The Spurs went into last offseason with a clear intention to improve at the forward positions. They re-signed Rudy Gay, inked DeMarre Carroll and Marcus Morris and when the Morris deal fell through, they went for Trey Lyles. They lost Davis Bertans in the process but were supposed to make up for his shooting with improved defense and physicality.
A quarter into the season, the power forward position remain a huge issue, to the point that Gregg Popovich has been trotting out small lineups featuring four perimeter players and a center in key moments of games. After spending significant resources to get better at a specific spot, the Spurs have actually gotten worse.
The issue starts with Rudy Gay and his significant regression from the level he showed last season. Gay had a career year shooting from distance while still rebounding well and playing mostly mistake-free basketball on both ends. After years of being considered an empty calorie scorer who didn’t help at the team level, he became a prototypical modern combo forward who filled the gaps. With him on the court, the Spurs got scoring prowess and mismatch potential, but also spacing and overall versatility.
This season Gay has simply not been as good. His outside shot has abandoned him thus far, as his three-point percentage has plummeted from the sterling 40 percent he boasted last year to a ghastly 27 percent. His percentage on catch and shoot opportunities is 19 percent. Gay is taking more threes but hitting a lot fewer, which essentially negates his impact as an off ball threat and makes him just one more player on the roster who needs touches. He can still score off the dribble inside the arc at a high rate, as his career-best two-point percentage shows, but that’s not what the Spurs need from him on a nightly basis.
The shooting is not the only area in which Gay has regressed. His assist percentage is lower, which isn’t too shocking considering the Spurs have essentially added another ball handler in Dejounte Murray. The more surprising stat is that his turnover percentage has increased slightly. Some if it has to do with the offense being discombobulated at times and some with the Spurs’ lack of spacing that forces Gay to venture into crowds often, but there is one kind of mistake he’s made repeatedly that is actually worrying. Gay has showed a tendency to pass up open looks for wild drives that is probably related to his inability to hit three-pointers.
There are issues on defense as well, as Gay alternates between good possessions and moments in which he looks disinterested. Even an area in which he always excelled at like steals has seen some regression. The entire team has issues on that end, however, so it would be unfair to single him out. Still, he’s not been as good as he was in the past and it has cost him minutes lately.
Gay’s early season struggles wouldn’t be a huge issue if the other forwards on the roster were contributing, but that has not been the case. Carroll has essentially been out of the rotation the entire season. There has to be a reason for Gregg Popovich to not even give a veteran like him a chance and his play in the few opportunities he got was not impressive enough to really argue in his favor. Trey Lyles has been doing his best to be a viable alternative by crashing the boards and shooting when left wide open, but his passivity on offense and his lack of any elite skill prevents him from being the role player the starters needed. Both could help in small roles and potentially in certain matchups in the playoffs but the Spurs need to get ready the postseason first, and the poor production they are getting from their forwards is making that hard.
It’s hard to blame the front office alone for the problem, because they did try to make a good addition in Morris. Despite his volatile personality and overrated defense, he would have helped greatly. If the whole backstabbing saga hadn’t happened and the Spurs had actually signed him or kept Davis Bertans, (who is now thriving in Washington) they would have had all the quality depth they needed at the power forward position. Alas, that’s now how the roster stands today.
Ultimately the only solution that doesn’t involve a trade appears to be for Gay to return to his 2018/19 level. That version of Gay was good enough to serve as a starter in San Antonio’s best stretch last season and as a key piece in the back half of their close first-round loss to the Nuggets. If his outside shot starts falling more often and he starts playing more fundamentally sound ball on both ends, he’ll be able to give the Spurs the production they need from the forward positions.
But if Gay continues to struggle, San Antonio could be in trouble, as the other options available to them just don’t seem all that good. Carroll’s signing is looking increasingly bad and it doesn’t seem likely that Lyles, who already changed his game to fit in with the Spurs, will be able to reinvent himself once again on the fly. The small lineups and the two-center units would have to become more ubiquitous, which could be a problem against opponents with a lot of versatile wings.
The Spurs thought they needed more from their power forwards last season but are getting even less from that spot than before. If that doesn’t change soon, they could find themselves looking to upgrade again next summer — after a trip to the lottery instead of the playoffs.