A Closer Look At Eric Murdock

Two of the biggest stories basketball stories of the last two months are the firing Mike Rice at Rutgers for abuse and the recent commitment of newest high school basketball prodigy Andrew Wiggins to Kansas.   While these stories seemingly have little common ground, old school NBA enthusiasts will recognize 1980s and 1990s players figured in both stories (Eric Murdock and Mitchell Wiggins).

The man behind the Mike Rice story is former point guard Eric Murdock.  Murdock was director of player development at Rutgers and apparently was a whistle blower in giving over videotapes of Rice screaming homophobic slurs at the players, shoving players, and throwing balls at the players.  Today, we’ll look at Murdock and his interesting (from a stats guys perspective) career.

Murdock played point guard for Providence from 1987-91.  Providence wasn’t particularly good at that time (19-13 and 7-9 in the Big East in 1990-91) but Murdock was great as a senior (25.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 5.3 apg, and 3.5 spg).  The Jazz drafted Murdock 21st in the 1991 draft and he was a solid backup behind John Stockton for 10 mpg in 1991-92 (13.6 PER).  Jerry Sloan lost confidence in Murdock late in the season and Sloan barely played him in the playoffs.  In the playoffs, Murdock played 11 total minutes, despite the fact that the Jazz would go to the Conference Finals (this was fewer minutes than even fellow rookie Corey Crowder and bench fixture Bob Thornton).

After the season, the Jazz traded Murdock and Blue Edwards (a competent swingman) to Milwaukee for Jay Humphries (a 30-year old starting point guard who had a 16.5 PER) and Larry Krystkowiak a hustling but undersized power forward.  In short, the Jazz dumped Murdock, a player with potential, to have role players who wouldn’t make mistakes while they played with Stockton and Karl Malone.

The 1992-93 Bucks were bad (28-54) but Murdock took the starting job and put up really impressive numbers (14.4 ppg, 7.6 apg, 3.2 rpg, 2.2 spg, 19.3 PER).  The Bucks regressed in 1993-94 to 20-62 but Murdock held onto the starting job and played even better (15.3 ppg, 6.7 apg, 3.2 rpg, 2.4 spg, 20.3 PER).  Murdock’s minutes were identical both years but he made a big jump in threes (from .261% to .411%) that propelled him over 20 PER.

After the season, the Bucks’ drafted Glenn Robinson overall and now had a team of Murdock, an emerging Vin Baker, and Robinson going into 1994-95.  At 26 in 1994-95, Murdock’s career appeared to be heading straight upwards and now was on the brink of being a very good player.  In fact, Murdock was fourth in point guards in PER (behind Mark Price, Stockton, and Kevin Johnson, and ahead of Rod Strickland, Mookie Blaylock, and Gary Payton among others).  Had Murdock put up these numbers in the present day, the advanced stats community would have seen him as one of the more underrated players in the NBA.

Murdock suffered an eye injury in the 1994 pre-season and struggled a bit and fell to 13.0 ppg, 6.4 apg, 2.9 rpg, 1.5 spg, and 17.3 PER.  The big drop off was in shooting (from .468% to .415%) and it seemed that if he could bounce back to more normal shooting levels he would continue to excel.  The unreported story at the time was that Murdock lost minutes to Lee Mayberry (who started 50 games at the point).  Mayberry was slightly younger than Murdock and was a player with few major weakness but no great strengths.   Mayberry was a decent passer and defender but could score or create free throws at all.  Mayberry’s 1994-95 numbers (5.8 ppg, 3.4 apg, 1.0 rpg, and 9.9 PER 21.3 mpg) should not have convinced the Bucks that he was a viable alternative to Murdock.  That coach Mike Dunleavy was playing Mayberry so much was (and is still is) a little bewildering.

Nevertheless, the addition of Robinson to Baker and Murdock improved the Bucks to 34-48 and gave reason for optimism in 1995-96.   Leaving camp in 1995-96, despite all the evidence to the contrary, Dunleavy decided the Mayberry should be starting at the point.  Murdock, for his part, did not step up to the challenge and put up a 10.4 PER in 20 mpg for 9 games.  Murdock shot 36% and the team went 3-6 over that stretch.

It is not clear if the Bucks’ were annoyed with Murdock or just wanted a center but Dunleavy then traded flipped Murdock and Eric Mobley to the expansion Vancouver Grizzlies for languid big man Benoit Benjamin (who was at the time average at best).  Murdock’s value had plummeted from underrated top ten point guard to chit in a trade for remains of Benjamin (who Vancouver had gotten for free in the expansion draft).

Murdock played 64 games as a backup to Greg Anthony in Vancouver and put up 9.1 ppg, 4.5 apg, 2.4 rpg, 2.0 spg, and a 16.2 PER in 23.1 MPG.  Not a bad performance but the Grizz were so bad that Murdock had now reached confirmed journeyman status.   Murdock signed with Denver to back up Mark Jackson in 1996-97 but was cut after 12 games (despite an 18.1 per in 10 mpg) and went over to Europe for the rest of the season.

In 1997-98, Pat Riley and the Heat signed Murdock to back up Tim Hardaway.  Murdock was basically the same player he had been in Vancouver and the end of his time in Milwaukee.  He put up a 15.7 PER in 17 mpg and reestablished himself as an NBA player for the moment.  Murdock spent the next two years as a backup point guard in New Jersey and with the Clippers but his shot had declined enough that he only put up PER in the 12.5 range those two years.  He did not play in the NBA again after his 1999-00 season with the Clippers.  While guys like Mitchell Butler, Anthony Goldwire, Kevin Ollie, Mike James, and Derek Fisher lasted forever in the NBA as back up guards, Murdock was done in the NBA at age 31.  Murdock spent some time in the minors and Europe before giving up playing in or around 2003 (it’s a little hard to find the Euro stats to know when exactly he stopped playing).

I hadn’t really thought about Murdock much since the late 1990s until I saw he had leaked the tape of Rice acting like a total jerk.  The question has become now whether Murdock was a good Samaritan, opportunist, or something in between.  Murdock did not release the tape until after the school let him go and he is apparently pursuing a wrongful termination suit, so the argument could be made that Murdock’s motives are less than pure.  On the other hand, Basketball-Reference indicates that Murdock made over $11 million in his NBA career and, if he was careful financially, he probably wouldn’t need the headache of a lawsuit unless he really felt wronged.  Nor is there any record of Murdock being anything other than a good pro.

I’m not casting judgments either way, but Murdock’s dispute with Rutgers can easily be spun as pure or unsavory.  In either case, it’s hard to feel too bad for Rutgers for allowing Rice to go on with his idiotic coaching methods.

As for Murdock, he may be in the media vortex now for the Rice situation but whenever I hear his name, I only wonder: (a) how he could’ve gone from 25-yearold with a 20.3 PER to cut by a lottery team in three years and (b) why Dunleavy thought Mayberry was anywhere near as good player.

I wondered if another young guard has ever fallen so quickly so fast without injury issues.   Since 1979-80, I couldn’t find another guard with a PER of 20 or over fall out of regular playing time without injuries (T.J. Ford put up 20 PER at age 24 but had spinal issues).  As far as I can tell, Murdock should’ve enjoyed a Mookie Blaylock-type career but nothing but bad luck had him out of the NBA way too quickly.

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