On the same day the Spurs got Doug McDermott back in their starting lineup, they lost Jakob Poeltl. McDermott only missed three games, and Poeltl will probably only lose a handful, but those two absences have made clear something that everyone suspected: San Antonio’s depth is more theoretical than practical.
With McDermott out, Lonnie Walker IV had to step into the starting lineup, which shook up the entire rotation. Bryn Forbes, who averaged around eight minutes with McDermott around, saw his playing time jump to over 20 in his absence, as the Spurs scrambled to get more shooting. Keita Bates-Diop went from 10 minutes (mostly coming in a single game) up to 20, when the Spurs didn’t have every forward available. A single injury resulted in two fringe rotation guys logging serious playing time. Bates-Diop had a surprisingly good net rating during that time, but Forbes’ was a terrible -7.6 despite shooting 64 percent on threes, or 9-for-14.
The point here is not to pick on Forbes or sing the praises of Bates-Diop, who was good defensively though averaging just five points and four rebounds, but to point out how precarious the team’s situation is. One absence had serious ripple effects throughout the team and while one of the tweaks seemingly worked, the other didn’t.
Poeltl has only missed one game, but something similar happened in his absence. The normal thing for a team missing it’s starting center to do would be to give his backup a lot more playing time. It didn’t really happen for San Antonio. Drew Eubanks did get a few extra minutes, but it was Thaddeus Young, who had been getting DNP-CDs this season, suddenly receiving 22 minutes to Eubanks’ 19 in the loss to the Mavericks. In crunch time, the Spurs went without a center altogether, relying on a micro-ball unit that featured Keldon Johnson at center. Once again, there was no “next man up” option, but a need for some huge adjustments.
If it seems rash to draw any definitive conclusions from a few games in a very young season, it’s because it probably is. Pop is still figuring out his rotations and there are matchup issues to consider. McDermott and Poeltl are also arguably the most irreplaceable guys in the rotation, as no one else on the roster can replicate what they bring to the table. Guys like Derrick White, Dejounte Murray and Keldon Johnson might be more talented, but if one of them misses time, it might be easier for Gregg Popovich to simply plug someone in on their role without giving minutes to someone who normally doesn’t get them. But it’s still noteworthy that a Spurs team that is in theory 12 deep has really struggled to replace the two starters who have been out so far.
The reason for it seems simple: San Antonio has a deep roster, but one that is full of specialists and fringe guys who can do well in limited roles, but whose skill sets are not well-suited for a bigger burden. Drew Eubanks might be an elite third center and a decent backup, but at this point is just not a starter. Bryn Forbes can shoot with the best of them, but in the wrong matchups he’s still a liability on defense. Bates-Diop can provide defense and rebounding, but doesn’t have the type of well-rounded game to slot in for major minutes. Guys like Tre Jones and Jock Landale have barely played in the NBA, so who knows what they can and can’t handle. Maybe Zach Collins will immediately claim a role when he returns, or maybe he won’t.
The good news is that wins and losses don’t really matter that much to the Spurs this season, or at least they shouldn’t. It’s a good thing to experiment and see if the young guys on the roster can become reliable rotation players, which hopefully will be something the team focuses on if more injuries come. If Jones, Landale, Bates-Diop and even Eubanks make mini-leaps by getting experience —even in losses— it will all be worth it. They could then join Walker and Vassell as key reserves and potentially edge veterans like Forbes and Young down the pecking order. Less exciting but also positive would be for those same veterans to get comfortable in bigger roles and excel, so that their trade value grows. If the short term chaos that has resulted from injuries solves itself soon, then everything will be fine.
But if it’s an injury-riddled season, there’s a real chance that everyone outside of the top seven rotation players aren’t good enough to play for even a non-playoff team, or that they are too bad a fit, in Young’s case, to thrive in San Antonio. It wouldn’t be all that uncommon for things to go that way, since most rebuilding teams tend to have a lot of roster turnover as a result of taking chances on promising but flawed players that don't pan out. Usually it’s the high draft picks, like Josh Primo and whoever the Spurs pick in 2022, that eventually end up taking some of those slots, while new gambles round out rosters. If this year is about experimentation and development, it doesn’t matter if some guys that often have a negative impact play. In fact, it could help improve the team’s lottery chances.
The problem then is not the future but what happens this season, at least for those who will actually watch the games. As rational as it might be to just accept that these Spurs won’t be particularly good and to think that it might not be a bad thing for them to lose often, it all goes out the window when someone who can’t shoot is pulling the trigger time and again or someone who can’t defend is futilely trying to check a star. It will inevitably be frustrating to see a player who probably shouldn’t be getting minutes yet out there struggling, and terrifying to hear any news about an injury for a while. It might be especially tough for Spurs fans, who have enjoyed, at worst, competency from most of the rotation players on their team for the past 25 years.
It will all be a matter of perspective in the end. Some will accept, if not outright welcome, short absences from the top seven as a way to see what the fringe guys can offer, and maybe will have their faith rewarded. At worst, they’ll console themselves with dreams of the top pick. Others will lament any missed games by the core guys because they’ll know that the chances of actually getting wins will probably go down drastically and watching a disjointed team with outmatched players that is destined to lose is never fun.
Neither side will be wrong, necessarily, which shows how strange this season of Spurs’ basketball really is.