Dejounte Murray Raises the Floor, But Not the Ceiling
The Sixers should be active at the trade deadline, but Murray shouldn't be the target.
Daniel Olinger is a writer for the Rights To Ricky Sanchez, and author of “The Danny” column, even though he refuses to be called that in person. He can be followed on X @dan_olinger.
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“Fellas, if 18 goes down we’re f——-d, and we don’t practice f——-d.”
That’s what Peyton Manning’s offensive coordinator once said when asked why the Colts never gave practice reps to Manning’s backup. Now replace No. 18 on the Indianapolis Colts with No. 21 on the Philadelphia 76ers, and you have the current situation with Joel Embiid.
Embiid’s procedure/surgery/bizarre knee-healing ritual took place on Tuesday, and he’ll be re-evaluated in four weeks. Everything around his injury is cloaked in mystery, though best guess seems to be that Embiid will miss the next month or two and return for the playoffs.
Last month, I explained why the 2023-24 Sixers are so much worse when Embiid doesn’t play. The team was a respectable 57-53 in regular season games he missed from 2018-23, but are just 4-11 in the 15 he’s missed this season, and trending downward fast. It’s tempting for the Sixers to make any move they can to keep their head above water, anything to fend off the Pacers, Magic, and Heat to stay out of the Play-In.
Dejounte Murray fits that mold. He would keep their head above water. He would lift the terrifying floor of the Embiid-less Sixers. However, Murray wouldn’t push the ceiling of a Sixers team with a healthy Embiid any higher. He doesn’t compliment No. 21 well enough to make them anything other than a competitive group that falls in the second round of the playoffs yet again.
The Sixers’ offense has been reduced to a simple question over the last three games — is Maxey on an insane heater from three? If yes, then maybe they win a close game. If no, then get ready to watch Terquavion Smith and Ricky Council IV minutes in a blowout loss.
Murray is an experienced pick and roll ball handler, and though Trae Young and Maxey play different styles, Murray’s time in Atlanta does give him experience operating as the secondary creator next to a small guard, and with decent success. The Hawks have had a top 10 offense in the NBA during each of the past two seasons, per Cleaning The Glass. With Murray in Philadelphia, the Sixers could survive minutes with Maxey on the bench during the coming months, while also easing Maxey’s burden in the minutes he would share with Murray.
The Atlanta guard is significantly slower than Maxey, and possesses nowhere near the same vertical burst. But standing 6-foot-5 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, Murray is comfortable using his size and craft in ball screens, often hunting pockets in the mid-range where he can rise up in traffic for a jumper. Murray also has a unique shot form, where he takes his left hand off the ball extremely early in order to shoot one-hand push shots with his right. This gives him a high release point that’s hard to contest, but it also causes him to be predictable, as he takes almost all of his pull-ups while driving to his left.
Think about it — if you shoot your pull-up jumper with just your right hand, how are you supposed to pull-up when you’re already dribbling with your right? Gathering the ball requires bringing your opposite left hand to it in that situation, something that Murray doesn’t like doing. Thus, he opts to probe with that lefty dribble and keep the threat of bringing his right hand to the ball at any moment for a jumper.
His driving tendencies play out in his shot chart. Murray has attempted 106 mid-range jumpers on the left side of the court this season, compared to just 40 he’s attempted on the right side.
(Murray’s horrific 53.7% conversion rate at the rim also shouldn’t go unnoticed in evaluating his shot chart).
Attacking to his right, Murray is more likely to drive all the way to the cup or look for a pass (he’s a much better passer with his right hand than with his left). He gets mixed results on these. Sometimes his handle (particular his killer crossover) is good enough to create space at the rim for him to extend and finish. Other times, his lacking burst and strength rears its ugly head, causing him to flip up hanging floaters that miss short, or telegraph his passes by staring down his intended target.
That one possession against Goga Bitadze demonstrates the good and the bad of Dejounte’s game quite well. It ends in a bucket off a beautiful crossover from Murray, but go back and watch beforehand how he’s struggling with Bitadze forcing him right and taking away the drive to his lefty middy. Murray clearly wants to get back to it, but can’t. He wins the possession because Bitadze has cement feet, but for the first 80% of the possession, he’s somewhat predictable.
As a passer, Murray is about a 5 out of 10. He reacts well to the windows that are already open and finds rollers in space better than Maxey can simply because he’s tall enough to see over defenders who might blitz him or show aggressively. But it’s nothing special. He doesn’t throw a ton of jaw-dropping skip passes. He doesn't manipulate off-ball defenders with his eyes. Sometimes he gets so locked in on his isolation scoring that he ignores some pretty open teammates.
If those video clips seem like nitpicks, it’s because they are. Most of the players on the Sixers would miss those passes as well. But if this is the guy you’re potentially trading multiple picks and players for, you’d like him to be a more transformative passer and creator rather than just an average one.
As for the defensive end of the court, Murray infamously nabbed 2nd Team All-Defense spot in 2018, but his reputation has plummeted since then. It culminated this season with long video compilations of Murray either falling asleep off-ball or gambling for steals with a Matisse Thybulle-like lust and failing. His defense in a new setting with the Sixers would likely fall somewhere in the middle — again, about a 5 out of 10.
Murray would make the Embiid-less Sixers — and specifically Maxey — better. Maxey getting flummoxed by pick and roll blitzes like he did against Dallas on Monday night? Well now Murray can run the ball screens and kick to Maxey for him to attack closeouts like he did with Harden. Gigantic wings like OG Anunoby hounding Maxey up and down the court and bothering him with size? Now they have a bigger creator to worry about in Murray, someone who can bludgeon the small guards of the world like Jalen Brunson. Lineups without Maxey flounderIng? Murray can get into his pull-up bag and cash home a few jumpers to keep the minutes even.
That’s great! But it’s not enough. This trade deadline should be focused on what makes the Embiid Sixers a contender, not what makes the Embiid-less Sixers more bearable. And Murray doesn’t do the things that play well off Embiid.
He’s long been a shaky three-point shooter. His perimeter defense isn't the worst, but it’s inconsistent. He’s not a creative or willing mover off-ball. He doesn’t do anything special as a passer, screener, or rebounder. Murray is a guy who needs the ball to do his thing, except his thing isn’t as good as Maxey’s or Embiid’s.
In a way, Murray represents the opposite of what Nicolas Batum brings to the Sixers. Until Embiid returns, Batum is almost useless on the court, looking for his MVP to orbit around and finding nothing. But none of his shortcomings matter, because Batum helps unlock the best version of Embiid, and thus, the best version of the Sixers. Batum loves filling in and accentuating the advantages that Embiid has created, while Murray himself is best as that first advantage creator. And a deeply flawed primary creator who struggles in any other role is just not what a team with a healthy Embiid needs.
You don’t give practice reps to Peyton Manning’s backup because the world where Peyton Manning is hurt is already a lost cause. And you don’t make a trade to save the Embiid-less Sixers, because the Embiid-less Sixers have already drowned.
Trading for Murray protects the 2023-24 Sixers from a free fall, but it caps their ceiling at the same place — a competitive second round playoff exit. Only this time, they don’t have cap space or the trade ammunition needed to pivot and acquire a better star player than Murray in the future.
Murray would help the Sixers avoid their absolute worse possible outcome, but this season and this era of Sixers’ basketball isn’t about raising the floor. It’s about reaching the highest ceiling the sport has to offer, and Murray doesn’t get them any closer to that.