In previous installments of this series focusing on three questions regarding this year's Sonic team, I focused on whether Bob Weiss could get this this team to play defense and how the team's success or failure rides on Luke Ridnour's shoulders. In this final installment we'll examine another player who is vitally important to this year's Sonic team.
Can Flip Murray effectively replace Antonio Daniels?
Sonics management wisely let Daniels walk to the highest bidder in the offseason rather than match a five year contract for a guard approaching 30. They believed that they had a cheap in-house alternative in Flip Murray, who accepted the qualifying offer from the Sonics a few weeks ago rather than sign long term.
From all accounts Sonics management including Coach Bob Weiss are all very high on Flip. They see his ability to break down defenses and take his man off the dribble as an important skill to add to their backcourt rotation. That observation has merit. Luke Ridnour can break down a defender using his dribble but often has trouble finishing at the basket. Ray Allen's strengths are obviously on the perimeter and he is a much more effective player as a shooter off screens and picks than in isolation.
It cannot be argued that Sonics management has a distinguished track record at making bench players into useful parts. It is possible that Flip could step into AD's role as the third guard in the rotation to great success. But there are a few warning signs that could spell trouble for the Sonics backcourt this year.
Firstly, the past two players that the Sonics have used as third guards were essentially combo guard type players. Brent Barry had superior ballhandling skills in a 6'6 body, along with a reliable outside shot and most importantly, the disposition to defer to his teammates, sometimes too often. Antonio Daniels was neither a classic point guard nor a true shooting guard. He had one of the best assist-to-turnover ratios in the NBA but often seemingly wore blinders when it came to passing the ball to open teammates. In some ways he was a throwback to late-period Gary Payton, in that he dominated the ball the vast majority of his floor time but was still an amazingly efficient player. Both players could man either backcourt spot effectively, in Brent's case allowing Gary Payton to slide to the 2, or in ADs case giving the Sonics the option of playing many 3 guard lineups with Luke, AD and Ray Allen.
I don't see Flip Murray giving the Sonics the same flexibility. It's a stretch to call Flip Murray a combo guard. Empirical and statistical evidence shows that he's a scorer, and that's about it. In my opinion, he's a Ricky Pierce-style gunner best suited to an instant offense role off the bench. When the team's down by 15 points and the primary offensive options are struggling, call on Flip and give him a heat check. Let him break down the opposition until another player can find a rhythm. If he's cold, go another direction because he doesn't bring anything other than scoring to the table. His peripheral stats for a guard are not encouraging, though he's played very infrequently and so the small sample sizes may skew the data. In particular, his assist to turnover ratio is terrible and not indicative of a player you want to direct your offense. In addition, Flip is a very poor 3 pt shooter and an average at best free throw shooter for his position. He is not a particularly accomplished playmaker or a 3 pt threat like Barry, nor is he as dangerous a scorer as AD. There are many players like him. Having to rely on Flip to fill a major role is at best gambling, and at worst shows a lack of foresight and preparation.
There is some debate about whether or not stabilizing Flip's role might result in better performances and there is some evidence to support that claim. When Flip took over for Ray Allen two years ago he did have a stretch of games where he was very effective. On the other hand, that's really the only effective stretch of games he has shown in his entire Sonic career.
Perhaps by getting a steady diet of around 16-20 minutes a game at both positions he can stay in the game long enough to get into the offensive flow and make a contribution, but I have doubts about his effectiveness at running the offense or being able to involve his teammates over the long term. It's a bit concerning to me because none of the other options the Sonics have are particularly appealing. Brunson and Cleaves are strictly point guards of the backup variety, Scales and Wilkins are exciting players but don't really have true positions.
Here's hoping that Flip Murray can dispel all the doubts surrounding his game and enjoy a breakout season like AD did last year. The Sonics will be much better for it.