The Kings beat the Spurs on Friday night in a fairly close game. It probably wouldn’t have been so close had Trey Lyles been available.
Lyles has not played a game this season due to a calf strain sustained during the preseason. He was cleared for basketball activity this week, according to FOX40’s Sean Cunningham, and he’ll return when his reconditioning process gets him back into better form.
It could be a few more games until he sees the floor, but as the most consistent contributor off the bench last season, he’ll likely have little in his way when it comes to a rotational spot.
The question could be asked what this means for Sasha Vezenkov. For about 10 out of Sacramento’s 11 games, he’s played the Lyles role. And so far, Vezenkov has been effective. Since his one-game absence from the rotation, he’s hit 6 of his last 13 three’s. Defensively was always the end of the floor that could cause issues for the reigning EuroLeague MVP, but he’s held his own on that end for the most part.
“The more he plays, it seems like the better he’s gotten for us, even defensively,” Mike Brown said of Vezenkov on Monday after the Kings defeated the Cavaliers. “He understands angles. He’s a big, strong guy so he’s able to take the hit and not necessarily fold. And he works hard at it.”
So the question isn’t what will happen to Vezenkov when Lyles returns. There’s another question.
Since Vezenkov is proving to be solid, how much more versatile do the Kings get when Lyles comes back?
The answer is that the versatility and options for coach Brown will rise significantly.
“(Lyles) gives us a lot of versatility,” coach Brown explained early in training camp. “He can play the 4, he can play the 3, but just as importantly, he can be the 5 if we want to go small and still stretch the floor. Then we know when he is that, we’re not going to get beat by a big ducking in because Trey’s gonna fight like hell just to keep that guy out of the paint.”
When he finally signed with Sacramento in July, this was perceived to be one of the biggest advantages to Vezenkov’s arrival. With nobody really capable of sustainably filling-in Lyles’ role as the backup 4 when he played the 5, the small-ball lineup was not used as much as many would like.
With Vezenkov—and moreover, with Vezenkov’s seemingly quick adjustment to the NBA—Brown finally has that guy that will allow a more frequent utilization of the small 5.
And with Alex Len out for six to eight weeks with a high ankle sprain, it forces the issue.
JaVale McGee has been pretty good in his time as the backup center behind Domantas Sabonis. He’s springy and possesses a terrific catch radius to be an excellent lob threat, he can be an imposing defender, and he can pass a little bit.
However, as seen Friday, McGee has his problems.
He’s turnover prone, averaging the third most per 100 possessions behind Sabonis and Malik Monk, two of Sacramento’s three best playmakers. Sometimes it’s from butterfingers where he mishandles a pass or fumbles on a recovery. Oftentimes, though, it comes in the form of illegal screens, something he’s done 4 times in 9 games played. And he committed one of those moving screens Friday night in San Antonio.
Also, there are times where it appears he does not always bring that “next play speed” Sacramento likes to utilize. Pace is key and it extends to all aspects of the game: in the full court, in the half court; on offense, on defense.
Friday night’s game featured a moment where rookie Victor Wembanyama leaked up the floor for an easy dunk after a three-quarters court pass from Malaki Branham. Who was Wembanyama’s man? McGee.
McGee was a few gears too casual going back on the defensive end, allowing the rookie to gain two steps on him. It wasn’t even like his slower pace was due to having his head turned, which could have given him a chance to make a play on the long pass. He was neither running hard nor using much court awareness.
Coach Brown has experience with McGee and clearly trusts him, but he noted twice—on the first and second days of training camp—that he wants to see the big man prove that he can play fast for every minute he’s out there.
“I don’t know if (McGee’s) played as fast as we want to play, which he’s more than capable of doing, but doing it every single possession is the hard part,” the head coach said on day one.
He added on day two, that the coaching staff will “continue to push him to do that on both ends of the floor.”
Perhaps McGee tightens that aspect of his game up, but the inconsistency in playing fast is a blemish right now. Recall that last season Alex Len had the highest individual pace factor of any of the centers that played more than 10 games, which is most likely one of the things Brown admires most and one of the things that earned Len a go in the rotation prior to his injury on Monday.
This must have contributed to Brown forgoing McGee for most of the second half against the Spurs. Instead, he went small with Keegan Murray seemingly manning the middle. Had Lyles been there, Brown could have gone to him, and earlier too. With him there, the Kings would have had a better chance to create more separation in that contest.
After all, a smaller lineup will rarely affect the pace negatively. There were four lineup combinations last season featuring Lyles at the 5 that had a pace over 119. And the fastest and most efficient postseason lineup had Lyles playing center.
Those lineups with Lyles in the middle often had great defensive ratings as well, so long as the lineup wasn’t too small. While Lyles isn’t the tall traditional rim protector McGee is, he’s strong, smart with his positioning, and mindful of the fundamentals.
And best of all, Lyles spaces the floor with his shooting ability. Imagine the spacing with him and a sharpshooter like Vezenkov.
Of course, a two-man game with Lyles as the big probably won’t produce as much in the paint, so it’s not likely Lyles is the backup 5 from his return to the end of the season. Brown will probably keep things fluid.
That’s a luxury though. Coach Brown will have plenty more combinations at his disposal to play with, and that’s thanks in large part to Lyles’ versatility and Vezenkov’s impressive start to his adjustment process.