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Figuring out the ideal Spurs’ rotation

The Spurs are getting closer to being fully healthy, which could mean changes to the rotation. The PtR staff discusses who should get more minutes and who should have a smaller role.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Jakob Poeltl’s return will shake up the big man rotation. Has Thaddeus Young done enough to completely take over the backup minutes no matter the matchup?

Marilyn Dubinski: I’m not sure if I’m quite ready to say “completely” or “no matter the matchup”, but I do believe he has done enough to be the first big off the bench in most cases (especially if the Spurs still have an interest in trading him, and they want to keep his value as high as possible). There might still be situations where Eubanks is first off the bench, such as when Poeltl gets into early foul trouble but Pop wants to maintain his bench rotation, or there might be times when Eubanks gets a chance because it just isn’t Young’s night or he’s outmatched, but for the most part I would say he’s earned the backup big minutes.

Mark Barrington: He should be the backup now, but I don’t see any problem with them sharing minutes about equally. Thad is better on offense, because he’s a better distributor and has a variety of tricky shots around the basket. On defense, Young has better positioning. Drew doesn’t have the same offensive versatility, but he brings energy, and sometimes that’s what you need. Neither one of those guys is big enough to be a traditional center, and I’m looking forward to the return of Zach Collins to have a real backup big, and for Thaddeus to move to power forward, allowing Keldon Johnson to play small forward where his height isn’t such a detriment. This team really needs size to compete against teams that have 7 footers, and neither Thaddeus Young or Drew Eubanks provide that.

Bruno Passos: Ostensibly, yes. Eubanks has improved from being a liability on both ends to knowing his spots and facilitating the offense. He also gives maximum effort and hasn’t shied away from taking (and occasionally making) open looks when defenses completely look off him. For what he is, though, he still feels a bit too small to make a winning impact within a fully healthy rotation. He did his best to spell Poeltl in his absence but, as Jak gets his legs and his lungs back, the Spurs should stick to him and Young as primary bigs and, when applicable, try the odd super-small lineup with someone like Johnson or Bates-Diop at the 5, because why not.

Jesus Gomez: Yes. Eubanks is not a bad at it but he’s not even close to being the facilitator Young is, and with the offense needing the center to find cutters and deliver good hand-offs, it’s just makes sense to go with the better passer. If Eubanks could provide elite rim protection, the decision would be tougher, but he can’t. The only concern with going with Young is that he’s used to playing big minutes, since he was a starter or key reserve throughout his career, so he might struggle to adjust to a smaller role while Eubanks wouldn’t have that problem. But it’s worth at least trying to give Young those backup minutes to see how he performs before settling for Eubanks or giving Jock Landale a look.

J.R. Wilco: Since the Spurs don’t have anyone who’s a better defender, then the answer is ABSOLUTELY based on his offense alone! Young elevates the scoring ability of every set of guys he plays with. That’s always beneficial, but on a team that struggles to score as much as this San Antonio squad does, it’s invaluable.

Josh Primo turned heads in the G-League and seems more NBA-ready than anticipated. Do you expect him to get minutes with the big team soon?

Dubinski: If “soon” means anytime before, let’s say, March, I wouldn’t count on it unless there’s a rash of injuries in the guard rotation (or possible COVID outbreak, similar to what the bigs are dealing with right now), or a couple of them are traded (which I don’t see happening). The guard rotation is too deep, this is still a Gregg Popovich-led team, and the G League is still the best place for Primo to be so he can get extensive minutes and keep honing his craft.

I expect him to finish out the G League season in Austin, and after that maybe he sees some rotation minutes if the postseason is out of reach for the Spurs by March or April. That being said, coming into the season many may have seen him as a multi-year G Leaguer who wouldn’t see real NBA playing time until his third year. Now it seems very possible he could be in San Antonio for good by next season.

Barrington: I’m fine with him dominating the G League for the rest of the season. He needs time leading a team, and he won’t be getting that sitting on the bench in San Antonio. He should get called up whenever there’s a break in the G League schedule and for the week or so of the NBA season after the G League season ends. He has been super impressive in his first few games in the Austin, but he will inevitably struggle at some point this season, and it will be better to do that against G League competition, where there is no real threat of a confidence-busting benching.

Passos: The whole point of Primo in Austin is that he can develop into the type of ball-dominant, high-upside player the Spurs both need and, I think, drafted him to be. Let him cook in isolation, make mistakes in the pick and roll, and pull up from deep at will, and learn through it all. Plug him into the varsity team for 10 or 15 minutes a night and he gets some seasoning against better talent, but he’s not doing what I just said, because nobody does that on this team right now. Maybe injuries or an all-out bottoming out of this season change things, but otherwise it’s best for everyone if Primo looks way too good for the G League for most of the year and the Spurs look at how they can actually leverage and incorporate those talents into a new system in 2022.

Gomez: I think at this point we know how the Spurs like to develop rookies and it has worked well in the past, so it doesn’t make sense to fix what isn’t broken. Even if Primo could actually help, this year seems like a write off anyway, so why not let him get as many minutes and touches as he can handle in Austin instead of being the ninth guy in the rotation? Hopefully later in the season he’ll get some playing time with the big team so that he can adjust to the NBA before his second season, but for now the G League seems like the best place for him.

Wilco: I never expect a Spurs rookie to get playing time, which is why I’m still alive. I mean, which is why I’m ... less disappointed that I would be otherwise? Bottom line: Pop doesn’t play rookies unless they’re simply better than his other options. I don’t see that being true of Primo this season since he’s so young. I expect him to get there, of course, just not this season.

Outside of the top 8 rotation players, there’s still a battle for scrap minutes between Bryn Forbes, Tre Jones and Keita Bates-Diop. Do you think anyone can claim the ninth spot permanently?

Dubinski: I have a feeling it will continue to be a game-by-game case, depending on the matchup and who has it going that night. Forbes will likely almost always have first dibs to see if his shot is on for that game (and it’s good to see Pop pulling him when it isn’t since he’s such a liability otherwise), and if not the other two options are more defense oriented, and it would depend what position Pop needs covered to determine if it’s Jones or KBD (although my guess is the latter will usually have a better chance).

Barrington: Pop has always adjusted his lineup based on the matchups, and I expect that will continue. Bryn Forbes just doesn’t have the ability to stick with NBA level athletes on defense and I hope he’s taken out of the rotation, only playing spot minutes when the team needs someone hit a three point shot. Tre Jones has a lot of potential as a point guard, and I could see him eventually taking the place as Dejounte’s backup, and for Derrick White to become a full time SG. Keita Bates-Diop is going to struggle to find minutes once Zach Collins returns, and unless he can improve his offensive output, he may be riding the pine for the rest of the season.

Passos: I don’t see it happening anytime soon. I think there’s something to keeping a deeper rotation in another COVID year, just to retain familiarity and that next-man-up mentality, but I also don’t think the Spurs are versatile enough within their top 8 to shorten the rotation. Johnson isn’t a big enough wing to play against some 4s, despite being up for any challenge, and there isn’t enough shooting for Forbes to be completely shelved even with his struggles this year. There’s also the developmental needs of a guy like Jones, who hasn’t impressed yet as a ball-handler but is looking increasingly confident and comfortable within the offensive system and probably has little else to gain from time in Austin.

Gomez: Ideally, Jones would get the role and become a part of the core, but while he’s been great as a cutter, his questionable shooting makes him seem like someone who needs the ball to be at his best, and the Spurs have too many guys who need touches as it is. Some nights the Spurs will need what Jones can provide, but other times they’ll need specialist like Forbes and Bates-Diop who can just jump in for a few minutes and do their job while not disrupting anyone else’s roles. So I expect all three to remain in the rotation but without a fixed placed in it, at least for now.

Wilco: The only one of these three who has a chance to earn them is Jones. Forbes isn’t suddenly going to learn how to play defense. Bates-Diop isn’t going to turn into an offensive force tomorrow. It’d be great if you could combine the two of them (Keita Forbes? Bryn Bates-Diop) and get the best of both worlds, but that technology doesn’t exist yet. So we’re left hoping for Tre’s development to lead him to increased production so he’s rewarded with that playing time. I know I’m pulling for him.