Jumping to conclusions on the rotation…already
AT&T CENTER — After watching Tiago Splitter spend the vast majority of his rookie season on the bench and James Anderson fail to regain his rotation spot after an early season injury, concerns were aplenty that many of the Spurs’ young players would fail to see any meaningful minutes this season, especially with the nature of this season’s compressed schedule.
And then Kawhi Leonard checked in for Richard Jefferson with 6:57 left in the first quarter of the Spurs’ 95-82 win over the Memphis Grizzlies on opening night. If Gregg Popovich could justify not playing a rookie any season, it was this one. With no offseason contact allowed, a shortened training camp and preseason, and a returning starting small forward, the odds could have easily been stacked against playing Kawhi Leonard this year.
Instead, the Spurs rotated three players at the small forward position on Monday night, starting richard Jefferson and bringing on Leonard as a substitute. In the second quarter, James Anderson entered the game for Jefferson. Coach Pop also played Jefferson alongside Leonard for stretches in the second half.
If anything, this gives the Spurs flexibility with their lineups. You have three players splitting time at the same position, who can all share the floor together if need be (Anderson at the 2, RJ at the 3 and Kawhi at the 4). Having all three players comfortable with a variety of situations safeguards the team in instances where foul trouble is an issue or, as should be the case this season, rest is needed for fatigue or injury. Playing Anderson at the 3 also allows for room when Gary Neal returns to the lineup.
The typical rotation last season saw Manu Ginobili as the first player to be subbed out of the game, primarily so he could re-enter the game in as the playmaker on the second unit. In the Spurs’ win over the Grizzlies Monday night, Tim Duncan and DeJuan Blair were the first players to sub out of the game, mostly because of early foul trouble for both bigs. Instead, RJ appeared to be the first scheduled substitution for the Spurs. This put Jefferson in the Manu role of scorer with the second unit, where eventually, Jefferson found a comfort zone. He ran the pick-and-roll with Tiago Splitter and Matt Bonner several times with decent results. Basically, it wasn’t a bad lineup. Jefferson had 10 points on 4-7 shooting in the second quarter.
While the Spurs started the game with a lineup of Manu, Parker, RJ, Tim Duncan and DeJuan Blair, their crunch time group featured Tiago Splitter instead of Blair. There were suggestions during training camp that the Spurs would use this lineup because it’s a better defensive one than a group featuring Blair. Starting Blair is a design primarily to avoid having DeJuan in the game with Matt Bonner or Splitter. The more time Blair is paired with Tim Duncan, the better.
After a Manu steal and breakaway dunk boosted the Spurs’ lead to 16 in the fourth quarter, Pop inserted James Anderson for Manu, possibly to get Anderson some crunch time reps. The more experienced these young wings can get, and the quicker they get it, only increases the malleability of this Spurs team. If there’s was any way the post rotation could develop the same thing, this Spurs team could be something to behold.