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Were the Spurs wrong for not going young earlier? It’s complicated

The young Spurs are shining in bubble, but does that mean they should have gotten bigger roles earlier? The PtR staff discusses.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at San Antonio Spurs Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The young Spurs have been making waves since the restart, which has sparked a debate between the people who believe their success proves they should have been getting a lot more minutes earlier and those who think they are only thriving because Gregg Popovich unleashed them at the perfect time and in the perfect circumstances.

Is the success of the young guys in the bubble a result of how the Spurs chose to develop them slowly or evidence that the coaching staff’s reluctance to play them earlier was misguided?

Marilyn Dubinski: I think it’s some of both. On one hand, the young players are in a pressure-free environment where they’re under no obligation to win. (Although in fairness, it’s building as they keep their postseason possibilities alive, and they keep responding with wins.) It also helps them to know they won’t get yanked for every little mistake and can play their own style. While they are certainly making it look like it was mistake not to play them sooner, it is also noteworthy that they weren’t playing this well before with the chances they were given. Derrick White was reluctant to shoot, Lonnie Walker IV’s focus waned from game to game, Keldon Johnson (allegedly) had weaknesses in his college game that needed development, etc. It’s understandable why Pop would initially go with a group that did well enough last season and gave reason to believe they would improve this season, but he also could have given youth movement a go sooner when that ended up not being the case.

Mark Barrington: An underappreciated factor is probably the environment, a mostly empty gym with no fans. Most young NBA players have extensive experience in AAU, and they just feel more comfortable in a gym with limited distractions, instead of dealing with the pressure of thousands of screaming, intoxicated fans. To be fair, there are probably dozens of intoxicated fans in the virtual crowd, but they don’t make that much noise. It really is a great opportunity for young players to learn and gain confidence and for coaches to evaluate the players. The NBA, along with the NBAPA, has done an incredible job in putting together this tournament, and it’s really paying off in the development of young talent. Both Adam Silver and Chris Paul deserve a lot of credit for making the Orlando bubble a success, and for the emergence of some new stars in the NBA constellation.

Bruno Passos: The bubble is such a confluence of outliers that I don’t think it’s an either/or, but I think it has mostly to do with the players improving while on their own development arcs. Could they have come along sooner with more meaningful playing time? Maybe, but what we’re seeing is good enough to where we shouldn’t really pick apart what may have been. That said, White’s breakout performances are probably a sign that the coaching staff was too conservative in how they used him this season, and he probably should’ve been starting (either in place of Murray or alongside him) all this time.

Jesus Gomez: I think we have to take into account just how much the circumstances have changed, even beyond the fact that we are talking about a handful of games played in a bubble. Of course White should have started if he was as willing to let if fly as he is now; of course Lonnie Walker IV should have gotten more minutes if the team was going to play faster; of course Keldon Johnson would have been an intriguing forward option if Pop decided to play ultra small. But none of those things were true until very recently.

Ultimately, I would have preferred the Spurs embraced the youth movement earlier. The team as it was constructed just wasn’t good. What I disagree with is with the notion that it was obvious from the start that they would have done much better with this current iteration getting more run. We don’t know that, and under normal circumstances shutting LaMarcus Aldridge down for the year and not playing Trey Lyles and Patty Mills to open up minutes for the young guys while presumably trying to win would have been negligent. The only move that seemed like a no-brainer even before injuries and a pandemic changed everything was to reduce Bryn Forbes minutes, but doing that alone wouldn’t have created the conditions necessary for the transformation we are seeing now.

I’m enjoying watching the young guys play now and I hope their performances have made it clear to the franchise that their development is what matters going forward. So instead of getting angry now by using unfalsifiable claims about the past, I’ll save my indignation in case the Spurs revert to the form they showed before the bubble by opening night of next season.

J.R. Wilco: Depends on who we’re talking about. White was absolutely ready for these minutes and he’d already come through on the biggest stage he’d ever been on (a 36-5-5-3-1 playoff performance in Game 3 against the 2 seed Denver Nuggets to put the Spurs up 2-1) so we know nerves aren’t an issue for him. But Johnson’s shot wasn’t even ready for the G-League at the beginning of the season. There’s no way that he’d have performed in October the way he’s playing in August in the bubble. So, while I look at Derrick and think that he should’ve certainly been playing with Dejounte Murray all season and think Pop missed that one, the staff made the right call with KJ, so . . . call it a draw?