The playing time crunch is inevitable in the NBA. Some teams use just nine or 10 players on their 15-man roster, leaving the rest on the outside of the mix, watching from the end of the bench or in a suit as an inactive player.
Through just two games, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has kept his rotation at essentially 10 players, with Lonnie Walker IV picking up just five minutes of garbage duty. While not surprising, it is who sits on the sidelines that raises an eyebrow.
This starts with Walker, the No. 20 overall pick of the 2018 NBA Draft. Like previous first-round picks before him, the Miami product had a “redshirt” season, spending most of his rookie campaign with the G League’s Austin Spurs. Those other players, Dejounte Murray and Derrick White, received NBA roles upon arrival for their first full NBA year, though. Granted, Murray took significant on-court time due to a Tony Parker quad injury in 2017-18, but, for the most part, he was a consistent contributor as a sophomore.
Walker, meanwhile, is in a different situation. This is a younger roster, with other youthful pieces to battle in 2019, including the aforementioned Murray and White; those two are not losing their roles anytime soon, especially with the Washington product’s tear through his first two games back from injury.
Bryn Forbes is back as the starting shooting guard, too; and Patty Mills has enough tenure to secure his spot as a combo guard off the bench.
Staying behind might not last forever, however, if Popovich sees the upside in Walker over Marco Belinelli, who has struggled through two games and is third in the guard pecking order off the bench. Perhaps the extra outside shooting off the bench will keep the Italian guard in the rotation, but Walker adds an athletic, defensive presence, even if his jumpshot is not all the way there yet. He shot 36.6 percent from three-point range in the G League last season.
The most curious decision of the two, though, is DeMarre Carroll, the same player who signed a two-year contract in the offseason, with a partial guarantee for a third year. He has yet to play through two games, sitting through both due to coach’s decision.
The Spurs signed Carroll as wing depth, which was a need behind Rudy Gay in the starting lineup. Dante Cunningham and Quincy Pondexter did not provide this last season, so the veteran forward figured to step in immediately, especially with a multi-year commitment behind him.
The writing on the wall may have come from the preseason. Carroll played four games, averaging 16 minutes, but he had just 3.8 points and 4.5 rebounds on 33.3 percent shooting. He was behind 11 other players in on-court time, including Walker.
No other replacement wing exists on this roster, as for the veterans. That leaves the Spurs to play small when Gay is out or to push DeMar DeRozan up the lineup. So Carroll may not be necessary, at least for now, until Popovich decides to shake up the rotation. This could be swapping out Belinelli or changing out a frontcourt player like Trey Lyles or Jakob Poeltl.
The rotation crunch is on for San Antonio. While it may not last forever, given the sample size, it has restricted two players who both, from opening night, had a case to be fixtures.