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In Defense of an Ayres

During his games at the 2014 Las Vegas Summer League, I received a few mentions on Twitter from fans who continually asked me questions and comments like: “Why don’t the Spurs cut Jeff Ayres? What improvement can Ayres make? Ayres can’t catch the ball. Ayres turns the ball over too much.” With this being the NBA offseason, I decided to explore why Ayres gets such tough criticism from some fans, and if his production last season warranted all of the negativity he can sometimes receive.

First off, let’s begin by looking at Ayres’ base statistics from his 2012-13 season with the Indiana Pacers, and see how they shape up with his statistics in his first season with San Antonio.

Season With Spurs 2013-14 With Pacers 2012-13
Games Played 73 37
Minutes Per Game 13.3 10.0
Points Per Game (FG%) 3.3 (58%) 3.9 (48%)
Rebounds Per Game (Off.) 3.5 (1.2) 2.8 (0.8)
Assists Per Game 0.8 0.4
Blocks Per Game 0.3 0.3
Fouls Per Game 2.0 1.2
Turnovers Per Game 0.9 0.6
Offensive Rating 108.7 104.8
Defensive Rating 101.8 95.2

On the surface, it looks like Ayres’ base statistics were relatively close across the board. But as you run through each category, you’ll see there were minor improvements like his field goal percentage, rebounds, and assists. However, there were some declines in Ayres’ turnovers and fouls per game, though relatively minimal.

When you think of the Spurs’ frontcourt core rotation last season, the main pieces were Tim Duncan, Tiago Splitter, and Boris Diaw. Matt Bonner was used as a specialist in some of the Spurs’ playoff series, while Aron Baynes too received some minutes in the Spurs’ second round series against the Portland Trail Blazers. Overall though, Ayres, Bonner, Baynes, and Austin Daye only played during the regular season in times where there was an injury, Duncan, Splitter, or Diaw were in foul trouble, or Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich was looking to rest Duncan, Splitter, or Diaw.

So if we categorize Duncan, Splitter, and Diaw as the “core” members of the Spurs’ frontline, that would leave Ayres, Bonner, Daye, and Baynes as the “reserve” members of the Spurs’ frontline. Below I’ve taken several metrics to see how the “reserve” big men stacked up against each other last season, to show quantitatively if Ayres was really one of the worst options to have on the floor like some people tend to think.

First, since all four of the reserves didn’t receive key minutes last season, I’ve adjusted their base statistics per 36 minutes via NBA.com/stats.

Season Ayres Bonner Daye Baynes
Points Per Game (FG%) 9.1 (58%) 10.3 (45%) 18.2 (38%) 11.8 (44%)
Rebounds Per Game (Off.) 9.8 (3.4) 6.8 (0.8) 6.3 (.9) 10.6 (4.2)
Assists Per Game 2.3 1.6 1.9 2.5
Blocks Per Game 0.9 0.6 1.3 0.4
Fouls Per Game 5.5 2.6 4.4 5.6
Turnovers Per Game 2.4 0.8 1.6 2.6

As you can see when their statistics are adjusted per 36 minutes, there’s not a lot of separation scoring the ball except for Daye, though he shot the worst of the group, at 38%. Since Ayres’ offensive game doesn’t revolve around shooting jumpers or 3-pointers, his dunks and layups kept his field goal percentage as the highest amongst the group. His rebounds and assists per game are also relatively close to Baynes, and all but Bonner had difficulty with turnovers and fouling.

Next, I’ve taken the offensive and defensive points per possessions (PPP) via Synergy Sports.

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By points per possession scored, Ayres was second highest amongst the four only behind Bonner, who uses his 3-point shot to take his scoring up a notch. Defensively, Daye and Bonner allowed opposing teams to score 1.00 points per possession, which was just barely higher than Baynes.

The next chart displays one of the key elements to the Spurs’ offensive system – touching and passing the ball. The information gathered is based on touches and passes per game during the regular season via the SportVU database.

Screenshot (115)

The data reveals that of the four Spurs reserve bigs, Ayres actually had more responsibility when on the floor in touching and passing the ball amongst the four bigs. A player like Baynes may have actually been holding onto the ball too long, or didn’t get into positions to receive the ball, as frequently as the others.

The last reserve chart shows two different percentages via the SportVU metrics: Opponent Field Goal Percentage at the rim and Percentage of Rebounds per chance in the regular season.

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The data reveals that of the Spurs’ reserve big men, Ayres performed third best at protecting the rim, while he was second best behind Baynes in grabbing rebounds when he had the best chance to get them.

After looking at the base, passing, defensive, and rebounding metrics, there’s no specific data that proved that Ayres was this awful basketball player compared to his other three reserve counterpart bench mates. Ayres performed either better or worse in most of the metrics, but there wasn’t a huge discrepancy in the data to show he wasn’t worth being on the team, as opposed to the other three.

Understanding Ayres on Offense

When you watch Ayres, you might be wondering, “Well, what specific skill set does he bring offensively?” That’s a good question to wonder about, because by the eye test, you can tell he’s not a player who stretches the floor with either a long range jumper or 3-point shot like Bonner, and he’s not a player who you can throw the ball down into the post, and expect him to score. Ayres’ offensive game is very similar to Tiago Splitters – a guy who scores in the pick-and-roll by rolling to the basket, scores by grabbing offensive rebounds, or scores by cutting to the basket without the ball.

To show this visually, I’ve taken Ayres’ five preferred scoring possessions over the last two seasons.

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In Indiana, Ayres would score mainly off the pick-and-roll, he would actually take some spot-up jumpers, and he scored off cutting, in the post, and with offensive rebounds. In San Antonio, he scored almost always off the ball. His go-to way to score was by cutting, where players like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili would find him when they penetrated, and he would also score off the pick-and-roll, and his offensive rebounding scoring continued to be one of his top-three ways to score. He mostly cut out his spot-up jumpers, but his transition scoring in the open court rose with the Spurs’ run-and-gun offensive system.

While all of this does sound really good, Ayres did have many issues with turning the ball over, and we’ll get to that in a bit. However, before diving into the turnovers, let’s look at some statistics per Synergy on Ayres’ production when he did score. When Ayres completed a pick-and-roll scoring possession, he shot 63% from the floor, and scored 1.07 points per possession (ranked 47th in the NBA). When Ayres scored off cuts, he shot 68% and scored 1.26 PPP (ranked 76th in the NBA). Lastly, when scoring off offensive rebounds, Ayres shot 55% and scored 1.03 PPP (ranked 97th in the NBA).

When he actually caught the ball and tried to perform a scoring possession, there was a good chance Ayres was going to score with either a layup or dunk. The problem though for Ayres is actually catching the ball and doing something with it, which was one of his main struggles by the eye test.

Out of his 282 scoring possessions last season, Ayres turned the ball over 23% of the time on those possessions. When looking at how he turned the ball over from most to least out of his five preferred scoring possessions, they’re listed as follows:

28 Post-Ups possessions (17.9% of time turned it over)

59 Pick-and-Roll possessions (16.9% of time turned it over)

40 Offensive Rebound possessions (12.5% of time turned it over)

25 Transition possessions (12% of time turned it over)

77 Cutting possessions (10.4% of time turned it over)

In order to work on the turnovers issue, it seems that Ayres needs more time in the Spurs’ system and working with the players in that system that he may not have access to everyday, like Parker and Ginobili. During the regular season, I often got to games early and most nights in pregame shootarounds, I saw Ayres working with assistant coach Jim Boylen and the Spurs’ trainers. What were they working on? Ayres’ pick-and-rolls and cuts in scoring at the basket. So, you can’t knock Ayres for not putting in the work, because he most certainly does. However, it’s a totally different experience working with an assistant coach at half speed, rather than in the actual game at full speed, with a player like Ginobili delivering the passes.

“For me to develop not only as a player, but in this system as well,” said Ayres two weeks ago before departing for Las Vegas on what he wanted to improve on. “I want to be able to contribute more than I did last year. Honestly, what I feel like I need to do for my game is do whatever Coach Pop tells me, make sure I don’t get yelled at.”Another season with Parker, Ginobili, and the Spurs’ pick-and-roll ball handlers should help Ayres in improving his turnover issues.

Ayres’ Individual Defense

In looking at his individual defense, Ayres made a very small amount of growth by Synergy Sports’ metrics from his last year with the Pacers. The chart below shows how Ayres defended the pick-and-roll man, post-ups, and spot-ups this season and last season on a PPP system. I noted Pendergraph in blue, since that was Ayres’ former last name when he was with the Pacers.

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In playing with the Spurs, Ayres made a better defensive leap in defending the pick-and-roll, though his defense on spot-up possessions went up just a few notches. As was evidenced in this year’s Summer League, Ayres will have to work on limiting his fouls. Too often, he gets caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, or if a wing defender gets beat off the dribble, Ayres is likely the one to draw the foul on the attacker. Like his turnover issues, more repetition and experience in the Spurs’ system should help Ayres’ foul troubles in the coming season.

The chart below shows how Ayres defended post-ups, spot-ups, and the pick-and-roll in comparison to all of the Spurs’ frontcourt members outside of Daye, who didn’t have enough data to include on the defensive end. Though he wasn’t in the realm of Duncan, Diaw, and Splitter, Ayres was in a close range with Bonner and Baynes on defense last season.

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A look at Ayres’ value

Lastly, one aspect to look at last is if Ayres is worth the value of his contract. Last season, Ayres earned roughly $1.75 million with the Spurs. Basketball-Reference.com has a category called win shares. When you combine a player’s regular season and playoff win shares, you can get that figure and put in terms of millions of dollars. So in Ayres’ case, he was worth 2.6 total win shares for the Spurs last season, meaning on the market, he could be worth anywhere from $2-3 million dollars. Since he only made $1.75 million last season with San Antonio, one could say he was actually worth more than his contract.

In the last season on his contract coming up in the 2014-15 NBA season, Ayres will earn roughly $1.8 million. With the Spurs being short of roster spaces at the moment (14 taken, one left), some fans have proposed that the team should waive Ayres to open an extra roster space to bring in two more players. In their past, the Spurs haven’t been known as a team that just waives players with guaranteed deals, except for the case with Stephen Jackson, who was waived days before the 2013 playoffs, due to extreme complications between he and the organization.

While some folks may want the team to re-sign Baynes and bring in an outside free agent, or offer a younger player a guaranteed spot from training camp, the chances of the team letting go of Ayres to make two of those moves happen, seem unlikely. As noted by all the data above, there’s not a strong case that Ayres deserves to be axed, when he performed in the realm of some of the Spurs’ other reserve big men last season.

If your expectation next season for Ayres is for him to start knocking down 3-point pick-and-pop jumpers, or average 1.0 blocks per game, then those could be some unrealistic expectations. However if you’re expecting Ayres to be a guy Coach Popovich can use in spot minutes when there’s an injury, a player’s in foul trouble, or a player needs rest, then this will be the Ayres you should expect, though his turnovers and fouls will likely become less and less with another year of experience with his teammates and in the Spurs’ system.

Paul Garcia

About Paul Garcia

Paul is a San Antonio Spurs credentialed media member for Project Spurs. He covered the 2013 NBA All-Star Game in Houston, TX, and the 2013 and 2014 NBA Finals. Paul has been featured on WOAI, Fox 29, and numerous nationwide radio shows.

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