The Spurs have lost another starter. Not only will LaMarcus Aldridge miss the return to action in Orlando, but Trey Lyles will also be absent after having an appendectomy, leaving San Antonio extremely thin in the big man department.
Lyles was a late addition in free agency last summer but emerged as a consistent rotation piece, starting 53 games and giving the Spurs a solid 20 minutes a night. It’s a big loss for a team that will already be without its starting center and will now lack any forwards with size outside of Rudy Gay.
As bleak as things look for the Spurs’ already minuscule postseason chances now that they’ve lost another valuable piece, having Lyles out could allow them to find out a lot more about their roster. Let’s take a look at what his absence will mean for the Spurs.
It’s now or never for the young bigs
The loss of LaMarcus Aldridge already put some pressure on Drew Eubanks and Chimezie Metu to show they belong on an NBA roster, but the potential use of small lineups with Rudy Gay as backup center provided the Spurs with a Plan B. Now that Gay will have to start or man most forward minutes off the bench, that’s not a possibility anymore. At least one of the young guys will have to step up and give the team some minutes.
Starting Metu for a handful of minutes each half to avoid dismantling the bench further could be on the table. Unlike Drew Eubanks, Metu has the quickness to guard most power forwards and to venture to the perimeter on switches or to defend the pick and roll aggressively. The biggest issue with him on defense throughout his young career has been his lapses as the last line of defense, as he tends to go for blocks too often and can lose his man in the process. Next to Jakob Poeltl, however, he would be a secondary rim protector, which might suit his skill set better. Metu cannot anchor a good defense at this point, but just by virtue of being big and athletic he could help a starting lineup that severely lacks on both those departments.
The fit on offense is less seamless. Metu is at his best close to the basket, and he won’t be able to occupy that space next to Poeltl. In the G-League, Metu shot a solid 36 percent on three-pointers, but most of those makes came from above the arc and not the corners, where he’d likely be parked playing with the starters, He can hit short mid-range jumpers, but the moment he gets past 16 feet his efficacy dips, which is a problem because he still fires a lot on those shots. There is a chance Metu plays within himself in the big club and, much like Lyles did, focuses on making an impact with energy plays instead of trying to do too much, which would be a welcome sight as it would allow the Spurs to have something resembling a normal rotation.
As for Eubanks, with Gay likely taking a big share of the power forward minutes, the backup center role is his to take. Jakob Poeltl has only played more than 30 minutes three times in his career and seems better suited to play short stretches in which he goes all out instead of extended minutes in which he manages his effort. He’ll need breaks, and the Spurs will need someone to provide the type of screening and defensive presence he normally supplies. Eubanks has tried to fill that role in the past to middling results at best. If he can’t do better this time and loses the battle for playing time with Tyler Zeller or Metu, it might be hard for him to find a team willing to take him on next season.
Luka Samanic (we’ll have more on him and what Orlando could mean for him soon) is the only young big whose career isn’t on the line at this point. Metu and Eubanks have been gifted one last chance to convince the Spurs or someone else that they belong in the NBA. They need to take advantage of it.
The Spurs will need to play as fast as possible to have a shot to win games
Even if one of the bigs steps up, the Spurs will likely resort to small ball for long stretches to make up for the loss of their starting big man duo. It would be foolish not to, considering their lack of quality interior depth and their excess of guards and wings. San Antonio will have the opportunity to be the fastest team on the court in most matches if they embrace that identity. It’s possibly the only edge they’ll have, so they need to take it.
The bench should have no problem pushing the pace, since they have been doing it for the past few seasons. It will be on the starters to buy into the new approach, if it’s implemented. The loss of Aldridge and Lyles alone should help set things in motion, as the team was extremely slow when they were both were on the court, and whoever replaces them will inevitably up the pace. The most important factor, however, will be convincing DeMar DeRozan, who has spent his entire career playing slow, to adjust. The Spurs played at a snails’ pace when their star wing was on the floor this season, averaging 100 possessions per 48 minutes: the second lowest number in the roster behind LaMarcus Aldridge. It made some sense at the time, since both stars are at their best in the half court, but now things have changed.
DeRozan is well-suited to play fast, since even at age 30 he’s still one the most athletic players in the league, a fearsome finisher and a capable playmaker in transition. The reason why he might not be amenable to doing that he’s simply not used to. With Aldridge out and with a lot of unproven young players around him, DeRozan might decide that maintaining the status quo is the way to go. Unfortunately, that approach will likely backfire since the only other veteran shot creator on the team is Gay, who has struggled greatly with efficiency on big roles. Derrick White could help out in a pinch using his pick and roll mastery, but he struggles with consistency and aggressiveness. Buying into the more democratized approach that pushing the pace would involve simply feels like a better option at this point.
Ultimately Gregg Popovich, not any individual player, will determine how the Spurs play. But if he decides to unleash his guards and wings on the break, convincing DeRozan to buy into it will be key to making the plan work.