Why Jeff Ayres Should Start

The San Antonio Spurs' starting lineup outscored their opponents by 18.1 points per 100 possessions last year, per NBA.com — a massive margin that was second in the entire league. Only Miami's small lineup, with LeBron James squeezed in at power forward, was better.

This season, the starting lineup has been outscored by 1.8 points per 100 possessions. The problem isn't defense. They are awesome on that end, equivalent to the Indiana Pacers. Tony Parker, arguably, is the only player who isn't a plus defender, though he is quick and intelligent enoughto succeed at the position.

The Spurs just can't outscore their opponents this season.. They are scoring 91.4 points per 100 possessions — for reference, the Milwaukee Bucks score 92.7 with Gary Neal on the floor.

Gregg Popovich has already inserted Marco Belinelli into the starting lineup to alleviate Parker's shot creating burden. Should he make another change? Juan Pablo Aravena discussed Ayres' starting candidacy.

Via Rant Sports:

"With Tiago Splitter sidelined, the Spurs definitively need a big man that can anchor the paint and while Diaw can give more offense on a consistent basis, it’s hard to overlook what Ayres has done in recent games."

Duncan's meager mid-range shooting — 33 percent, down from from 43 percent last season — cramps the Spurs' spacing on offense. Meanwhile, Splitter's value on offense is contingent on diving to the rim, and he's effective doing so. But that is the extent of his offensive impact — 95 percent of his shot attempts are inside the lane.

Duncan's wonky jumper creates a trickle down effect. Each player is affected. First, defenses ignore him to clog other more pressing threats — namely Parker. They can stay home on shooters, too. Splitter's dives to the rim aren't as dangerous, because defenders can revert their attention to Splitter. Duncan can't camp in the paint either, because that will clog any action with Splitter and because he isn't spry enough to last an entire season playing that way.
It's a real problem.

Until Duncan's shot returns — if it does — Pop can play Ayres in the lineup and reap the benefits. The Spurs are +12.5 points (per 100 possessions) when Ayres shares the floor with Parker and Duncan, and +19.4 with Ayres and Duncan on the floor. The Spurs' rim protection suffers a blow here — Splitter is the best rim protector on the team — but Ayres is more mobile on the perimeter, and less of a liability in space. Duncan still doesn't have to be forced to corral ball handlers, a positive, and the Spurs' offense has been much better with Ayres on the floor.

For one, while Ayres has been a below-average mid-range shooter this year (shot chart below), he makes these shots more often than Splitter. Ayres was a 43 percent shooter outside the paint in his previous four seasons.

The Spurs' rebounding won't miss a beat with Ayres on the floor. He's averaging 10.2 rebounds per 36 minutes this season, a few ticks below Splitter, and he's outrebounded Kevin Love (per 36 minutes) in his last 10 games. He's grabbed 60 percent of his rebounding chances according to SportVU, a higher percentage than Splitter.

This doesn't have to be a permanent change — the Spurs will still have the Splitter-Duncan tandem as a high-leverage crutch — but inserting Ayres may give the Spurs a boost in the interim. It's worth a shot.