There are not a lot of Spurs fans who want to see Marco Belinelli hold on to his rotation spot in the upcoming season. There are just so many more exciting options to choose from for those 20 minutes a game, including Lonnie Walker IV and even rookie Keldon Johnson.
Exciting isn’t always better, though. For all his flaws, Belinelli is still a competent NBA player, and the Spurs will need as many of those as they can get if they hope to keep their playoff streak alive. Unless one of the young guys truly proves to be a better option, he might hold on to his role for another year.
The most obvious reason why Belinelli is likely a better option on offense than other wings on the roster is his shooting. As tired as it can be to talk about spacing and three-point shooting, no discussion about a functioning offense is complete without acknowledging their importance. Even a team like last year’s Spurs, which didn’t prioritize it as much as others, needed the injection of outside shooting the bench provided. Non-starters were responsible for well over half the team’s total makes from outside, and Belinelli was a key piece on that second unit’s long range excellence, connecting on 37 percent of his over five attempts per game despite taking high difficult shots. He’s a proven high-volume marksman who can connect on the move on a roster that doesn’t have many.
Beyond being a good shooter, Belinelli is also a veteran who knows his role and his limitations. He was one of just 30 rotation players in the league to average a usage percentage over 19 and a turnover percentage under 10. He also averaged the fourth lowest average seconds per touch on the team, behind three big men. In simple terms, he can get shots up and log the occasional assist without holding the ball too much or coughing it up. His skill set seems perfectly suited for a Spurs team that will have several ball handlers on the floor at all times and will need to continue to avoid live ball turnovers in order to establish a solid half court defense.
It’s on that side of the ball where the concerns about Belinelli are real. He was never a good defensive player to begin with and will enter next season as a 33-year-old competing for minutes with younger, more athletic wings. He’s not only a liability at times when it comes to man defense, but he’s also not a playmaker on that end. Last season, only LaMarcus Aldridge logged fewer steals per minute among the main players, and only Bryn Forbes had fewer blocks per minute. Yet, Marco’s lack of aggressiveness on defense does have one saving grace, and it’s the fact that he doesn’t foul a lot. Gregg Popovich’s teams have always tried to avoid sending opponents to the line, and having Belinelli out there instead of younger, less disciplined players might be more conducive to achieving that goal.
Belinelli has had a long career because he’s a competent NBA player. The Spurs are surely hoping that one of Walker or Johnson will at least reach that level this season and overtake him for likely the last rotation spot at the wing, but assuming they have already done so would be misguided. They should get every opportunity to prove themselves the superior option because they have a higher ceiling and are actually a part of the future, but in a season in which the margin of error will be slim, giving them minutes over a more proven and consistent veteran won’t be an easy decision.
It’s understandable to want to resist that notion. Walker showed enough promise as a rookie and in Summer League to justify the expectation of a potential leap as a sophomore. Johnson could be the latest steal the Spurs pulled off in the draft. Those two, along with White and Murray, give the Spurs a young, athletic backcourt rotation that could blossom into something truly special. It would be amazing to see them all play together as early as possible, but only if they are all ready.
As much as we’d all love to see young guys claim whatever minutes are left at backup shooting guard and small forward, it’s actually good that they’ll have to beat out someone like Belinelli before getting them. If they can’t, that’s fine. The Spurs will still have him around to fire threes while making few mistakes. It won’t be as exciting as watching a prospect break out, but it could be effective enough to help keep the playoff streak alive while the youngsters continue to learn.