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Who should the Spurs start in Pau Gasol’s place?

The answer may surprise you.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Pretty much from the first week of the season on, informed —or perhaps just curious— Spurs fans have been clamoring for Dewayne Dedmon in the starting lineup instead of Pau Gasol, with their reasoning that the younger, bouncier Dedmon would serve as a better defensive anchor than the aging Gasol, who’s more of an offensive specialist in his golden years. We’ve seen Dedmon play quite a bit instead of the veteran Spaniard in certain match-ups, but the idea of displacing him in the starting lineup permanently was always a long shot.

To be fair to Gasol, the Spurs starting lineup as a whole has been pretty solid. Of lineups around the league who’ve played at least 300 minutes together according to’s Stats Index, only four have a better rating than the plus-10.0 the Spurs starters have managed. (You can probably guess first and second place here, but raise your hand if you had Glenn Robinson Jr. figuring prominently in one of the others.)

It was always going to take an injury for Gasol to lose his spot, and unfortunately that’s what’s happened, as he reportedly suffered a fracture of his fourth metacarpal on his left hand during warm-ups prior to the Spurs otherwise entertaining win over the Nuggets Thursday night. For the sake of reference, Kawhi Leonard had the same injury, almost to the day three years ago, and he missed 14 games. However, his was on his shooting hand whereas Gasol’s is not, so it’s entirely possible, and I would posit likely, that Gasol returns a bit sooner than Leonard did.

The question is whether Gregg Popovich will actually start Dedmon in Gasol’s stead or whether he will turn to David Lee. It may seem like a slam dunk, but it’s not so simple. While Dedmon did indeed start in the two previous games Gasol missed (Nov. 30 @Dallas and Dec. 23 @Portland), Lee got the nod against Denver, on extremely short notice. Whether that was a match-up reason or Pop has been higher on Lee’s play of late than Dedmon’s or perhaps he just felt the veteran would adjust easier to the role change on the fly, we don’t know, but it does throw a monkey wrench into the works on the automatic assumption that Dedmon will be Gasol’s understudy.

There is some logic to the LaMarcus Aldridge-David Lee pairing. After all, they were plus-19 in 19:13 together against Denver, according to, while lineups featuring Aldridge and Dedmon together were minus-12 in 7:34. Also, splitting up Aldridge and Dedmon would at least allow Popovich to have one rim-protector on the floor at all times.

That said, the larger sample data is about what you’d expect.

Here are how the pairs have fared together, in minutes, Offensive Rating, Defensive Rating and Net Rating:

………………....…………………Mins ORtg DRtg NetRtg

Aldridge-Dedmon 175 106.6 98.8 7.8

Aldridge-Lee 205 112.6 104.5 8.1

Dedmon-Lee 217 111.2 92.4 18.8

As you can see, it’s pretty close either way. Aldridge-Lee score more together, but surprise, surprise, they allow more too. Also, you’ll note that the Dedmon-Lee tandem have done better together than apart, though it should be noted that they’ve worked mainly against the opponents’ backup bigs.

Let’s widen the focus a bit to include how the Spurs bigs have done together in conjunction with Kawhi Leonard. I would’ve included Danny Green and Tony Parker too, but they’ve both missed too much time over the first month so the sample sizes are tiny. When they’ve been healthy, so has Gasol. Besides, Pop subs Green out of games at the drop of a hat, so the lineup data gets fuzzy. No Spurs quintet besides their nominal starters have logged more than 65 minutes together, which is ridiculous.

………….........……....…………………Mins ORtg DRtg NetRtg

Aldridge-Lee-Leonard 133 115.9 117.6 -1.6

Aldridge-Dedmon-Leonard 133 114.5 95.0 19.5

Wowzers! Not better, for fans of the Lee-Aldridge pairing. Adding the variable of Leonard into the mix changes things quite a bit, doesn’t it? I’d hate to see what those numbers looked like before the Denver game. (Actually, I do know what they were, and they were horrific.)

So, Pop’s got to go with Dedmon-Aldridge, right? Not so fast, Luke, there is another Skywalker.

What if I were to tell you that Mystery Big-Man X and Aldridge had a 118.4 offensive rating, a 104.1 defensive rating and a 14.3 net rating in 51 minutes together —almost twice as good as the Aldridge-Lee or Aldridge-Dedmon tandems— and that Big-Man X, Aldridge and Leonard have managed an obscene 132.8 offensive rating, a 112.3 defensive rating and a 20.5 net rating together. Would that interest you?

Well the mystery man, as you probably guessed, is Davis Bertans. I’m mighty intrigued with the idea of him in the starting lineup. I think the defensive duo of Leonard and Green would protect him from too much carnage and letting him play with Leonard and Aldridge would free him up for a lot of open looks. Getting minutes with Tony Parker, the best point guard on the club, wouldn’t hurt in that regard either.

With Gasol out Bertans is going to get minutes regardless, and he has a better net rating with Aldridge than he does with either Dedmon or Lee, believe it or not. I’d just as soon treat the backup bigs the way Pop has typically treated Patty Mills and Manu Ginobili, keeping them in reserve roles no matter what’s going on with the starters, because they’ve got a good thing going as backups. The Dedmon-Lee-Simmons-Ginobili-Mills group has been very effective, so why break it up if you don’t have to?

The best answer to the Dedmon or Lee question may be none of the above.