At 17-22, it’s safe to say that this season hasn’t quite gone the way the San Antonio Spurs expected. Despite being the healthiest team in the league, they find themselves battling just to make the playoffs.
The team has disappointed in large part because they’ve been less than the sum of their talented, if ill-fitting, parts. The Spurs rotation has been in flux for most of the season, with head coach Gregg Popovich trying to find the right combinations.
Looking to the future, there are currently three replaceable players in the rotation that could be replaced at some point this season or, more likely, in the coming offseason.
Few people expected Trey Lyles to have as big of a role as he’s had this season for the Spurs. After signing as a consolation prize following the Marcus Morris-Davis Bertans-DeMarre Carroll debacle, Lyles is currently a starter.
As far as results go, he’s been a mixed bag. Lyles has been surprising solid as a rebounder and a good passer but he’s struggled in the role in which he was signed to fill. As a stretch forward, Lyles has shot just 33.3% on three-pointers on 2.3 attempts per game.
Factor in his 50.6% true shooting percentage (well bellow league average) and mediocre defense and Lyles’ spot in the rotation is far from set in stone going forward. The same could be said for his future with the team. Lyles’ final year under contract is a team option for the 2020-21 season.
At $5.5 million, he is cheap enough to bring back next season, but hopefully in a role that is better suited to his level of play. Ideally, his role is that of a 10th man, unless he becomes a more consistent three-point shooter and defender.
San Antonio could decline his option and try for an upgrade at forward in the draft, free agency or, possibly, internally. LaMarcus Aldridge could revert back to power forward after drastically expanding his range — but there are issues with that idea. Pairing Aldridge and Jakob Poeltl with Dejounte Murray and DeMar DeRozan would create spacing issues, even with Aldridge’s expanded range. Aldridge also may not be able to defend out on the perimeter full-time anymore.
Luka Samanic has the skill-set, however it’s unlikely that he’ll be ready to contribute next season, as he isn’t shining in the G League. Chimezie Metu has looked a lot better this season but it’s unclear whether he’d be ready for that role next year.
Rudy Gay and DeMarre Carroll are the other options at power forward. Gay is aging, however, and limited in the amount of minutes he can play, while Carroll has barely played at all. Ultimately, Lyles is certainly replaceable but the Spurs may not have many options to improve there. Thus, bringing him back is very much in the cards.
Bryn Forbes enjoyed a breakout 2018-19 season. He started 81 games, averaged a career high 11.8 points and shot a blistering 42.6% on 5.0 three-pointers per game. This season has been a different story for Forbes. He hasn’t had the same success in his role as a sharpshooter, connecting on just 36.6% of his threes.
On defense, Forbes has been one of the worst defenders in the league at his position. He ranks 82nd among all shooting guards in defensive real plus-minus. Forbes’ lack of size, length and athleticism has made him an easy target for other teams to mercilessly exploit.
Despite that, he’s become entrenched in the starting lineup, appearing in every game since the beginning of last season. Forbes has started all but two of those 128 games. He certainly isn’t useless to the Spurs, as he provides them with a high-volume shooter with a history of shooting accurately. That said, factoring in his awful defense, he is miscast as a starter.
Forbes will be an unrestricted free agent after this season and will be uncertain to return. San Antonio seems high on him, in large part due to his work ethic. Forbes will likely seek to be rewarded for that hard work with a long-term deal.
The Spurs have other players on roster to consider before deciding whether to re-sign Forbes. Lonnie Walker IV and Derrick White would be the two most obvious candidates to replace Forbes, should he not be re-signed.
While neither are the same caliber of shooter as Forbes, they’re superior defenders and capable offensive players. Walker has “paid his dues” according to Popovich, and has already started over Forbes one game this season.
It’s entirely possible that the front office could look to Walker to replace Forbes, with White continuing to come off the bench. Walker has two seasons remaining on his cheap rookie-scale deal, and has plenty of upside.
This contrasts with Forbes, who could conceivably more than double his current $3 million annual salary in his next deal and has also likely realized his full potential. He’s better suited for a bench role where he would be harder to exploit on defense while being able continue to fire away on offense.
However, Forbes off the bench is less ideal for the Spurs as he would be paired with Patty Mills. That said, he may be a better fit on another team where his size won’t be as much of an issue. Forbes is replaceable, ultimately, and may very well be replaced this coming offseason.
Belinelli is in the midst of his worst season with the Spurs, hitting just 33.7% of his three-pointers while being especially bad on defense. Belinelli ranks just 102nd in defensive real plus-minus as a shooting guard. When not hitting threes at a high rate, Belinelli is simply unplayable — but that hasn’t always stopped Popovich from playing him.
It appears less a question of whether he’ll be replaced and more a question of when. Walker has already usurped Belinelli in the rotation and appears to be slowly gaining Popovich’s trust. Given his dramatic decline, Belinelli is highly unlikely to be re-signed in the offseason.
San Antonio will enter the 2020 offseason with a chance to reconfigure and optimize the roster. Opting not to re-sign Forbes and Belinelli could benefit Walker, White and possibly even Keldon Johnson. Johnson has impressed in NBA G League, averaging 20.7 points and 6.1 rebounds with an eye-popping true shooting percentage of 64.3%. He could conceivably earn minutes at small forward as early as next season.
Relying more on youth next season provides the Spurs with potential upside that this current team lacks. While San Antonio may be committed to this core for the rest of this season, the Spurs may opt at any time to maximize the ceiling of the team by upgrading one or more of the replaceables.