As you've surely heard, Tiago Splitter will be out 3-5 weeks with a shoulder sprain. While it's hard to equate Splitter's injury in terms of impact to that of Russell Westbrook or Chris Paul, this is nonetheless a huge blow to the Spurs.
It's hard to overstate just how important Splitter is for the team on defense. It's even harder to try and figure out how exactly the Spurs will deal with his absence. But considering the decisions Pop has made in the past with Splitter out and the recent performances of some of the players in the roster, we can draw some conclusions:
Ayres seems like the safe pick to start
When Splitter was out with a tight calf, Gregg Popovich went with Ayres as his replacement in the starting lineup. It didn't look good at all, as Ayres seemed a bit lost on offense with the starters after logging most of his time with the free-flowing bench unit. However, the production of the starters with Ayres in for Splitter has been surprisingly similar, albeit inferior: they have been terrible, terrible on offense and very stingy on defense.
Since Splitter has been marginalized on offense with the starters, it's not hard to replace him on that end. All the Spurs need in those initial minutes is for someone to set some screens and crash the offensive glass, basically. Ayres can do that. And defensively, Jeff has the tools to at least be the poor man's version of Splitter, as he is able to handle perimeter-oriented players as well as traditional power forwards. I wouldn't count on Ayres putting it all together over the next couple of weeks, but he seems like a good option to start each half.
Diaw's performance will be extra important
While Ayres will likely start in order to avoid completely disrupting the bench unit, it will be Diaw who will have to step up his production. Last time Splitter was out, Diaw didn't see his minutes extended and in fact struggled a bit on offense. But it's hard to imagine Pop not giving BoBo some more minutes and a bigger role this time around. The Spurs will need him to be aggressive on offense when he is on the floor to hopefully make up for the attention (and fouls) Splitter draws as a dive man. Diaw needs to be as assertive as ever.
With games against the Mavericks, Pelicans and Timberwolves in the horizon, Diaw was going to be key for the Spurs anyway thanks to his defensive prowess against jump-shooting bigs. But now that Splitter will miss extended time, how effective Diaw proves to be against bigger or more athletic front lines could be the difference between a win and a loss. Boris has showed he can step up his defense when the team needs him to and they definitely will over the next few weeks.
Expect more small ball
Playing Leonard at the four more makes a lot of sense with Splitter out, as he has proved he can handle the rebounding responsibilities of a power forward. And by sliding up, he would allow Pop to use lineups that include Parker and two of Green, Belinelli and Manu. With a stout rebounder at center, those small units could do some damage on offense, especially on the break.
At this point, most teams in the league use combo forwards at the four at least sporadically. If Leonard is able to control those match ups, that would open up all sorts of possibilities in terms of lineups for the Spurs. Pop won't likely use Leonard at the four for long stretches to protect him from the physical wear-and-tear but I expect it to be the Spurs primary option when Ayres and Baynes are struggling and against teams that have perimeter-oriented bigs that can't hurt Kawhi on the post.
Baynes will get a shot. Can he take advantage of it?
Baynes can handle himself against bigger front lines, is a very good rebounder and while he doesn't protect the rim particularly well, he can take up space down low. I can definitely see him contributing on Splitter's absence, likely next to Boris Diaw or on small ball lineups as Duncan's back-up. I'm not worried about Baynes in that role. But how will he do if he is forced out of his comfort zone?
Baynes has not been able to prove his versatility in the limited time he has received. There's no evidence that he is able to handle shooting bigs or defend in space. I'm assuming Pop will give him a longer leash during Tiago's absence and it will be on Bangers to make the most of those chances. Once again, as a back up center in limited minutes Baynes should do fine. But the Spurs might need more than that from him, especially if Ayres struggles or Diaw misses time. Hopefully, all he needs to prove he is not an awkward a fit with the Spurs' roster as it seems at first glance is a chance to showcase his talent.
Bonner will be Bonner and Thomas won't likely play
I think Pop has given up on the idea as Matty as a regular fixture in the rotation but absences like these prove just how important it is to have competent depth. Bonner will probably see limited minutes, come in, hit some shots, space the floor and play fundamentally sound defense, especially in the post. FSM knows the Spurs need spacing right now, so it's possible the offense does better with Matt getting some burn. But It's truly hard to see his role increasing all that significantly unless one of Ayres or Baynes crashes and burns.
Don't expect Malcolm Thomas to play much, if at all. Unless someone else misses a game, Thomas will still be the Spurs sixth big. The Spurs were sneaky smart in locking down arguably the D-League's most intriguing prospect to a reported cheap two-year non-guaranteed deal. It allowed them to give him an extended look to see if he could contribute now or in the future. But with the deadline to guarantee the first year of his contract coming up in two days and with quality players in front of him, I doubt Thomas gets a serious crack at playing time until next season, if he even makes it that far.
This is terrible news for Duncan
One of the reasons Splitter's is so valuable to the Spurs is that he makes life easier for Tim Duncan. It looks like that's over for the next few weeks. Regardless of how Pop wants to handle Splitter's absence, more will be asked of Duncan -- and that's exactly the last thing the Spurs want in January.
Timmy has shown the ability to up his play when the team needs him to and will likely make whoever fills in for Tiago a better player. He can make up for the mistakes of others, anchor small ball units and contribute most of the inside scoring the Spurs need from their bigs. But doing all of that will likely mean he will have to over extend himself at a point in which he seems to be on his last legs.
Splitter's injury is a team-wide problem but no one will suffer from it more than Duncan.
The bottom line
As mentioned, this is a significant blow to the Spurs. A skid in the standings could very possibly be coming and it could end up hurting the Spurs significantly in the cut-throat West. But it's too early to tell exactly how the Spurs will react to this setback. It's possible Ayres or Baynes prove their worth or the Spurs find a new wrinkle to their offense by going small more often. We've seen teams rally when a key member goes down and the Spurs could do just that. It's hard to imagine any way in which the Spurs could not be worse after the injury but until I see how the team performs without Splitter, I'm choosing to remain optimistic.
Get well soon, Tiago!
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