One of the few players who has exceeded expectations for the Spurs this season is Trey Lyles. The former lottery pick was San Antonio’s plan C in free agency and arrived on a small salary, but has started 51 games and given the team some solid minutes.
With LaMarcus Aldridge and Jakob Poeltl injured, Lyles’ importance has only grown. In the last five games he’s averaging 14 points on 50 percent shooting from outside to go with six rebounds in over 31 minutes a game. Those are impressive numbers, even if they haven’t led to many wins.
Lyles, who has a non-guaranteed contract for next season, has certainly helped himself by stepping up in a time of need. He’ll surely be back next year, as he should. Yet the Spurs need to be very careful not to make the same mistake they appear to have made with Bryn Forbes by considering a flawed player a part of their future simply because of a solid one-year performance.
While the comparison between Forbes and Lyles, first made by Marilyn Dubinski, may not be perfect, there’s something to it. Forbes was an unheralded addition who carved out a spot for himself because he could fill specific needs and was first considered a great finding despite his obvious limitations. His role slightly expanded after his breakout, which only exposed those limitations further, but he held on to his spot in the rotation because in the eyes of the coaching staff, he had earned his place. Forbes went from being a passable emergency starter one year to a core piece the next and in the process went from being a neutral presence on the roster to arguably the least helpful rotation player on the team this year. The same could happen to Lyles if he’s trusted with a starting spot next season.
The worrisome part is that it’s easy to make a case for it. The Spurs have actually been a little better with Lyles on the floor than off. He completely transformed his game in San Antonio and is now a very solid rebounder and a good three-point shooter who uses very few possessions, never complains about touches and is incredibly turnover averse. Defensively he’s passable, especially at the team level, and he seemingly hasn’t ruffled any feathers in the locker room. Lyles doesn’t draw attention to himself on the court or off, which was a mild concern considering he had some unfortunate statements after being traded by the Jazz. Plus, he’s only 24 years old. Why not focus on improving other positions and roll with him as the starter?
The simple reason is that he’s been merely acceptable on a mediocre, at best, team and that his impressiveness is all a product of low expectations and disappointing peers. Just as Forbes capitalized on the depletion of the Spurs’ perimeter depth to carve out a role for himself, Lyles has found himself in the right place at the right time. Had the Marcus Morris debacle not happened, he wouldn’t even be in San Antonio. If DeMarre Carroll had been playable and Rudy Gay had not taken a gigantic backward step, Lyles’ role would have been minute. Instead he was asked to fill in at a time of need and he responded with a competence that, because of the circumstances, can be mistaken for legitimately impressive production.
A closer look at the numbers shows that Lyles is not awful, but not particularly good either. His rebounding was close to being elite earlier in the year, but has actually suffered recently. He’s shooting 38 percent on three-pointers, but only attempts 4.8 per 36 minutes, a decent but not impressive volume that lessens his impact as a floor-spacer. He will drive on occasion and finish at a good rate, but he doesn’t get to the line nearly enough. Defensively Lyles is not disruptive at all, averaging under a steal and block per 36 minutes while only drawing one charge all season. The Spurs are slightly better with him on the floor but are still in the red when he plays. That’s the profile of a role player who can be helpful in a small role but probably shouldn’t be trusted with a major one.
It’s been fun to watch Lyles exceed expectations this year, and it’s been especially heartening to see him step up with the other bigs out with injury. In a season that started with turmoil and has not gotten much better, he has been a reminder that the Spurs can still find decent players for cheap and make them better. But just like it was with Forbes before him and others like Gary Neal, DeJuan Blair and Matt Bonner in the past, it would be a mistake for San Antonio to try to turn a limited player who pleasantly surprised into a core piece.
Lyles deserves credit for taking the opportunity the Spurs gave him to turn his career around. He should definitely have his contract for next year guaranteed, if the Spurs want to reload and go for the playoffs. He’s a useful player on an affordable deal who might still have room to grow into a quality starter.
What the Spurs should definitely avoid doing is penciling him in for that type of role before he proves himself again. As we’ve seen with Forbes and others, doing better than expected in one season doesn’t always translate to becoming an established, reliable player. It would be setting Lyles up to disappoint to assume otherwise.