Marco Belinelli was supposed to be a steadying presence in an unstable guard rotation. Instead, the veteran sharpshooter had an up-and-down season that eventually led to his role shrinking not because the young players behind him in the depth chart were more consistent, but because they could at least bring in some much needed versatility.
With San Antonio potentially committing to going younger, the services of a veteran specialists simply might not be needed going forward. At the same time, the Spurs have always valued continuity and “corporate knowledge,” so they might think twice before actually giving up on Belinelli.
Is there a scenario in which re-signing Marco could make sense? Let’s find out.
Why Marco Belinelli should stay
It’s undeniable that Belinelli had a down year in 2019-20, but even while not performing as expected, he finished the season shooting 37 percent from beyond the arc while posting a career low turnover percentage. He wasn’t necessarily consistent throughout the season, but he had moments in which he was legitimately good at filling his very specific role and, on the aggregate, he was fine for a ninth man.
Some will complain that for someone who only brings shooting, 37 percent is not good enough, but with Belinelli volume and difficulty matter. Marco took over seven three-pointers per 36 minutes, third on the team and the most out of anyone over 6’3. Wing shooting was a huge problem all season long, but Belinelli did his part to at least mitigate it in his 15 minutes a game. As for difficulty, Marco made 39 percent of his wide open attempts, which is expected, but he also made 36.7 of all of his other attempts, from tightly contested to semi open. That number is by no means elite, but considering how hard it was for the Spurs to create quality looks for their shooters, having someone who could hit at least some tough ones was important.
While he was not special by any means at the individual level, Belinelli did seem to make an impact at the team level. Marco’s on/off splits show that the Spurs were better with him on the court than off. The differential can partially be explained away by him playing most of his minutes with a solid bench unit that didn’t face starters too often, but the man that filled his role when he got relegated to spot minutes, Lonnie Walker IV, didn’t fare as well. Perhaps Belinelli’s confident shooting and decisive and constant off ball movement (second highest average speed on the team, behind Dejounte Murray) contributed more to the offense than originally thought.
Why he should go
The entire case for Belinelli to remain on the Spurs and the NBA in general relies on his offensive output, because his defense has been a minus for years and is only getting worse. Marco gets screened easily, so he can’t really defend ball handlers, and he can get lost off the ball chasing shooters, which makes him hard to hide. Despite rarely if ever guarding the opponent’s best threat, Belinelli posted middling to bad percentiles defending in isolation or off screens, and while Synergy Sports stats can be noisy, the eye test confirms that Marco has just no been good at staying with his man.
Defensive incompetence can be forgiven in two instances: if a player is young and learning the ropes or if a player is so good offensively that he more than makes up for any buckets he surrenders. Belinelli is neither. He’s never been a good defender, but at age 34 and with his always underwhelming physical tools deteriorating, we can only expect him to get worse on that end. His offense still has some value, as previously discussed, but he’ll have to do better than shoot 37 percent on threes, considering that he can barely get to the rim anymore and his passing has not evolved. Marco is not only a one-way player, but a thoroughly mediocre one at that at this point.
Mediocre is often fine for guys who play a small role, like Marco does, because few teams have more than seven or eight players who are net positives. Unfortunately for Belinelli, the Spurs have an abundance of young players who play his position and who will need minutes to develop. It’s too early to tell if Lonnie Walker IV and Keldon Johnson will have careers as long and adequate as Belinelli’s had in the NBA, but the only way to find out if they can potentially become long term rotation pieces (and hopefully more than that) is to play them.
Verdict: He should go ... unless
Belinelli is still a good shooter who knows how to move without the ball. Unfortunately, it seems like at this point, that’s all he brings to the table. Like most specialists, he could have a job in the NBA, but likely not as a rotation fixture. If he wants a bigger role, a return to Europe could be in the cards.
The decision to let him go should be easy for the Spurs, considering the depth they have at his position. Patty Mills, Murray, Derrick White, Walker IV, Johnson and DeMar DeRozan (assuming he’s returns) should take most of the minutes at the guard and wing spots, so all San Antonio would need is someone who can potentially step in if injuries deplete that existing depth.
In that capacity — and in that capacity only — it might make some sense to bring Belinelli back. He’d have to agree to a minimum deal, considering the salary constraints the Spurs will face, and to an end of the bench mentoring role. Assuming Quinndary Weatherspoon remains on a two-way deal and thus not taking a roster spot, keeping an extra guard around who knows the system and the culture as well as Marco does could be an option.
If the Spurs are afraid of going too young, too quickly, keeping Marco as a mentor might make sense. Unfortunately for Belinelli, that’s the only role he should be asked to fill in San Antonio.