A few months ago we had a round table among the staff and one of the questions that was brought up was which Spur lost to free agency would the team miss the most. Bruno Passos and I agreed it'd be Cory Joseph, Jesus Gomez went with Aron Baynes and J.R. Wilco went off the board by naming Tiago Splitter, even though he was traded and not a free agent. [Editor's note: That's a quibble. I was thinking about which player would be most missed. -jrw]
My guess is that if you gave Gregg Popovich some truth serum or even the PtR staff a chance to re-answer the question based on new information, the choice would be obvious.
Of course the answer is Marco Belinelli.
I bring this up because of the curious --and somewhat humorous-- circumstances concerning Manu Ginobili playing 17 decent-not-great minutes against the Knicks on Monday night.
In his pre-game presser Pop revealed that the original plan called for Ginobili to sit on most SEGABABAs and that it was something he and the Argentine guard discussed and agreed to during the off-season.
"Honest story. I don't really want to play him much in back-to-backs this year, which is really nothing new. So we talked about it. I thought we had come to a conclusion. Manu said we hadn't."
After Ginobili played Sunday, Popovich was intent on sitting him against the Knicks. Here's their conversation.
"Today's a back-to-back and you're not going to play."
"Pop, I have to play."
"No, remember we talked about it?"
"No, I don't remember exactly."
So Popovich said he sent the veteran to discuss the matter with his six assistant coaches.
"The meeting's over and he's playing tonight. So we have a bunch of cowards for assistants and Manu runs the program," Popovich said. "But I am in charge of minutes."
Hopefully by now you've learned to be wary of Popovich or any other coach beginning any anecdote with the words "Honest story." It's quite possible that Pop was spinning a yarn to have a laugh with some reporters and to control the narrative of a story to fit his preferred version of it.
For the sake of argument, let's assume he's telling the truth, specifically the part about Ginobili's lobbying.
"Pop, I have to play."
It's an interesting choice of words. Taken in the literal sense it would mean that, according to Ginobili, there are no other alternatives to him on the roster as the third wing. While it's not literally true of course, it certainly has been the case so far --albeit in an extremely small sample size-- in the figurative sense because Kyle Anderson, the fellow tabbed to be Kawhi Leonard's primary backup, has been extremely disappointing so far.
Let's look at the facts: Anderson played 12:41 in the season-opening loss at Oklahoma City and was a team-worst -11. He got 10:53 of playing time in the second game against Brooklyn, but Pop yanked him in the first quarter after his man, rookie Rondae Hollis-Jefferson scored on consecutive possessions. The majority of his playing time came in garbage time of a blowout. At Boston, Anderson got the hook after 58 seconds, and it was easy to see why.
Perhaps Anderson and Pop have differences of opinion of the film Dirty Dancing, but the second-year man from UCLA got the thumbs-down for his execution of the most well-known concept in San Antonio's playbook, which is inexcusable for anyone who's been in the program as long as Anderson has. He got four minutes and change in the first quarter the next night against the Knicks, where he hardly touched the ball on offense and was blown by on the other end on a Sasha Vujacic drive. Popovich didn't play him again until the final 1:22 after the win was in hand.
Danny Green has started the season ice cold (he has been terrific defensively, however). Popovich clearly has Anderson on a very short leash. Ginobili, on a minute restriction and everything, clearly has to play just for the Spurs to be competitive, especially in those stretches where Kawhi Leonard is resting. The situation has already grown so dire that Popovich resorted to playing Patty Mills at the two-guard next to Tony Parker against the Knicks.
Anderson hasn't given the Spurs anything so far. He has the second-worst PER on the team, barely a couple notches above Green, according to basketball-reference.com. He has, by far, the lowest usage rate, meaning that he barely touches the ball and nothing really happens when he does. He's averaging a measly 4.6 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.2 assists per 36 minutes, which is astonishing because usually even scrubs have their numbers inflated with garbage time production.
As we've seen in Summer League and the D-League, Anderson's specialty and skill-set is playing with the ball. He isn't of much use on either end of the floor without it. For whatever reason the ball doesn't seem to find him when he's out there. I've watched enough basketball in my life to know this much: If you want to know the truth about anyone's game, the last place you're gonna find it is by comments that players and coaches make on the record. To get the straight scoop you're either gonna have to some off-the-record reporting or, more easily, you have to watch the games. As the saying goes: "The eye in the sky doesn't lie."
Popovich and the players can tell you all kinds of wonderful things about Anderson, about how skilled he is, about how much he's developed, about how hard he works, etc. But the games tell a different story. The coach is loathe to play him and the veterans don't seem to trust him with the ball.
For what it's worth, a couple of different sources have told me that the coaching staff remains high on Anderson but that they don't know how enthusiastic Pop will be about playing him as long as his defense remains an issue. The kid has to prove he can hold his own at that end first before he gets any rope. So make of that what you will in relation to Popovich's "cowardly assistants" anecdote.
My guess is that if Belinelli was still on the squad, Ginobili may not have been so insistent on playing and even if he was, his arguments wouldn't have been quite as successful. What's clear is that the Spurs need to find a viable solution for their fourth wing problem, because they can't depend on Ginobili to play every game and he's sure to produce diminishing returns if he does. Either Popovich has to be more patient with Anderson, or "Slow-Mo" has to improve both quickly and dramatically, or the front office has to find another solution. Jonathon Simmons was even worse in the preseason than Anderson, but at this rate you'd think he'll get a shot sooner than later.
Come back, Marco. Come baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaack.