Trey Lyles joined the Spurs late last offseason, after their plans of signing Marcus Morris went haywire. The expectations about him were understandably low, since he’d been inconsistent throughout his young career, but as an emergency signing to provide depth, he seemed adequate.
Instead, Lyles immediately emerged as a key piece for Gregg Popovich and ended up starting 53 of the 63 games for which he was active. There was nothing special or exciting about Lyles, but by simply providing good minutes at a position of need he more than earned the modest salary he was making.
Now, the Spurs can save money by waiving him, since his contract only has a small guarantee. The prospect of cutting salary has to be appealing at this point, but it could also be tempting to keep Lyles to shore up a weak power forward position. So what should the Spurs do?
Why Lyles should stay
Lyles settled for a cheap deal last offseason after not receiving a lot of interest from other franchises. If the Spurs don’t waive him, they’ll pay him a very reasonable $5.5 million for next season and will have Early Bird rights to re-sign him next offseason. Since we are talking about a rotation player, the prize tag is clearly not that onerous, and having some ability to keep him after this year could be advantageous, since Lyles might actually develop further.
The perceived potential Lyles had coming out of college was likely exaggerated, so expecting him to be more than a fifth starter or bench contributor would be too optimistic, but he is still 25 years old. Last season Lyles discovered a love for rebounding, and if he can continue to clean the glass well while also maintaining his efficiency from beyond the arc in a few more attempts per game, he could be an interesting player. That alone won’t necessarily make him the long term answer at power forward for the Spurs, since his playmaking and defense are not all that impressive, but it could make him a solid placeholder for next season and even a few after that, if needed.
And they might need him, because as stacked with young players as the backcourt is, the frontcourt is pretty thin. Despite having some success going small in the Orlando bubble, San Antonio will need some big forwards during most matchups, especially if the season is as condensed as it’s been reported. Without Lyles, they would essentially have Rudy Gay, Luka Samanic and perhaps a rookie available to fill those minutes. That is simply not a reliable, proven power forward rotation. Lyles alone won’t transform the position into one of strength for the Spurs, but he would at least give them a known commodity who can play 20 minutes a game at an acceptable level.
Why he should go
Under normal circumstances, keeping Lyles would be a no-brainer as long as DeMar DeRozan opted in, as the Spurs would be over the cap but comfortably under a rising tax line. Unfortunately, we are not living in normal times. The best case scenario appears to be for the cap and the tax line to be set at around the same level as this past year, which could put the Spurs in a tough position. With DeRozan likely in the fold and assuming they re-sign Jakob Poeltl, they would be extremely close or more likely over the tax line for a team that might not make the playoffs.
Waiving Lyles wouldn’t entirely solve the problem on its own, but it would be an immediate way to wipe $4.5 million off the books. Doing so might not put San Antonio below the tax line, depending on Poeltl’s new deal, but it would get the team much closer, and likely just one more move away from getting its finances in order. There are other transactions the Spurs could make to get under the tax, like dumping a bigger contract on one of the few teams with cap space or simply not re-signing Poeltl, but it’s hard to make a case for those moves over simply letting a competent but replaceable player go.
For as pleasant a surprise as Lyles was last year as a last minute addition, he’s still an eminently ordinary player. There’s nothing he does at a high enough level to be considered a specialist and he lacks the versatility to play different positions and styles. His absence would be felt on the boards if the Spurs play small or give Samanic some minutes, but beyond the glass, there won’t be many areas in which he’ll be missed. There is a chance Lyles actually shows improvement and adds weapons to his arsenal, but there’s also a very good chance he’s just a competent depth guy and not much more, and teams simply don’t risk paying tax for that caliber of player.
A key aspect when it comes to determining whether Lyles should stay or go will be the financial implications of his contract. If somehow the cap rises, or if DeRozan opts out or Poeltl takes his qualifying offer, it might be possible for San Antonio to keep him without risking a luxury tax bill for a team that is not good enough to warrant one.
If the cap is set lower or Poeltl gets paid similar money than most decent centers have gotten in recent years, the Spurs will need to cut salary elsewhere to avoid the tax, and Lyles’ partially guaranteed contract would be the obvious first choice. It wouldn’t even be a reflection of how they feel about Lyles as a player, but a necessary measure to balance the books.
More than perhaps any other Spurs, Lyles future in San Antonio is tied to what happens with the salary cap. Fortunately for him, the franchise and the fans, we should have a clearer picture about it soon.