Murray’s return has Spurs eager to start new season

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              San Antonio Spurs guard Derrick White poses for photos during an NBA basketball media day Monday, Sept. 30, 2019, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
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SAN ANTONIO (AP) — The San Antonio Spurs understand how they can be overlooked in the Western Conference given the flurry of trades and free agent signings in the offseason that reshaped so many of their rivals.

That doesn’t mean they have to like it.

“We’ve got a lot of dogs,” Spurs guard Dejounte Murray said. “A lot of dudes with chips on their shoulders. A lot of guys are ready to go and go to war against any team in the NBA.”

That resolve is needed if San Antonio hopes to earn its 23rd straight postseason berth under Gregg Popovich.

Already long regarded as the league’s strongest conference, the West got even tougher during a whirlwind first week in July.

Former Spurs star Kawhi Leonard has teamed with Paul George on the Los Angeles Clippers. Anthony Davis joined LeBron James on the Los Angeles Lakers. Russell Westbrook is again playing alongside James Harden but this time in Houston. Utah traded for Mike Conley to pair with Donovan Mitchell.

The Spurs’ offseason consisted of adding DeMarre Carroll and Trey Lyles in free agency and drafting Keldon Johnson, Luka Samanic and Quinndary Weatherspoon.

The lack of movement might be a good thing considering the upheaval the franchise went through last season when Leonard demanded a trade that led San Antonio to send him and Danny Green to Toronto for DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl.

“I think with most of the guys we have a certain chemistry,” DeRozan said. “We went through a lot of ups and downs last year and that carries over. For me, chemistry is everything. To be able to have chemistry with a team, be able to build from that and get better from that, that’s what really takes you far.”

The Spurs are counting on that chemistry and Murray’s return to help them improve on last season’s seventh-place finish. San Antonio lost to the Denver Nuggets in seven games in the opening round.

Murray missed all last season due to a knee injury he suffered during preseason but was cleared to play this offseason.

Murray replaced Spurs legend Tony Parker as the team’s starting point guard in 2018 but his return to the lineup is slightly in question after the emergence of Derrick White and Bryn Forbes as starters last season.

In addition to White and Forbes, Murray must also battle DeRozan for minutes in the backcourt along with second-year player Lonnie Walker IV and veterans Marco Belinelli and Patty Mills, who starred for Australia in the FIBA World Cup this summer.

“I don’t know (who will start), but I know Dejounte is fast as hell,” DeRozan said. “We’re not going to have a choice as soon as he has the ball.”

While Murray’s speed and playmaking ability have the Spurs excited, it’s his defense that is critical. Murray was named to the All-NBA Defensive Second Team in 2018 and White emerged as the team’s primary defensive stopper last season. The expected pairing of the 6-foot-5 Murray and 6-4 White is expected to give San Antonio one of the top defensive backcourts in the league.

“If you’re going to have a successful season, you need to be a top defender, especially if you want to go deep in the playoffs,” Popovich said. “We were average at best last year defensively, so it’s got to be our No. 1 priority.”

Popovich added that he has no complaints as he heads into training camp following some of the most tumultuous and painful times of his life. In April 2018, his 67-year-old wife, Erin, died after a long battle with a respiratory problem. He missed much of the team’s first-round playoff series loss to Golden State. A few months later came the Leonard trade and last season’s early postseason exit. Popovich and Team USA this summer were bounced out of the World Cup without even reaching the medal round.

There were reports the 70-year-old Popovich would not come back for a 24th season with the Spurs after winning five titles. Popovich put a lot of talk to rest Monday

“Everybody’s life has some ups and downs and hurdles, whatever you want to call it, whether it’s at home or in the workplace,” he said. “That’s the measure of who you are, I think. You’ve got to look at the big picture and understand, you’re really not all that. You’re just a simple guy or gal and you carry on and try to do the best you can for yourself, for your family, for other people, for your friends and that’s what I think each of us tries to do to the best our ability. So, that’s where I’m at.”