The Spurs are finally getting healthy. Recently their injury report was clear for the first time in a while. Jakob Poeltl has been back for a few games. Blake Wesley is already getting minutes in Austin. There have been some short absences but for the most part, the team is whole again.
It’s clearly a good thing for Gregg Popovich to have everyone available to try to create some cohesion for a team that has struggled to come together as players have had to sit out, but now a new issue will appear: there might not be enough minutes for everyone who deserves them.
Against the Knicks on Thursday the Spurs were missing Devin Vassell. In his absence, Romeo Langford, who had not played in two of the preceding three games and got eight minutes in the other, had the best performance of his career. Langford brought energy on defense and aggressiveness on offense on his way to a 23-point game in a win. If Vassell, listed as doubtful in the injury report at this time, is ready to go against the Mavericks, it’s entirely possible Langford will get back to not seeing the court or playing single-digit minutes. If Pop wants to see more of Langford, then rookie Malaki Branham might not play, or maybe Josh Richardson will get a DNP-CD. Or maybe Pop goes with smaller lineups and Doug McDermott and Keita Bates-Diop see their playing time disappear.
It’s true that having too many options is a good problem to have. But it’s still a problem, especially for a rebuilding team trying to figure out which pieces it wants to keep, thinking about the future. The reality of the situation is that a lot of the players currently on the roster won’t be a part of the next great team, but a franchise that values continuity as much as the Spurs traditionally have will probably keep a few around. It’s hard to imagine the rebuild in San Antonio resembling what happened in Philadelphia during The Process, where there was constant roster turnover, more than what’s happening in Oklahoma City right now, where former Spurs executive Sam Presti has clung to some young players and the occasional veteran like Kenrich Williams despite not seeing immediate results or a huge on-court impact. So who gets to stay?
Without getting minutes, it might be tough for some players to make their case. The guys with years left on rookie contracts are very likely safe unless they pull a Josh Primo. In their case, playing time is mostly important in that it can help them adjust to the NBA faster and potentially show the front office that they can be core pieces. Things get more complicated for the rest. Those who are a little older than the centerpieces and are not in long contracts like Bates-Diop and Stanley Johnson get closer to running out of time to prove they are worth keeping with every passing game. Younger players that have not secured a future in the NBA yet, like Langford, Isaiah Roby and Charles Bassey are probably fighting for their careers. The Spurs can’t care about how things work out for them, but they definitely should be interested in finding out whether they can help the Silver and Black, and it would be hard to do so while they sit on the bench.
The elephant in the room when it comes to minutes is whether the veterans should be getting any at all. Josh Richardson is 29 and McDermott is 31. They are known commodities. Considering the Spurs are extremely unlikely to make the playoffs, what’s the point of playing them? Should they even be on the roster? What about Jakob Poeltl, who is 27 already and will enter unrestricted free agency next offseason? Taking the long view it seems like parting ways with them in order to secure playing time for younger, more unproven guys who could be a part of the future makes the most sense, but all three have proved useful in helping build the team’s new offensive identity. Richardson is a ball handler who can score, McDermott is a movement shooter who is always cutting and Poeltl is an elite screener and dependable playmaker in a system that values those skills tremendously. They have a lot to teach.
It’s simply tricky to find an answer to the conundrum of who should play that comes with no opportunity cost. Keeping the veterans in the rotation to establish a foundation means probably cutting the minutes of the younger guys severely. Sacrificing the playing time of energy guys that have actually contributed when called upon like Langford, Stanley Johnson and KBD involves not rewarding production and giving up on the possibility to find out that they can do more than they have so far. Not giving guys with good physical tools and untapped potential like Roby and Bassey an extended look could be a waste of a development opportunity. Every decision has a downside.
Eventually things will solve themselves. The future of a rebuild, especially one as young as the Spurs’, doesn’t depend on finding the right role player to give 15 minutes a game this season, so there’s no reason to worry too much about potentially missing out on a great seventh or eighth man for a version of the roster that doesn’t exist yet.
That said, there’s no reason to just assume this year simply won’t matter at all in the grand scheme of things. If the Spurs get lucky in the draft or somehow land a centerpiece sooner than expected, they’ll need to have a good supporting cast ready. Hopefully they’ll make the right choices now in how they allocate their minutes and develop one as quickly and competently as possible.