The Spurs' depth is one of their biggest strengths. While other teams have a hard time providing their starters with some relief, San Antonio has a killer nine-man rotation when healthy. It's so good, in fact, that, compared to the subs that get consistent playing time, the deep-end of the bench seems comprised of, at best, fringe NBA players. At least this appears to be the obvious conclusion. However, this line of thinking fails to consider that getting the right opportunity is a major part of a player's success.
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Throughout Nando de Colo's career as a Spur, we have seen hordes of people basically counting him out as a quality basketball player despite years of evidence to the contrary. Nando was a rising star in the Spanish ACB league and he has been a part of the French National Team for quite some time now. You don't get those credentials by being a scrub.
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Of course, when he is compared to his more accomplished teammates on the Spurs and Team France, he obviously comes up short. His rookie year was up and down, so it's understandable that not a lot of people were campaigning for more playing time for Nando. It's fair to say that in his short stint in the NBA, de Colo has not yet proved to be even an average player. But how much of that comes down to not being in the right spot to succeed?
When the Spurs' wings started dropping like flies, not a lot of people considered de Colo as an option despite his being 6'5" and having some experience playing off the ball. The narrative surrounding Nando at that point was that he was the worst of scrubs, a guy that couldn't shoot, was a turnover machine and was also terrible at defense. Any player the Spurs could sign had to be better than him, right?
Over the past ten games, de Colo is averaging 8.2 points on 48.3% shooting with 2.4 rebounds and 1.6 assists in 17.4 minutes a game. The Spurs have gone 5-5 on that span and have been over five points worse per 100 possessions with de Colo sitting than they have been with him on the court.* And he has done it while playing out of his best-suited position.
Those are not stellar numbers by any means. The fact that de Colo has been a better option than Othyus Jeffers and out-of-shape Shannon Brown is also no cause for high praise. And de Colo might easily be out of the league after this season, as his skills will likely be more appreciated (and better compensated) and his weaknesses less exploited in Europe than in the NBA. And yet, his play in the last few games does not portray de Colo as a waste of a roster spot. When given minutes, Nando has demonstrated that he can compete in the NBA.
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I'm using de Colo as an example because he has been by far the most maligned of the deep bench guys, but I could have used other names. A lot of people were ready to give up on Jeff Ayres after a few games. I've been guilty myself of wondering out loud why Cory Joseph is still in the Spurs' future plans and why they had bothered to sign Baynes. I think it's fair to say that those guys simply never appeared to be anything special, but it also does not remove the possibility that they just haven't been given the right break.
There have been extreme cases of players who were considered either busts or fringe NBA guys that have gone on to have great success in situations tailored to their talents. Jeremy Lin is perhaps the most notorious of those examples, but the success Kendall Marshall has experienced as a Laker after effectively washing out of the league is astounding. There are numerous other cases of players who appeared to be on their way to a career as journeymen at best and out of the league at worst and who have carved out roles for themselves just by virtue of being in a more suitable situation.
The examples cover every level. There have been role players ascending to star status, like Chauncey Billups after joining the Pistons, or Kyle Lowry and Goran Dragic after their teams allowed them to move into bigger roles. Deep bench players have moved up to become quality starters, like Gerald Wallace after leaving the Kings and Amir Johnson after leaving the Pistons. And athletes who were once considered scrubs have secured nice careers for themselves as role players, like the Spurs' own Danny Green and the Nets' Alan Anderson. These are all guys who were at one time maligned or ignored but found success after a change in scenery or role. Who's to say that the same can't be true for the players on the fringes of the Spurs roster?
The flip side of the coin is that there are players who look much better than they actually are in absolute terms just because they find themselves in perfect situations. The Spurs do tend to make the most out of a certain type of player. As shown by the way the careers of Roger Mason Jr, Gary Neal, Richard Jefferson, Fabricio Oberto, and Malik Rose have developed after leaving San Antonio, the Spurs' program is often kinder than most to players that can fill a specific role. The success that Marco Belinelli is experiencing this season only confirms it.
And here's where Spurs exceptionalism can trick us into believing that any player that can't find success in San Antonio is a lost cause. In reality, nobody bats 1.000, not even the Spurs. Just like some players' careers have floundered after leaving San Antonio, others have gone on to enjoy varying levels of success. Beno Udrih has been a situational starter and a decent backup in his long career. Ian Mahinmi has settled in as a solid reserve center. Stephen Jackson and Hedo Turkoglu went on to become stars. Steve Novak earned himself a big contract with the Knicks. DeJuan Blair, James Anderson, and Alonzo Gee seem well on their way to establishing themselves as solid role players for a long time. And none of that could have happened in San Antonio because what the Spurs were asking of those guys didn't fit their skills.
I can see why people don't consider de Colo good enough to be a regular rotation guy. I don't disagree, especially considering the players ahead of him on the depth chart. I still think it's a bit strange that the Spurs picked up Joseph's option for next year and I'm still baffled by the amount of undeserved praise some fans continue to throw Aron Baynes' way. However, it's entirely possible that I'm wrong and the players who, in my eyes, probably shouldn't be in the league are simply a right fit away from becoming reliable contributors.
Just as teams sometimes can learn from adversity in ways they couldn't when things were going well, I think that fans can do the same. In my case, this seemingly endless parade of injuries has allowed me to come to a realization that I should have had long ago: it's unfair and even irresponsible to make definitive judgments about fringe players during the small windows of opportunity in which we catch them playing, especially since it's entirely possible that they just aren't in the right role or situation to succeed.
I plan to keep that in mind as the team starts getting healthy, and the players that have received precious minutes fade back into obscurity, making it all too easy to turn them into a punchline once again.
*Those numbers don't include the Pistons' game