Do you think all the players that have missed time for the Spurs this season have had real injuries or do you think they have kept some guys out to tank?
Marilyn Dubinski: My general thought process has been that, with a few exceptions, if a player suddenly misses one random game with a mysterious injury (like Keldon Johnson in Houston), it’s a “strategic” injury. Devin Vassell’s random rest games make sense with his finicky knee, and obviously Jakob Poeltl’s knee, Jeremy Sochan’s quad, and Zach Collins leg (to name a few off the top of my head) were not fake. But overall, the Spurs are definitely using any little bump or bruise (conceived or otherwise) to their advantage.
Mark Barrington: They’re real, of course, but maybe they’re injuries that players would play through on a contending team. Pop is perfectly willing to rest players to get fully recovered if he wants to give Stanley Johnson some more minutes instead of Keldon Johnson. If the minutes go to a young player like Bassey that the team is trying to develop and evaluate, even better. They’re not trying to LOSE games, they’re just not always trying to put a lineup on the floor to WIN them when players are not feeling 100%.
Bruno Passos: There’s likely some middle ground between all of the injuries being legitimate and the team exercising a higher degree of caution and patience thanks to winning not being atop their list of priorities. Does the latter still fall under some definition of tanking? Probably, but not by the most cynical interpretation.
Jesus Gomez: The injuries that have required players to miss significant time are undeniably real, but it’s impossible to be confident that the rest of the absences have not been strategic to a degree. Even those who trust the Spurs to never tank would probably have to admit that it would simply make sense to be overly cautious in a rebuilding season and sit someone that in past years would have pushed through small injuries. It’s just how things work in the NBA and I doubt the basketball gods will be angry at the Spurs for it.
J.R. Wilco: In years past, whenever anyone accused the Spurs of having tanked to get Duncan, I would immediately tell them to look at the number of games San Antonio missed due to injury that season. “How can you say Pop tanked,” I would ask, “when the team couldn’t keep anyone healthy?!” I didn’t follow the Spurs’ 1996-7 season. But I’ve followed this one and I get it now ... I’ll never contradict anyone like that again.
Who has benefited the most from the opportunity to play created by injuries to core players?
Dubinski: Charles Bassey immediately comes to mind. There haven’t been many games lately where both Poeltl and Collins have played, and Bassey has used those minutes to prove that he’s an NBA player, not a G-League or even two-way player (a lot of 76ers who disagreed with Doc Rivers’ decision to let him go would have told you that), with his energy, hustle, and shot-blocking ability. He still needs to work on his willingness to shoot outside of the paint or merely on tip-ins, but he has made the most of the opportunity given to him. (And he needs to keep doing that since, as the game in Houston showed, he won’t get much outside of garbage time with Poeltl and Collins are both available.)
Barrington: I think Bassey is a guy who is getting a lot more work than he would be on a playoff-seeking team, and he’s benefitting from the minutes. But I think it’s the rotating 15th spot that’s been most interesting. While Jordan Hall clearly wasn’t ready to play at an NBA level yet, his experience with the team is going to be very valuable towards him getting better and possibly making a NBA roster in the next couple of years. Getting a year’s NBA salary, even at end of the bench levels, is a great motivator to keep working on your game, even if his ceiling turns out to be playing a few years overseas. Similarly, Alize Johnson has benefitted from a cup of coffee at the NBA level, and a couple of weeks of Spurs coaching. Stanley Johnson has been great so far, and it looks like he might end up sticking on the roster, so that final spot might be finished rotating for this season.
Passos: Charles Bassey has shown he has a place in the league and given 76ers fans another thing to be mad about, while Malaki Branham has used his recent reps to string together some very promising games, but I’ll go with Romeo Langford, who’s now 10th on the team in total minutes played and averaging 3 minutes more than his previous career high per game. Considering the glut of guards on the roster and the way his career was trending, I’d say the opportunity presented and the defensive niche he’s managed to carve out have been among the most meaningful developments for any individual career.
Gomez: In terms of potentially earning a role going forward with the Spurs, probably Romeo Langford. Bassey has likely helped his career the most, but he has two veteran centers ahead of him in the depth chart, so unless there’s a trade or another big injury, he probably won’t get much burn going forward. Langford could, through the good defense and constant hustle he’s shown, get a handful of minutes a game to show that his offense is also coming along.
Wilco: For me, it’s a toss-up between Branham and Langford. In a normal season, both of them would have been either glued to the bench, or getting reps in Austin. But this year, both have gotten minutes, showed what they’re capable of, and gotten fans excited about their long-term prospects. I’m hopeful both will develop and end up sticking with the team.
Who has missed the opportunity to claim a spot in the rotation?
Dubinski: It’s hard to say considering everyone has certainly had their share of chances with all the “injuries”. Only player I would like to see more but haven’t is Isaiah Roby. He certainly isn’t lacking in confidence and can shoot the ball, but he’s stuck behind a relatively deep group of forwards, and when they’re available, Pop is sticking with the veterans. Is this a case of Roby not “earning” his keep when he does play (he’s rarely been outstanding but certainly hasn’t been bad), or does he just need to hope Doug McDermott and/or Josh Richardson gets traded to receive consistent minutes?
Barrington: I don’t anyone really qualifies for that title, because just about everyone has had a chance to play this year. Isaiah Roby has been intriguing, he’s had his moments, but his fundamentals on defense are very suspect. I think that’s mostly because he’s been called on to play center, which is something he’s just not good at, especially on defense. Roby really should never play the five unless everyone else on the team over 6’6” has two broken legs. He has intriguing athletic ability, so maybe he can be coached up to become a passable backup power forward in time, but I think he needs at least another year in the system to get there. The fact that he often looks lost on defense is a good reason to keep him off the floor for now.
Passos: Before Jeremy Sochan became the day 1 starter, I actually thought Isaiah Roby might have a case for the job — or at least regular minutes — given his experience and ability to help the Spurs play bigger or smaller. I still enjoy his minutes and random above-the-rim flashes but he’s seemingly fallen into the Trey Lyles Zone of competent players who don’t quite move the needle. On a team with younger players (he’s only 24, which makes him objectively young but Spurs old), he’s gotten a little lost in the shuffle.
Gomez: As unfair as it might sound to pick a rookie who was expected to develop slowly, I’d have to say Malaki Branham. He’s coming off a couple of good performances but he probably didn’t do enough to avoid returning to Austin as soon as there are enough bodies at his position. It’s not necessarily a bad thing that he’ll probably go back to the original plan for his development, but it would have been nice to see the rookie show that he was more NBA-ready than expected.
Wilco: I hate to say it, but the only answer to this question is Joshua Primo.