San Antonio spent the better part of the last two decades contending for titles, but since shipping Kawhi Leonard North of the border, the Spurs have struggled to stay afloat in the uber-competitive Western Conference. Last season the Silver and Black were bounced in Game 7 of their first-round series with the Nuggets, and this season their record-tying 22-year playoff streak was (and could still be) threatening to come to an unceremonious end.
These are uncharted waters for a franchise that’s missed the postseason FOUR times since joining the NBA in 1976, and the seeming lack of direction is something we haven’t witnessed with R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich at the helm. LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan aren’t an ideal pairing, and Dejounte Murray and the rest of the young core have been placed on the backburners as aging veterans continue to receive a large share of the minutes.
Derrick White, Jakob Poeltl, and Lonnie Walker IV have played well when granted extended run, and Chimezie Metu, Keldon Johnson, and Luka Samanic have flashed tremendous potential between stints with the Austin and the big league club. Even two-way contract signees Drew Eubanks and Quinndary Weatherspoon have shown NBA upside when provided an opportunity to operate as the focal points of the G-League squad.
Each NBA team is allowed to carry 15 players on standard contracts, which means every organization must carefully decide how to utilize its limited resources. San Antonio was set to fill one of their roster openings with Marcus Morris this summer, but he reneged on his verbal agreement, and the Spurs would eventually settle on a reasonable two-year, $11M deal with Trey Lyles.
His first season with the good guys hasn’t been perfect, though the fifth-year forward has given the Spurs plenty of reasons to keep him around for the upcoming transition period. While he failed to make much of an impact through his first 45 appearances, few people could have predicted he would act as the starting power forward from day one. Lyles’ slow start progressed into a steady rhythm, and the stretch-four came into his own, averaging 11.1 points per game on 51-47-78 shooting splits over his last 18 outings.
Although those numbers may not seem like much to the naked eye, when coupled with his 14.8% Usage Rate since January 27th, they tell the story of an astonishingly efficient shooter who doesn’t need plays run for him to score. To put that number into perspective, Poeltl has posted a higher usage rate than Lyles during that span, and that’s an encouraging sign considering how often the Spurs young guards will presumably need the ball once they’re handed the keys to the franchise.
Basketball is a two-way sport, and defense is as important as ever, although you probably wouldn’t know that by looking at San Antonio’s 25th ranked Defensive Rating. The Spurs dynasty was famously built upon some of the stingiest defenses of all-time, and the Silver and Black likely won’t be returning to dominance anytime soon without the appearance of functional execution on that end.
Despite adequate athleticism and a seven-foot-four wingspan, defense hasn’t exactly been Lyles’s calling card throughout his short NBA career. He hasn’t come up with as many blocks, steals or deflections as you might expect, but his recent defensive output is a step in the right direction. He’s averaged nearly a block and steal per game over the previously mentioned timeframe, and should he maintain that sort of productivity, it isn’t difficult to imagine Lyles sticking with San Antonio longterm.
Of course, an 18-game stretch won’t mean anything if the former Kentucky Wildcat can’t replicate those results for the 82-plus game grind of the regular season and playoffs. The former San Antonio Spurs role-playing greats who came before him brought tenacity, grit, and hustle every single night, and their willingness to do all the small things kept them on the court in high-stakes situations.
Names like Malik Rose, Matt Bonner, Robert Horry, Fabricio Oberto, Boris Diaw, and Tiago Splitter come to mind when reminiscing about the unsung big men to come through this storied Spurs organization. Though they never came close to sniffing NBA stardom, their invaluable contributions to five championships made them fan favorites during their stops in San Antonio, and Trey Lyles could be next in line if he can learn to perfect his role within the rotation.