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Why the Spurs aren’t playing Josh Richardson more

It seems like the Spurs are content to let Richardson sit most nights until they can move him, just like they did with Thaddeus Young.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Miami Heat Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports

Josh Richardson was having a solid season with the Celtics before being sent to San Antonio in the Derrick White trade. While it was unclear whether the Spurs wanted him or he was included solely for salary-matching purposes, he does seem to fill a need as a wing shooter who can provide some secondary ball handling.

Richardson has barely played so far, nine games in, despite having the All-Star break to catch up on the Spurs’ playbook. Instead, younger but not particularly productive low-ceiling role players are getting minutes.

If this all sounds familiar, it’s because it’s essentially what happened to Thaddeus Young. Just like they did with Young, the Spurs seem to consider Richardson more a trade asset than a contributor, which shows their commitment to rebuilding even at the cost of quality depth.

The parallels are there. Young arrived via trade as a salary-matching piece on the last year of his contract. Richardson will be on the last year of his contract in the offseason. Despite a proven track record as a viable role player who actually could offer what the Spurs’ needed — passing and mobile defense — Gregg Popovich leaned towards giving a marginal NBA player like Drew Eubanks the minutes that could have gone to Young. Keita Bates-Diop and, to an extent, Tre Jones are Richardson’s Eubanks. The plan for Young was not to actually help while he was with the team but to play sparingly and stay healthy until the Spurs could move on and continue their rebuilding effort. It seems like the same applies to Richardson. The franchise is just biding its time.

It all makes perfect sense, from a roster-building and asset management perspective. Young was too old to be a part of the future and clearly had some trade value, so making sure he stayed healthy was important. Richardson is younger, but the Spurs have plenty of wings they need to give minutes to, plus a cheap role player like KBD on a very team-friendly contract in 2022/23. Richardson should also have good trade value after shooting 40 percent from outside in Boston. It wouldn’t be surprising at all to see a team with playoff or title aspirations and little room to make additions via free agency throw a low first-rounder San Antonio’s way in the offseason for a decent 3-and-D player, as long as he’s healthy. Taking the long view, keeping him out of the rotation is the smart thing to do.

It’s also a little frustrating to watch since the bench is really struggling and the starters are logging a lot of minutes. Before the trade deadline, the Spurs ranked first in the league in bench points scored. Since then, they rank 11th. Lonnie Walker IV accounts for almost 18 of the total 38 points the subs have scored per game in that stretch. The dip in bench scoring is largely due to personnel but can also be partially attributed to the fact that San Antonio now plays its starters more. Before the deadline, the Spurs had just three players logging 30 minutes or more and no one logging over 34.4. Since then they have four over the 30-minute threshold, with Dejounte Murray logging well over 35 minutes per game. The Silver and Black are hugely dependent on just six guys to do most of the work right now.

The concern about heavy minutes is not a huge one, since these Spurs are actually young and durable, but quality depth could still help the team. By no means is Richardson a savior, but he’s proven he can play at the NBA level, is a decent defender, can shoot the three and handle the ball in a pinch. San Antonio often plays four perimeter players around a center, so he could share the court with Jones, Josh Primo and Lonnie Walker IV, if needed, like Vassell used to do. Pop could easily carve out 15+ minutes for him by giving him KDB’s minutes, unless the matchups calls for a bigger forward, and slightly reducing the playing time the rest of the wings are getting. The bench would almost certainly be better for it.

If the Spurs were solely focusing on being the best version of themselves, they probably would have played Young to start the season and Richardson now, but that’s understandably not the goal. In an effort to further the youth movement, sometimes small sacrifices have to be made, and the coaching staff seems to believe that veterans who are not in the team’s future plans have no place in the rotation, even if they could help in the short term. It’s not strange to see that happen on rebuilding teams, and this is not an extreme case. The Thunder paid Al Horford over $27 million to basically stay in shape and sit the last 28 games of the 2019/20 season, and the Rockets are paying John Wall over $44 million to not suit up for them. Playing Young and Richardson sparingly until they can be moved pales in comparison to those examples.

The dissonance for Spurs fans comes from simply not being used to the team prioritizing youth over production. As recently as last season, San Antonio was giving more minutes to Rudy Gay and Patty Mills than Devin Vassell, despite missing the playoffs. Things have clearly changed now, likely for the better, but it’s going to take some time to adjust to the new reality, especially since the team is competitive most nights and any small edge could turn a loss into a win.

The way the Spurs handled the Thaddeus Young situation was reasonable and proved productive, and it’s very likely the same will be true when it comes to Richardson. Marginally better bench play won’t make a difference this year, but maybe giving the starters and Lonnie Walker IV as many minutes as they can handle while reducing the injury risk for a trade piece will in the long run. It all makes sense and is consistent with how the franchise has approached this season.

It will be important to remember that, as the Spurs navigate these last 18 games trying to find a balance between competing and preparing for the future, but clearly prioritizing the latter.