blazers observers have made it clear what type of player they would want in return within that McCollum trade: a premium defender with the ability to create shots for himself and for others. Murray is a pedestal lower than Simmons, though he certainly fits the bill.
In the past regime, it wasn’t uncommon to see the Blazers dribble the leather off of the basketball, something that new head coach Chauncey Billups has already addressed. (1) Last season, Murray produced a box creation in the 90th percentile, 6.2 assists per 75 possessions, and boasts credible film as a formidable play alongside pick-and-roll bigs. Think LaMarcus Aldridge and Jakob Poeltl. But its most redeemable trait, by far is this:
It preserves Damian Lillard’s prime.
As potent as Lillard’s pick-and-roll exploits have become, the 31-year-old deserves to at some point, be accompanied by teammates who are both sufficient and can help him tap into sparingly-used aspects of his game, like his off-ball play. Win-loss record notwithstanding, we’ve seen the fruits of it in Team USA play when he’s surrounded by playmakers, getting into one or two-dribble pull-ups. It’s the wise investment career-wise, and the Blazers should double down on it.
Those shots have been on a steady decline from Lillard’s rookie season, but his efficiency — 50.2 percent on zero-dribble shots — was as high as ever. That, paired with Norman Powell and Anfernee Simons’ otherworldly ability to hit from the corners can only be fully appreciated with the proper supporting cast around them.
Why it makes sense long-term:
It’s perhaps too much to expect from Neil Olshey at this point, but the Blazers’ best bet is to both walk the fine line between aggressively searching for ways to keep Damian Lillard pleased, but also in preparing for a life without him. Both are plausible.
It’s unclear as to what Dejounte Murray’s ceiling truly is because he continues to extrapolate it. The 24-year-old has uncovered new career-highs in points, rebounds, and assists per game in each of his first four seasons, and in 2020-21, he was a part of an exclusive eight-player club of players to average at least 15 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, and 1 steal per game (LeBron, Jokic, Harden, Giannis, Westbrook, Sabonis, and Adebayo, Murray). Only 19 players have done it over the last quarter-century. That’s not shabby for a player who, at his current rate, is the No. 18 highest-paid point guard.
Statistically, he doesn’t feel far off from being an All-Star caliber, and his contract is of excellent value; he’s currently in the middle of a four-year, $64 million deal, and won’t be an unrestricted free agent until the summer of 2024.
It’s somewhat ironic, too, that Murray used the example of current Blazers guard CJ McCollum to moonlight what his career could consist of going forward when he appeared on Posted Up with Chris Haynes. He considered a comparison between McCollum and Michael Carter-Williams — two players with marginally different starts to their careers — and how it took opportunity and freedom for McCollum to find his footing in that comparison. Players can’t showcase how great they are, he argued, on a modest eight-shot-per-game diet. Freed from a Popovich-schemed offense, is there another level he can uncover?
One has to believe so. His game was once built on raw athleticism and grit, but it has now become nuanced. He remains a throwback among guards; he was one of just 18 players to take at least 200 midrange attempts a season ago, but his 45.4 percent conversion rate compared well to artists of the midrange today. And he’s only a single season removed from hitting 41.1 percent of his catch-and-shoot triples.
Players like Murray being deemed “gettable” are what make it difficult to fully buy stock in the Ben Simmons trade, especially with the questions you can ask about Simmons’ competitive drive. Billups, too, hasn’t spoken glowingly of Simmons. Here’s Exhibit B. So, there’s also that.
But regardless of how it’s sliced, Neil Olshey’s free trial has ended. The need to make a move — even if only to show Damian Lillard that he means business — has never been more urgent. In a perfect world, maybe he does hit a home run in making a franchise-altering move to acquire Simmons. But here’s to hoping he’s also paying attention to some of the base hits he might be able to hit, particularly in one wildly-talented 24-year-old who lives a mere stone’s throw away.