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How Spurs fans can avoid unrealistic expectations

While it's fun to dream of giant leaps forward for the players on the fringes of the Spurs' roster, that's not always in the cards. But that doesn't mean that there's no value in what a good deep bench guy can provide.

Kevin C. Cox

In his recent AMA on Reddit, J.R. Wilco confessed that he thinks Baynes could eventually be as good as Tiago Splitter. I've occasionally seen the opinion that, with some more time to learn the system, Baynes could be a good starting center in the league. After all, it took Tiago a couple of years to really establish himself. So let's take a look at Baynes, to see if there are signs that he is on his way to a big leap.

In over 400 minutes on the court this season, Baynes has blocked a total of five shots. Here's the entire list of players 6'9 or taller that have blocked five shots or fewer in over 300 minutes. In case you didn't click, it's Baynes, Meyers Leonard and three stretch fours. For some perspective, Matt Bonner has a better block per minute ratio. Baynes has allowed opponents to average a 53.8% field goal percentage at the rim, which is not terrible but definitely not good. And while he tries to stay vertical, with his arms stretched upward in an effort to avoid fouls, he is still committing well over five fouls per 36 minutes.

So Baynes is not a rim protector. And, despite seeming more alert and in a better defensive stance in the past few weeks, he is not someone you want stepping outside to guard in space. His strengths on defense are guarding the post and pulling down defensive rebounds. The guy is massive -- no one is going to easily back him down or move him out of position -- so I wouldn't hesitate to call him an elite post defender. And his rebounding numbers (20.3 DRB%, 49.2% contested rebounds percentage) suggest he's at least average at clearing the boards. But big centers are on the way out for a reason: in a pick-and-roll league, post defense is not as useful if it comes at the expense of mobility.

On offense, Baynes sets a mean screen. He's wide. He's strong. And he likes contact. Those qualities often lead him to offensive fouls, but that is the type of thing that would likely go away with more playing time. He could be a very good dive man because he has good hands, and with some coaching, he could learn to use his strength to finish inside at least at an average level or draw fouls.

But that's a skill he'd need to learn, because right now he finishes at a pitiful 53.2% rate in the restricted area, which is about 6% below league average. He only goes to the line 1.6 times per 36 minutes. On top of that, he is too attached to a wildly inconsistent jumper, which grabs his field goal percentage by the throat and drags it down to 43.8% for the year -- a mark more befitting of a guard than a 6'10 behemoth. Baynes is much better on defense than he is on offense.

Obviously, Baynes could improve, but before saying he just needs time (like Splitter did) consider the fact that he's 27 years old already. He are the numbers Tiago was putting in his second season, coincidentally at age 27, compared to Baynes:


Courtesy of Basketball-Reference (Click to enlarge)

Hoping for a guy who is below average in many areas to eventually excel at such an age isn't very realistic, so it really doesn't look like Baynes will turn out to be as good as Splitter.

Which begs the question, why would J.R. Wilco -- whose opinion I respect greatly in general but especially when it comes to basketball -- believe he can? It's easy to blame it on the typical fan optimism we are all susceptible to, but I think there's a more complex explanation. I think the great success the Spurs have had in finding contributors in unlikely places leads us to believe that anyone PATFO signs will at least a good rotation player, as long as they have the right mindset. If Tiago, Danny Green, Matt Bonner and Patty Mills can make it in San Antonio, can't anyone?

The problem with that line of thinking is that there's a clear survivorship bias in play. For every Splitter there are some Ian Mahinmis and Marcus Hasilips, for every Green there are Malik Hairstons and James Andersons. No one bats 1.000, not even R.C. Buford. It's true the Spurs have a knack for finding and developing hidden gems. But that doesn't mean they'll all be diamonds.

Baynes has been a decent fourth big recently, averaging about three and three in ten minutes a game over the last ten games. That's all the Spurs really need from a bench guy that will never be called on to play serious minutes unless something goes wrong, or the match up plays to his strengths. Baynes is supposed to a) give Tim and Tiago a little rest when they need it, and b) help keep leads in garbage time. He has done fine in those roles lately, and there's value in that. He doesn't need to become a starting center in the league for his signing to be a success. It already is.

Which brings me to our newest acquisition, Austin Daye. Since Daye has joined the team, he has shown off great shooting form and he is long enough and young enough to be an interesting prospect. I think it's extremely unlikely that the Spurs waive him before his reasonable contract for next season becomes guaranteed. Daye will provide an option as a stretch four and possibly provide some spot minutes at the three. For the minimum, that's otstanding. But it's likely that Daye will only be a cheap and deep rotation guy.

As Travis Hale eloquently chronicled, it seems Daye has started to adjust to being a role player after being The Man in the past. He knows what he is and he is fine with that. But I can see from some of the comments from that same article and the general excitement surrounding the former Gonzaga star that a lot of fans refuse to make that adjustment with him.

Expecting a classic tweener like Daye to turn into a consistent contributor (either on defense or the boards) just doesn't seem realistic at this point. His shortcomings can be hidden to an extent, because the Spurs have really good defensive centers in Splitter and Duncan. And his length might help him make up for his lack of lateral quickness on the perimeter, to a degree. But Daye would have to be sublime on offense to be a starting-caliber player with those apparent handicaps. That doesn't mean he has no value. It just means that raising expectations based on a couple of good outings sets Daye up for failure, and ourselves for disappointment.

Daye dreaming (sorry about the pun) about having secured a piece of the Spurs' post-Duncan puzzle is harmless, until we start forgetting that he wasn't supposed to be one. There was a lot of negativity surrounding the release of Malcolm Thomas because there were people who were convinced he could be the combo forward the Spurs needed. I can't even imagine what the reaction would be if PATFO waived Daye tomorrow. But we'd do well to think of DeJuan Blair for a refresher of how quickly love turns into disappointment and contempt when a Spur fails to live up to the lofty expectations fans place on them.

Not every move pays off dramatically. Some players become quality starters and some have good careers as competent backups. With some luck, Baynes and Daye will fall into that latter category. And that's fine. Every team needs depth on the cheap, and finding it sometimes proves to be as hard as finding starters.

So while I'd be thrilled to see those guys pan out and become key parts of the Spurs' future, I'll settle for some quality spot minutes here and there.

Stats via unless otherwise specified