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The Spurs should rest their old guys even more than they already do

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The young guys are good enough that if a veteran is hurting or tired, he doesn’t need to play.

NBA: Orlando Magic at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

So far this year, Kyle Anderson hasn’t played as much as he (or we) might’ve expected. He’s been stuck as the fifth wing in the rotation after Jonathon Simmons leapfrogged him. But on Tuesday at Minnesota he had his best overall outing of the season with 11 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists, all in 22 minutes of game time.

He played so much not just because the starters were so disappointing that Gregg Popovich subbed five reserves into the game early in the first quarter, but more because Manu Ginobili was being rested on a SEGABABA. Tony Parker was also out, with a thigh injury, and it opened the door for Nicolas Laprovittola to start, and he too responded with a decent game after a rough start, though he was roughed up a bit on the defensive end by the Timberwolves’ freakish, hulking rookie Kris Dunn.

The way Anderson and Laprovittola held down the fort was a bit of an epiphany for me. There’s really no reason for Parker, Ginobili (or the team’s other elder statesman, Pau Gasol) to play if they’re tired or worn down and the other alternatives on the roster are healthy.

Let’s start with Parker. When he’s healthy, he can surprise defenders and get to the rim with his array of feints, hesitation moves, spins and whatnot. When he’s got his zip, his ability to get into the teeth of the defense draws defenders and opens up room for the bigs. When he’s feeling right, he plays with pace and that gives the bigs the space to catch the ball against flatfooted or rotating defenses, allowing them the opportunity to shoot, drive or pump-fake and drive. And all of the above gives Danny Green his looks on the weak side.

A healthy, aggressive Parker is unquestionably an asset for these Spurs.

However, when he’s less than 100 percent healthy, the difference in his game is stark to the point of being obvious. His pace slows, and he drags the whole team down with him. He barely gets the ball over the timeline before the eight-second violation and everyone is delayed getting into their sets, under the gun of an expiring shot clock, their options dwindling by the second. Meanwhile, their opponents have all the time in the world to settle in and get organized on defense. A limited Parker not only struggles to get the team into its sets, but he often loses his aggressiveness too, happy to defer to Kawhi Leonard once he crosses half-court and retreat to his spot in the corner, more or less conceding that the Spurs are playing 4-on-5. Even in wins, it has mostly been the bench who has to play the role of the cavalry when Parker isn’t right.

We all saw how badly Parker played when nursing an injury through the first few games before the Spurs finally put him on the shelf. Averaging 5.3 points on 26.3 percent shooting with 3.3 assists and 1.7 turnovers in October, he was literally one of the worst starters in the league. He’s been similarly poor in Spurs’ losses, averaging 4.0 points on 27.3 percent shooting, with 4.5 assists to 2.5 turnovers. In wins he’s been much better, averaging 10.3 points on 44.9 percent shooting, with 4.3 assists to 1.5 turnovers.

But I’m not just picking on Parker here. It’s a similar story with Gasol and Ginobili too. There have been games where one or both of them have been dragging, and when it’s happening, it’s obvious. Gasol doesn’t fight for rebounds or even box out when he’s gassed. He doesn’t get to his spots on the floor offensively and he turns into a statue on defense (yes, even more of a statue than usual). Gasol averages 12.5 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.6 assists in wins and 6.8 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.8 assists in losses.

With Ginobili, it’s similar to Parker in that he gives up the ball more willingly, stops looking to attack at all, and doesn’t have his legs underneath him on threes, shooting 40 percent in wins and 30.8 percent in losses. His affect on the game —for good or ill— is profound either way, second on the team in net rating (19.2) and worst in losses (-25.9).

A few years ago, Ginobili, Parker and Gasol were so good that even when they were fatigued or otherwise compromised, they were still far better than their backups. Now, in the twilight of their careers, that is no longer the case. At this point, if they’re not feeling fresh, more often than not they’re giving the team diminishing returns, no matter their intentions. They’re hurting more than helping.

Sure, it’s not always so cut-and-dried about whether a veteran “has it” before a game. Resting guys on SEGABABAs sounds simple enough, but it’s too simplistic. Sometimes a guy might be trying to play through a knock on the front end of a back-to-back where he’d be better off having an extra day to get better. Or maybe it’s a game like the one coming up at Chicago, a day removed from a back-to-back but still the third in four nights. Would you be at all surprised if Gasol is a bit flat for it?

My point is sometimes even the most experienced and watchful coach may not know what he’s got to work with until the game is underway. I’d like to see Popovich be open minded about not wasting good minutes after bad if one or more of his veterans is sluggish or dragging in the first quarter or first half.

Just because a player starts a game or plays his usual first half minutes, it does not entitle him to second half minutes, no matter his pedigree or accomplishments. Everyone should have to earn playing time. If Gasol, Parker or Ginobili don’t have much to give on a given night, I’d like to see their understudies get those second half minutes, whether it’s Dewayne Dedmon, David Lee or Davis Bertans in for Gasol; Simmons or Anderson for Ginobili, or Laprovittola for Parker.

It’s too soon to state definitively that any of those guys represent “quality” depth, but that doesn’t really matter. The Spurs reserves have already proven they can play as well as the future Hall-of-Famers when the legends aren’t on their games — and on some nights, they’re better. Might as well get the youngsters more experience and let the old guys get more rest.