The vintage Tony Parker has resurfaced for the San Antonio Spurs through the past few games. Parker, after sitting three games with a sore hip, has managed to score over 20 points per game (including a season-high 31 points against the Detroit Pistons on Jan. 12).
The rumors of his demise have been greatly exaggerated, even though the Spurs were 6–0 in the games where he sat. Parker just dropped 24 points on the visiting Cleveland Cavaliers (and a fully recovered Kyrie Irving) on Jan. 14 to snap the Cavs’ eight-game winning streak and help the Spurs improve to a 35–6 overall record.
The win also helped the team maintain an undefeated regular season home streak at 23–0 (in a rather poetic coming full circle, the Cavs were the last team to beat the Spurs at home on Mar. 12, 2015). After the Jan. 17 home win over the Dallas Mavericks, the Spurs now sit a mere 1.5 games behind the Golden State Warriors for the no. 1 seed in the Western Conference.
Yet as the Spurs passed the halfway mark of the regular season against the Mavs, fans realized that there are still 40 games to go after that; plenty of time for the injury bug to hit, especially for the elder statesmen of the Spurs who have already sat out this season with various ailments (Parker with hip and hamstring; Duncan with right knee; Ginobili with…well, whichever body part hit the floor the most).
Indeed, Parker did not return after the third quarter against the Mavericks due to a recurrence of his hip soreness. With the postseason in the crosshairs, the Spurs would do well to have a backup plan for their backup plan.
Why not Bryce Cotton?
Undrafted in 2014 after four productive years at Providence College, which included the 2014 Big East Conference championship, diminutive point guard Cotton made the NBA Summer League rounds in the hopes of signing on with an NBA team. He got his chance with the San Antonio Spurs, although roster considerations resulted in him signing a deal with the Austin Spurs, the team’s D-League home, as an affiliate player.
In the D-League Cotton was a force for his team, regularly stuffing the stat sheets and providing quality leadership. He also earned a spot on the D-League’s Futures All-Star team that played at the 2015 All-Star Game in Brooklyn, NY.
His hard work paid off when he was called up to the Utah Jazz. Cotton performed respectably and earned significant minutes when guard Trey Lyles went down with an injury. At the beginning of the 2015–16 season Cotton found himself off the Jazz roster and back in the D-League, only to be reassigned to the Phoenix Suns. Cotton got some playing time due to injuries to Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight, but was waived on Jan. 7, 2016 before his contract would become fully guaranteed, and sent back to Austin.
Could Cotton find a more stable home in San Antonio this time around?
Cotton’s cut from the Spurs’ roster was never about his play. The Spurs (read: head coach Gregg Popovich) liked the way Cotton handled himself on the floor. There were no rumblings about his locker-room attitude, so it’s safe to assume that he got along reasonably well with the rest of the team. Cotton was simply a casualty of too much talent available and not enough roster spots.
According to Jabari Young of the San Antonio Express-News, Popovich had a positive recollection of the would-be Spur: “He worked hard and did a lot of good things.” Coming from Pop, that’s high praise.
“He worked hard and did a lot of good things.” — San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich
The Spurs liked him well enough to ink him to a D-League contract with Austin, and they still hold his player rights, per Adam Johnson of the D-League Digest.
Cotton opened the season on Nov. 13 to the tune of 23 points, including six three-pointers.
He has scored 22 points, including three three-pointers, across four games into the season. He was featured in the Austin Spurs’ Plays of the Month for February.
Tony Parker, while showing flashes of his prime player self throughout this season — most recently during a season-high, 31-point eruption against the Detroit Pistons- — has also dealt with lingering hamstring issues. His relative lack of production while playing in EuroBasket for France over the summer started the whispers that he was nowhere near the player he used to be, and that this could bode ill for the Spurs’ hopes for a sixth championship run.
It has been said more than once that as Parker goes, so go the Spurs (Kawhi Leonard‘s meteoric rise notwithstanding). Indeed, Parker’s sputtering motor was a significant factor behind the Spurs’s lackluster play and eventual loss to the Houston Rockets on Christmas Day of last year.
He missed two games due to hip soreness; unlike Duncan, Parker’s absence tends to be more keenly felt in the paint, as backup point guard Patty Mills and third-string newcomer Ray McCallum lack the speed and agility that Parker uses so well to get to the basket and score.
Ginobili can fill in when needed, but he too has to watch his aging form; in a recent article he wrote for La Nacion (the national newspaper of his native Argentina), Ginobili admitted that it takes longer for him to recover from all those dives and other physical sacrifices he’s made all season. If he AND Parker get bitten by the injury bug at the same time, the Spurs would be in a bind.
Enter Cotton. While not on the level of Parker, his size and speed would create at least some of the opportunities that Parker is so good at exploiting. The 23-year-old Cotton is closer to a pure point guard, and thus would fit well with the Spurs’ pass-happy culture.
He’s good at reading the floor and could open up some things for LaMarcus Aldridge and Leonard. He could serve as yet another spark plug for the celebrated “Juice Unit,” the second unit that comes off the bench and delivers jolts of energy (and buckets) for the team. Cotton, by dint of his experience, could easily fall into the rotation behind Mills and before McCallum (who just needs a bit more seasoning).
Cotton can still be called up by another team at any time, and ’tis the season for 10-day contracts to start proliferating (which is how Cotton got on the Jazz’s roster last season). Popovich would never block anyone’s progress or stand in the way of their paycheck, but there may be a little part of him hoping that Cotton stays in Austin for a while, within easy reach.
Originally published at hoopshabit.com on January 18, 2016.