Two games into preseason and the questions about whether Victor Wembanyama was worth the hype seem in the past, which only leaves one big question to answer in the remaining exhibition games: who will start for the Spurs?
We know Wembanyama, Zach Collins and Devin Vassell are essentially locks, but one of Tre Jones, Jeremy Sochan and Keldon Johnson won’t have a spot in the starting five. Gregg Popovich made one statement on media day about the situation before essentially deflecting every question about it.
“I’ve had no such discussions with anyone. But if Manu Ginobili can come off the bench, anybody can and I don’t wanna hear it.”
It’s a powerful quote. Manu Ginobili is a Hall-of-Famer who put his ego aside for the good of the team. He’s one of the best examples of selflessness in NBA history and he’s regularly around these players in his role with the Spurs.
There are just two issues with how that example applies to the current situation. First, the Spurs were contenders back then. They had Tim Duncan and Tony Parker around, along with a group of experienced role players. The tradeoff for Manu’s sacrifice was deep playoff runs and titles, which is not likely to be what the sixth man of this year’s team will get to experience. Second, and this is something that is often not discussed, Manu wasn’t happy about coming off the bench at first. The guy Pop is using as his example didn’t immediately understand the transition.
Now, the fact that Manu didn’t like coming off the bench to begin with doesn’t take away from his legacy as a selfless star. If anything, it should improve his reputation. Accepting a role that was considered lesser, even reluctantly, is admirable. It surely took a lot of trust in the coaching staff for him to do it without complaining openly. This is what the player coming off the bench this year will have to do. But no one should blame them at all if, just like Manu, they aren’t happy about it, especially considering the differences in circumstances and backgrounds.
Manu came into the league at age 25 after succeeding in Europe and winning an Olympic gold medal. He dreamed of the NBA when he was younger but that wasn’t a realistic goal for most Argentinean players and he wasn’t a big star to start his career. In his first year with the Spurs he won a title. As he progressed as a player he started to get attention and by his third season, when he was a part-time bench player, he was an All-Star on a team that went on to win a championship. Manu’s sixth-man era came after tremendous success both at the personal level and with the Spurs and after a unique career that led up to it.
Whoever is asked to come off the bench in San Antonio this season won’t have a resume like Manu’s to point to as a reason why they should be starters, but that will arguably make the transition harder. Ginobili could afford to renounce some personal glory for the good of the team but Keldon Johnson, Jeremy Sochan and Tre Jones can’t because they haven’t really gotten to experience any yet. The TNT broadcast team from the second preseason game confessed that it was the first time they were seeing most of the young Spurs live. A portion of the national audience might be vaguely familiar with those guys from college, but they don’t really know them. They haven’t earned respect around the league yet. Johnson has an Olympic medal, but he was a deep-bench guy for that team. No one outside of San Antonio will consider, say, Jeremy Sochan selfless if he comes off the bench. They’ll just assume he’s just another a bench player.
If the Spurs were a contender, things would be different, but they are not. The tradeoff of individual recognition for team success is not as enticing when the reward is maybe a play-in spot instead of a trip to the Finals. There’s also a certain stigma that can come with being a bench player, which can hurt the players emotionally and monetarily, as former sixth men like Manu and Andre Iguodala have acknowledged. Keldon Johnson doesn’t have to worry about his next contract since he’s on a four-year deal, but certainly Tre Jones and Jeremy Sochan do. Jones is on a two-year team-friendly contract and if he proves he can be a viable starter, he could have more suitors in the open market when he hits unrestricted free agency. Sochan will be eligible for an extension in two years and if he’s just a solid rotation piece for an average team instead of an entrenched starter, he could be in a tough spot when it comes to negotiations.
As mentioned, the Manu quote from Pop is a powerful one. The problem is it oversimplifies an issue that can be complex. These new guys aren’t Manu. They are not in the same place in their careers as Manu was when he was asked to come off the bench and the team is in a completely different circumstance compared to the one Manu was in. Ginobili was also arguably already on his way to the Hall of Fame propelled by his international success and had accomplished more than he thought was possible by the time he became a sixth man whereas Johnson, Jones and Sochan are starting their careers.
It will be important to remember that as the final decision is made. The Spurs seem to have a great group so it’s unlikely whoever is left out of the starting five will openly express their dislike for the situation, but even if someone does or news about it surface, it won’t mean they are disloyal or selfish. It would just mean they are young, hungry and looking to make their mark in the league, which are all good attributes to have.