With Splitter down, Ayres must fill a void
At the start of the 2013 free-agency period, the Spurs wasted no time putting in an offer for then free agent Jeff Ayres. The defending Western Conference champs needed help following the departure DeJuan Blair, and the forward formerly known as Pendergraph was a cost-efficient and necessary addition for a frontcourt that lacked any semblance of athleticism.
News broke Sunday afternoon that the sprained shoulder Tiago Splitter suffered in a collision with Ryan Hollins on Saturday against the Clippers will keep him out for 3 to 5 weeks, which means there will be an uptick in court time for other Spurs bigs. Especially, one would think, for Ayres.
His early season impact hasn’t been as aesthetically pleasing as some had hoped or perhaps expected, but it’s been more positively tangible than what’s met the untrained eye. It’s not as if Ayres’ game has ever been described as ‘sexy,’ anyway; in fact, it’s the opposite. It’s all about the dirty work for the Spurs’ big man.
“Oh I love it,” Ayres said of his role on the team. “For me, I’m not complaining about anything. I get to go out there and mix it up, do the dirty work, and it gets under other players’ skins.”
While the dropped passes, wildly inaccurate shots and bouts of offensive confusion are the types of things fans dwell on, Ayres has done his job on the fly while learning a new system in the process. He’s not the first person to drop an unexpected pass from Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili or Boris Diaw in the motion of the Spurs’ whirring motion offense.
“He’s trying to get used to the system. As we all know, the first year, sometimes it’s a little difficult to catch everything,” Gregg Popovich said. “You remember Fabricio Oberto. First year, it was tough for him, and as the year went along he got better and better. I think Jeff is doing the same thing.”
It’s a natural tendency to form an opinion of a player based on his ability or inability to score — with the points comes the glamour, after all — which is why you’ve got to look a little deeper to understand Ayres’ value to the team. In fact, the Spurs have been a tiny bit more efficient on both sides of the ball when he’s been on the floor this season.
Despite registering a true-shooting rate of less than 50 percent, Ayres hasn’t hurt the team at all. His individual offensive-efficiency rating of 108.3 points per 100 possessions is fourth behind Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw and Marco Belinelli — three guys having some of the best seasons of their careers. And while he’s hardly known as a rim protector, his athleticism and range has given the Spurs something they’ve craved for years.
San Antonio has struggled wildly defending the 3-point line this season, and it really began to spiral out of control at the end of November during the first of the team’s two losses to the Rockets. Since then the defense has been rattled, and the loss of Splitter will do nothing to make the recovery process any easier. But Ayres’ ability extend the Spurs’ defense closer to the perimeter and deter so much success from deep has been a major plus for a team that’s been in the bottom third of the league in that statistical capacity.
In the 385 minutes Ayres has spent on the court this season, teams have hit threes at a 28-percent clip as opposed to the 36.8 percent the Spurs have allowed from the arc all year. Clearly this isn’t all because of Ayres; there are always numerous factors involved when you’re dealing with on/off numbers. But it’s not a fluke a team that’s given up nearly 40-percent shooting from the 3-point line over the last month is suddenly better when Ayres is in the game.
He’s more athletic than any other big man on the team, and that has a significant effect on the defense. Splitter and Tim Duncan are fairly plodding centers whose relative immobility limits their range, so removing one of them from the equation naturally provides a boost to the team’s perimeter defense. Just look at how the opposition is shooting against San Antonio this season — first when Ayres is on the bench (left), then when he’s on the court.
Based on what we’ve seen when Splitter has missed time this season, I’d expect Ayres to get the nod alongside Duncan beginning in Memphis on Tuesday. That starting unit (Splitter included) had one of its best performances of the season on Saturday, so any progress made that night might be slowed for a group that has been brutal offensively. There was a rhythm and pace that we hadn’t seen in a while, and Splitter was a major beneficiary of that as he went off for a season high 22 points in just 24 minutes before being injured.
But with the growth of Marco Belinelli alongside the other starters, and with the way the bench continues to rack up points, offense isn’t the concern here. The defense has to get better, and polishing that facet of the game will be a challenge without Splitter. San Antonio has to hope Ayres’ presence will help against the opposition’s perimeter shooting considering the likely drop-off defensively around the rim.
However, one area that shouldn’t suffer is defensive rebounding — a Popovich emphasis. Ayres has been a beast on the boards this season, notching a defensive-rebounding rate of 22.4 percent — the second best mark on the team behind Duncan.
“Screening, running and rebounding — actually I feel a lot better about those things this year than I have before,” Ayres explained. “Now, here, I feel like I’m rebounding more than I ever have, so for me, I’m finding my role … and trying to do it as best I can.”
And without his usual running mate, Duncan is going to need that trend to continue if the Spurs are going to keep the ship right defensively, because he’s going to have his hands extra full defending the rim.
Duncan and Ayres haven’t spent a ton of time on the floor together (just 60 minutes total) but they have been successful in that small sample-size. The Spurs are scoring 106 points per 100 possessions and allowing just 93 when they’re playing at the same time, and they’re grabbing 57 percent of available rebounds, including 87 percent on the defensive end. Both of the latter two numbers would be a league high in their respective categories.
Hell … up to this point, the Duncan-Ayres two-man lineup is working far more efficiently (in FAR fewer minutes, I might add) than the Duncan-Splitter combo, especially on the offensive end. Again, it’s a small sample, but it points to the possibility for success while Tiago recovers.
The offensive numbers are better across the board when Duncan and Ayres share the court, but it’s the defensive numbers that we’ve outlined that are most interesting. Look at the difference in the opposition’s shot charts between the two different big-man combinations, in particular at the rim and outside the 3-point line (Duncan-Splitter on the left; Duncan-Ayres on the right).
None of this should be interpreted the wrong way. The loss of Splitter is a substantial one that will leave a larger strain on his frontcourt mates than that to which they’re accustomed. He’s only averaged 21 minutes of playing time per game this season, but he’s absorbed a bevy of body blows along the way and allowed his teammates to more frequently work uninhibited.
Splitter eats up space, protects the basket, draws the least enviable defensive assignments and takes the most punishment. The other Spurs bigs aren’t equipped in a way that enables them to similarly handle what he does on a nightly basis.
We’ve seen this movie before: when one Spur goes down, the rest step up in his absence. San Antonio has the kind of rotation depth and minimal dependency on any one player beyond the members of the Big Three that allows it to maintain functionality for a sizable chunk of time. But not for the long term. Attrition will undoubtedly set in, and the loss of Splitter means any injury to Duncan would be a sweeping blow to the entire roster.
Depending on the matchup, Aron Baynes is another big body that’s going to see more minutes than he’s accustomed to getting, and long-time fan favorite Matt Bonner will likely be called upon to spread the floor a bit more often. Another thing to watch for will be the stretches of small-ball that will likely be employed with Kawhi Leonard at the ‘four’ position, as there will be some mixing and matching. You’d expect the Spurs’ coaching staff to try a few new wrinkles here and there for the duration of Splitter’s recovery timetable.
Still, if all goes well this could be a perfect learning experience for one of the new guys. The next month or so will act as a sort of proving ground for Ayres, who has started all of nine games in his four-year career. And don’t expect Popovich to markedly extend Duncan’s minutes, either.
Starting Tuesday, it’s sink or swim.
Statistical data courtesy of NBA.com/Stats