Kawhi Leonard’s injury has left a gaping hole in the San Antonio Spurs’ offense and a crater in the team’s defense. After just seven games without him, it’s quite clear just how much he means to the squad. But, as painful as it is, I’m going to set the Kawhi debacle aside for a minute and examine another missing name that has affected the Spurs’ record. That name would be Joffrey Lauvergne.

Don’t close the tab just yet! I’m well aware that this guy is no star. Lauvergne has been a solid role player to start the season, but he may play a bigger part this season than we all thought.

What does Lauvergne bring to the table?

On an insanely guard heavy team, Lauvergne is the only true backup power forward/center. Yes, Rudy Gay can slide in as a speedy combo forward, but he is best suited as a small forward. With Kyle Anderson currently starting in place of Kawhi Leonard, Lauvergne is the only player in the second unit over 6 foot 8. That’s a big (or not so big) change for a team known for its post play.

Never fear, though! LaMarcus Aldridge was primed for a redemption season, right? Pau Gasol could play well if he split minutes with Lauvergne, right? Well part of that has held true. Aldridge has been phenomenal thus far, averaging 26 poins and 9 rebounds. Gasol has been pretty good offensively, but, as any Spurs fan can tell you, his defense still needs work.

At a glance, this doesn’t seem like such a bad situation, but a wrench was thrown into the game plan when Joffrey Lauvergne went down with an ankle injury in San Antonio’s third game versus the Toronto Raptors. He has yet to play a game since.

Lauvergne, as previously mentioned, brings good size to the court, but has showed a surprising propensity for rebounds and blocks, as well.

He’s also got incredible shooting range for a center, and a nice arsenal of post moves. Perhaps his most important attribute, however, is his effort. Lauvergne was all over the court in his limited minutes. He dove for loose balls, closed out on shots, made the extra pass to find the open man, and played some great interior defense.

Simply put, he’s a prototypical Spurs role player. Let’s take a look at how the team has fared without him.

Spurs 117, Heat 100

In the game following his injury, Lauvergne’s absence wasn’t really noticed. Looking at the match ups that the game brought, it’s easy to see why. Against a Miami Heat front court that features Kelly Olynyk and James Johnson, alongside Hasaan Whiteside, Rudy Gay was a perfect fit at the backup power forward spot. Olynyk and Johnson, while able to score in the paint, are usually positioned on the perimeter to clear out space for Whiteside. Gay’s quickness and length easily exploited those perimeter matchups, but the next few games offered no such advantage.

Spurs 87, Magic 114

The Spurs followed up their victory against the Heat with a 27 point loss at the hands of the Orlando Magic. A look at the Magic’s front court depth explains why.

Nikola Vucevic (7’0”), Aaron Gordon (6’10”), and Bismack Biyombo (6’10”) presented a huge (literally) obstacle for the Spurs’ two big men. While Aldridge scored well, he struggled to play well defensively against the athletic freak that is Aaron Gordon. Vucevic was a bad matchup for Gasol from the start. With the size being too much for Gay to handle off the bench, the Spurs’ guards were forced to double team the forwards inside, allowing Evan Fournier to pour in 25 points off of the kick out game.

Had Lauvergne been available off the bench, the story may have been different.

I won’t say the Spurs would have won the game (I think they needed Kawhi Leonard to do that), but it would have offered some valuable rest for Gasol and Aldridge. On top of that, it would have allowed for much better matchups size wise for the team (namely the guards). Danny Green is a great defender, but he can’t guard every position on the court while Leonard is gone. The backup forwards have to help.

Spurs 94, Pacers 97

The next game saw the Spurs lose a nail biter to the Indiana Pacers. Yes, Kahwi Leonard could have helped slow Victor Oladipo’s scoring outburst in the fourth quarter (as well as helped prevent him from hitting the game winning shot), but the key to the Pacer’s victory was their big man, Domantas Sabonis.

Myles Turner was injured, so the front court matchup was slightly more even, but Rudy Gay again struggled to play effective defense on the second year forward. Sabonis torched the Spurs for 22 points and 12 rebounds. This was his career high in points, and, as if to add insult to injury, he got it without missing a shot, going a perfect nine for nine from the field.With Gasol’s hands full with Al Jefferson and Gay’s lack of size, the Spurs had no go-to defender to put on Sabonis once Aldridge went to the bench.

In this case, I think Lauvergne could have won San Antonio the game. If he had forced Sabonis to miss just one shot and kept him off the glass, the game would have gone to the Spurs. Instead, San Antonio struggled to find an answer on defense, and, with Oladipo keeping the guards busy, there wasn’t much else that could have been done.

Spurs 94, Celtics 108

The next night saw the Spurs defeated by a Gordon Hayward-less Celtics team. This was the game where the lack of big men may have hurt San Antonio the most. Boston is widely considered one of the top three teams in the Eastern Conference. They could be a potential Finals opponent of the Spurs should San Antonio make it that far in the playoffs. This game was a great first look at how these teams stacked up against one another.

The game showed the Spurs’ lack of size for a third contest in a row. Al Horford (7’0”), Aron Baynes (6’11”), Daniel Theis (6’9”), and Jayson Tatum (6’9”) tortured the Spurs with their paint defense. San Antonio actually shot worse from two point range than they did from deep (39% compared to 46%).

Aldridge and Gasol were held to 11 points apiece. On defense, Gasol and Aldridge got more than they bargained for trying to keep Boston’s big men out of the paint. With that distraction and no Kawhi Leonard to shut the guards down, Kyrie Irving and Jaylen Brown found countless opportunities to penetrate for easy buckets.

The Spurs used Aldridge at the center and Gay at the power forward as the front court for their second unit. This just didn’t stack up to the sheer size Boston threw at them. With Lauvergne at center, Aldridge at power forward, Gay at small forward, and Green or Anderson at shooting guard, San Antonio could have brought forth a massive lineup with incredible defensive capabilities.

Three players over 6 foot 8 in the paint would have greatly cut down the inside opportunities for Irving and Brown. Instead, failing to offer an adequate strategy to defend the paint, the Spurs allowed Irving and Brown to pour in 24 and 18 respectively, all while giving up a 14 point, 13 rebound double-double to Horford.

Could Lauvergne really turn this team around?

Just to reiterate at the conclusion of this smattering of wishful thinking, Joffrey Lauvergne is not, has not been, and will never be capable of having the same impact on a team that Kawhi Leonard is capable of. In fact, in his entire career, he may not even total Kawhi’s scoring and defensive numbers of just the past two seasons. But the Spurs are a team that pride themselves on the belief that no single player is bigger than the unit.

They are a well-oiled machine of perfectly linked cogs, each doing their part to make the entire system run efficiently. It’s a beautiful thing to watch.

No, Lauvergne will never be a star player. Yes San Antonio probably misses Leonard (or even Tony Parker) more than him. But, in the Spurs machine, any missing cog hurts. Sometimes the smallest of tweaks, tinkers, and jerry-rigs can help a machine survive long enough and work well enough until the more essential parts are replaced. Lauvergne is one of those tweaks. He may not be a go-to player, but, without his Band-Aid on the wound that these injuries have left the Spurs, the machine may continue to fail. Let’s hope he’s back soon.