Just as they were starting to get whole after their previous COVID outbreak, the Spurs are in the middle of a new one. Devin Vassell, Thaddeus Young, Keldon Johnson and Derrick White have now entered the health and safety protocol and could miss several games.
While the health of everyone involved is the most important thing to consider, their absences will have immediate repercussions on the Spurs season. So let’s take a look at where San Antonio stands now.
The Spurs need Lonnie Walker IV and Doug McDermott back as soon as possible
Before now, the Spurs had two major COVID-related absences: Jakob Poeltl and Dejounte Murray. Those were huge blows considering how important both are to the team, but they were somewhat manageable because they happened at different times. Similarly, San Antonio had a few wings miss time recently but had others ready to take over those minutes. Now, things are different. The Spurs have lost three rotation wings before Lonnie Walker and Doug McDermott, who have missed the last three games, had a chance to return.
White sometimes mans the point guard spot, but most of the time slots at shooting guard, while Vassell and Johnson play both forward spots. Without those three, the Spurs currently have Bryn Forbes, Josh Primo, Joe Wieskamp and Keita Bates-Diop to cover three positions. Those four have played a combined 1,183 minutes out of the total 8,930 the Spurs have logged, with KBD and Forbes accounting for about 1,000 of those minutes. San Antonio has signed Tyler Johnson, who has logged 38 minutes of NBA basketball this season, and Anthony Lamb, who has not played at all in the league this year, to 10-day deals to shore up its depth, but it’s hard to imagine them having a big impact. Right now, the guard/forward rotation is mostly comprised of guys who not only haven’t played together much, but have not actually played much at all.
If Walker IV and McDermott return soon, however, it all changes. Walker is out of protocols and is currently listed as questionable due to conditioning and could play on Friday, while McDermott should exit the protocols soon. If those two rejoin the team in the next few days, even on a minutes restriction, Gregg Popovich could have a more experienced rotation on his hands to mix and match. Forbes, Walker IV, McDermott and Bates-Diop would get the majority of minutes at shooting guard and the forward spots, with some Primo and Wieskamp sprinkled in. Pop could maybe try a few minutes with two bigs, like he did in Detroit recently. It wouldn’t be ideal, but it would have proven shooting from Forbes and McDermott, shot creation from Lonnie and defense from KBD, as well as some degree of familiarity. San Antonio could survive with that, if Murray carries the offense and Poeltl anchors the defense inside.
The Spurs are not going to send McDermott and Walker IV out there if they still need more conditioning, which is the smart thing to do. But if those two can return quickly and give the team good minutes, the crisis shouldn’t be as serious as it could be if Pop is forced to play rookies and newcomers for long stretches.
The Spurs have missed some opportunities, but the West is forgiving this year
Compared to other teams, the Spurs had been lucky up until now when it comes to player games missed by COVID. There were 17 teams that have had more absences than them, with some missing superstars. Unfortunately, relative health didn’t help the Spurs a lot, since they really missed their point guard and center when they were out and even at full strength struggled to get some attainable wins against depleted opponents.
To make matters worse, some of the teams that are in the running for a play-in spot with them have likely already undergone their worse moments, at least for a while. The Timberwolves and Kings have had 34 and 42 absences due to players entering the protocol, respectively, compared to the Spurs’ 26, according to Man Games Lost, which has been tracking the data. The Kings had a big outbreak in mid December while the Wolves had it in late December, and both are now back at close to full strength. The timing of this outbreak is terrible for the Spurs, because they could lose ground to Minnesota, already 2.5 games ahead of them in the standings, and could lose the 10th spot to the Kings, which are just half a game behind them.
The good news is that the West has been underwhelming this season, as reflected by the fact that the 15-22 Spurs currently hold on to a play-in spot. The Wolves do seem to have the potential to climb up the standings with their stars back, but the Kings have not been playing all that well since getting De’Aaron Fox back and could be contemplating trading some disgruntled players. The Thunder and the Rockets would probably be happier with better lottery odds than a play-in spot, and the Pelicans don’t seem like a huge threat without a healthy, in-shape Zion Williamson, which they might not get this season. It’s impossible to rule out a hot stretch by the Trail Blazers once they get Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum back, but the Silver and Black should have some of their own guys back on the active roster by then.
If the Spurs completely collapse in the next few days. the play-in could start to look like a longshot, but if they can tread water by winning a couple of games, they could still be in contention for it, because the West is simply more forgiving this year than it was in seasons past.