At a crucial stretch of the season, the Spurs find themselves incredibly shorthanded. First LaMarcus Aldridge started missing games due to a shoulder injury and then Jakob Poeltl had to be sidelined with a sprained knee. As if losing their only reliable centers wasn’t bad enough, in the following days Marco Belinelli and Lonnie Walker IV went down and now it appears Dejounte Murray will miss a few games.
From what we know none of the injuries are serious, which is obviously great news. Still, Aldridge has missed the past six games, Poeltl the last four, Belinelli the last three, Walker the last one and now Murray could be out not days but weeks, according to the San Antonio Express News’ Jeff McDonald.
So the Spurs just announced Dejounte Murray suffered a calf strain late in last night's overtime loss at Cleveland. No firm timetable, but I'd expect his absence to be measured in weeks rather than days.— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) March 9, 2020
It’s possible the missed games keep piling on, too. Because the Spurs are traditionally secretive, we don’t really have timelines for the returns of any of the players, but Poeltl himself predicted he’d be out for two-to-four weeks. Aldridge (doubtful for Tuesday) has seemed close to returning for a while now, but no one would be surprised if he remained on the inactive list longer. Belinelli is expected to return against the Mavericks, but Murray is likely out for a while and Walker is questionable with an injury that seemed worse than just a shin contusion, the official diagnosis.
I have no idea how this was just a shin contusion for Lonnie Walker IV, but I'm glad it was. It looked much worse at the time. pic.twitter.com/FaXobpNO84— Jeje Gomez (@JejeGomezNBA) March 7, 2020
The effect of these absences is hard to overstate. The Spurs have been getting destroyed on the glass and inside with their two centers out. San Antonio ranks fourth in the league in defensive rebound percentage for the season, but in the six games Aldridge has been out they rank 17th in the league in that category and have allowed the third most second chance points. Even if Aldridge returns soon, the lack of a competent backup center (sorry, Drew Eubanks) means that they will be at a size deficit most nights.
The losses of Belinelli and Walker have not been as obviously detrimental, since Marco has not been good this season and Lonnie has been understandably inconsistent. But there’s now a severe lack of athleticism at the wing, unless DeMar DeRozan, averaging 36 minutes over the past five games, is overtaxed even more. Right now the Spurs are slated to be as small and athletically challenged at the wing as they were before Walker cracked the rotation, which is now a bigger issue because they have no choice but to go small inside as well.
Had Murray stayed healthy, the Spurs could have probably masked Walker’s absence by playing Dejounte and Derrick White together, something that Gregg Popovich has seemed more amenable to do lately. Unfortunately with Murray out, the Spurs just have one above-average perimeter defender around in White, which could spell doom considering the glaring lack of rim protection on the roster. Worse yet, we’ll miss out on having an opportunity to see if the two young point guards are compatible during games that matter.
The timing of these injuries has been the biggest issue, really. The Spurs are currently five games behind the Grizzlies for the eight spot in the West and have a relatively easy remaining schedule — but it’s currently impossible to imagine them making one final push for the playoffs without their centers, their starting point guard and their most athletic bench wing. Even if the injuries are all minor, by the time everyone is healthy enough to play San Antonio may be out of the race for good.
It’s tempting to just blame the front office for not getting more quality center depth and adding and then releasing DeMarre Carroll instead of a wing that could actually help now, but no amount of preparation would have helped at this point. The situation is just that unfortunate. If not for the fact that it’s clear by how the team plays and how the coaching staff manages rotations that they are still trying to win, it wouldn’t be crazy to suspect the Spurs were tanking stealthily. Alas, after a season of near-perfect roster health, they just seem to have gotten unlucky at the worst time.
At this point all that’s left to do, other than wish everyone a quick recovery, is to look for silver linings. Derrick White will surely get more minutes, which should be fun. Rudy Gay is having some good performances as a reluctant P.J. Tucker-style small ball center. More importantly, Keldon Johnson has been getting minutes and Luka Samanic got to make his NBA debut. Hopefully those two will continue to get some much-needed experience early in their careers and will be more ready to contribute if called upon next year.
Hopefully, the basketball gods will be done punishing the Spurs soon, so we can at least get a fun last quarter of the season, but it’s not looking likely. Not only will the playoff streak be almost certainly snapped but it looks like the Silver and Black won’t really be able to put up much of a fight as it happens.