Not everyone can get on the court with a 15-man roster, but the San Antonio Spurs should’ve allocated more playing time to these four players.
This is uncharted territory for San Antonio Spurs mastermind Gregg Popovich. After 22 consecutive seasons in the playoffs, Pop is finally steering the ship for a group that’s dominated by young players instead of a championship-contending team. As a result, his allocation of minutes was a bit off with players like Bryn Forbes and Marco Belinelli getting more minutes than they should have.
Popovich’s decision to favor the veterans was his way of making a last-ditch effort to bring a subpar team back into the playoff picture. He tried as hard as he could to make it work, but the roster is constructed awkwardly and he was forced into some difficult decisions.
The players who suffered the most are those who are good enough to be rotation players but don’t have that same veteran savvy that some of their competitors did.
Leaving the rookies out of this discussion, San Antonio has two guards who are above-average at defense, one who is solid but has his deficiencies due to size and physical profile, and one who is flat out bad at defense. Unfortunately, Pop was forced to pair off Forbes with starting point guard Dejounte Murray since the beginning of the season left the team unsure of Murray’s jump shot. In Pop’s eyes, they needed that surefire shooter to link him with non-shooter DeMar DeRozan.
None of these players were left shorthanded in the rotation because the team doesn’t believe in them, but sometimes roster construction has to take precedent and Pop went with his gut.
Next: The man in the middle
Center Jakob Poeltl
Throughout the last two seasons, former All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge has made the transition to a full-time center, logging 95 percent of his minutes at the five. This has left very little room for backup center Jakob Poeltl to step into the lineup—especially as a starter.
Unfortunately, small-ball fours have taken over the modern NBA and Aldridge simply can’t keep up at that position anymore. This has been a huge infringement on Poeltl’s emergence into the Spurs’ lineup because there’s not enough space for him to carve out more than 16.6 minutes per game.
Even with that being the case, Poeltl should be logging more minutes for San Antonio or any team for that matter. Statistically, he was one of the most important members of the team, leading them in various statistical categories including Defensive Box Plus/Minus (2.3) and Net Rating (3.9) of players who appeared in at least 50 games.
For as solid as Aldridge has been on defense in the latter stages of his career, Poeltl is easily the team’s best defensive big and is going to earn more minutes in the future. However, the tail-end of Aldridge’s playing days has been harmful to Poeltl’s on-court opportunities. Hopefully, he’s soaking in as much knowledge as he can in preparation for his future role.
As a restricted free agent this offseason, the Spurs can opt to keep him in their long-term plans for many years to come. He’ll have to exert some patience until the organization and LaMarcus are ready to part ways.
Next: Last year's unsung hero
Combo Guard Derrick White
After saving the San Antonio Spurs with his instinctual ball-handling ability, passing and scoring ability, guard Derrick White was forced into a bit of a reduced role this season. His minutes per game dropped 1.7 per game, which isn’t a huge difference, but he wasn’t in control of the offense in the same way he was last year.
This is getting back to that guard issue I alluded to earlier since White was the player whose role was hurt the most by Forbes’ massive minutes total. White deserved to be a starter this year and the team probably would’ve been better off because of it, but he was pushed to the Sixth Man role instead because Pop felt they needed the spacing Forbes provided.
Even though his field goal percentage took a slight dip, White improved his three-point stroke to 35.6 percent on 2.6 attempts per game after locking himself in a gym and honing in on his long-ball this past offseason.
More so than his improvement as a three-point shooter, White is debatably the team’s best perimeter defender. Though that title probably belongs to Murray, it’s telling that Derrick gives him a legitimate run for his money. He’s one of the league-leaders in charges drawn, anticipates his matchup’s moves incredibly well, and can defend multiple positions. These are all traits the team desperately needs to latch onto given their lousy defense this season.
Regardless of which direction the team trends, White is probably in line for a starting spot with Forbes’ contract expiring this offseason. San Antonio might bring the sharpshooter back but after how he performed this season, it’d be to take on a reduced role and gain some financial security. It’s clear who the superior player is and that’s going to be rewarded unless Popovich opts to start our next candidate next season instead.
Next: A sophomore with sky-high ambition
Small Forward/Shooting Guard Lonnie Walker IV
From the moment that Lonnie Walker IV was drafted, it was obvious that the Spurs had someone with serious potential as a two-way athlete and elite shot-creator in the NBA. Even though he didn’t fully realize that in year two, Walker is well on his way to achieving his dreams and taking on a major scoring load for the Spurs.
Early in the season, he was forced to the bench in favor of the aforementioned Belinelli. Lonnie needed to prove himself to Pop to earn those minutes until finally earning a consistent role. He eclipsed 22 minutes in five of his last nine games before the league entered it’s hiatus and established his deadly three-point shot.
Three-level scoring is second nature to the sophomore and when he starts getting more minutes, Walker will be a serious problem for even the best NBA defenders. His 6-foot-10 wingspan allows him to be a pesky defender and pull off athletic feats that even the league’s best is astounded by. Those jaw-dropping moments you get when Walker puts some flair on a layup, elevates for a dunk or hustles for a loose ball are going to increase as soon as those minutes go up.
Whereas White’s playing time issues are more concerning roster construction, Walker’s is more about proving that he belongs in the rotation. It’s a rite of passage for young Spurs players to get put at the bottom of the rotation until they work themselves into it.
There are still plenty of moments when you can tell Walker is an unpolished player and his defensive instincts need to improve, but they won’t without the opportunity to learn through experience against legitimate NBA competition.
Next: Finding some burn for the rookie
Shooting Guard/Small Forward Keldon Johnson
Rookie Keldon Johnson getting stashed away at the end of the rotation was par for the course in the River City as first-year players don’t tend to get too much playing time. However, Johnson is built differently from the average rookie with the physicality, mental toughness and unselfishness to survive in the NBA as a rookie.
The numbers are skewed since he’s played a decent bit of garbage-time minutes, the Spurs are 10.6 points per 100 possessions better with the rook on the floor. That’s including the last four games of the regular season when injuries forced Coach Pop’s hand and Johnson played roughly 72 percent of his minutes with the Spurs this season.
Johnson is far from a complete player, but he’s got a little bit of everything on offense and endless potential as a defender. With the grittiness to take on even the most daunting of opponents, Johnson has some Bruce Bowen in him that shines through when he’s defending competition one-on-one or attacking the basket for one of his powerful layups.
— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) March 4, 2020
More from Air Alamo
- The Ringer podcast goes crazy over Spurs’ Keldon Johnson
- San Antonio Spurs: Preparing for another DeMar DeRozan All-Star snub
- Rockets suffer another devasting injury before facing San Antonio Spurs
- San Antonio Spurs: 4 Players who led thrilling comeback over Wolves
- San Antonio Spurs: Devin Vassell’s drastic drop in minutes is inexcusable
Though his jump shot is imperfect, he’s 16-for-31 so far in the NBA with shots coming from the mid-range, near the paint and a few from three-point land. He’s not slated to be some offensive world breaker, but he’s already one of the best two-way players on the team which has got to count for something.
The player who went before him at No. 19 to the Spurs, forward Luka Samanic, wasn’t expected to play much at all this season. He’s a very unfinished product who came to the United States to play with the Austin Spurs instead of remaining with his club in Slovenia for another year. Since they got drafted together, their progress is unavoidably going to be compared, but Johnson came into the league with more NBA-ready skills than his co-rookie.
It became obvious pretty early on in his G-League run that Johnson would be logging minutes in his first season for most of any other team. That’s just not how the Spurs operate, but he deserved to get his chance earlier and if the season does resume, he should continue playing as many minutes as he did before the break.
Whether that comes true is up to Pop, but Johnson is going to be a fun player to watch for a long time in this league.