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What we learned from the Spurs win over the Heat

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It’s unfortunately time to move on from Bryn Forbes, and more.

NBA: Miami Heat at San Antonio Spurs Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t know if I’d call myself a Bryn Forbes “defender”, but I’ll admit I haven’t been as hard on him as some. Part of that is because he was needed last year, and he came through, earning some benefit-of-the-doubt points. The Spurs started the 2018-19 season with Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Lonnie Walker IV all injured, and Pop wanted to keep Patty Mills as his spark plug off the bench, especially in their first season without Manu Ginobili.

That left Forbes as his only reasonable option for starting “point guard” (even though DeMar DeRozan handled most of the ball-handling duties), and Forbes did an admirable job. He spaced the floor, hit his threes at a 42.6% rate, and hustled on defense. Even if he wasn’t an ideal fit at the position, it worked well enough for a 48-win playoff squad missing its starting PG for an entire season.

However, with their three first round draft picks from 2016-2018 (all guards/swingmen) entering this season healthy and experienced, it was hard to imagine Forbes would continue starting. He has (which was understandable at first since he was red hot in the preseason and early part of the regular season), and perhaps he has struggled a bit with the pressure of maintaining his starting position, but his shooting numbers are nonetheless down this season.

He’s had a particularly brutal stretch over the last four games, averaging 6.8 points on sub-25% shooting (and just 19% from three), during which time the Spurs have gone 2-2. In their two losses, he averaged 25:42 minutes (right around his season average), and in their two wins: 18:14 minutes, including just 16:09 yesterday against the Heat — his second-lowest of the season — while posting a stat line of 2 points on 0-5 shooting, and zeros across the rest of the board other than a turnover and three fouls. This is not to pin those results entirely on him, but it’s an ongoing trend that is becoming hard to ignore.

At the same time, Walker got his highest playing time in seven games, coming in just below 20 minutes. While he didn’t have a great night on offense (7 points on 2-8 shooting), he brought his signature energy and played a role in stopping the Heat’s outside shooters after a hot first quarter. One thing he brings that Forbes just physically can’t is length and speed on defense, and he’s reaching a point that he knows defense is his key to playing time from Gregg Popovich, and the offense will come with time.

This is a lot of beating around the bush to avoid saying something that I hate, especially as a person who always roots for the underdogs, but it’s time to bench Forbes. When he’s not hitting threes, he just doesn’t contribute anything to this club. He’s even less needed now that LaMarcus Aldridge is shooting threes to space out the starters, and starting either White or Walker (both willing-if-inconsistent three-point shooters at this stage) would both shore up the defense and add more play-making to a unit that is prone to getting stagnant on offense and needs ball movement to thrive.

I love Bryn, and I believe he has done enough to set up a career for himself as a shooter off the bench for an NBA club somewhere. Unfortunately, with the Spurs’ already deep pool of more talented guards (including what should be the addition of Keldon Johnson to the rotation next season), there appears to be no future for him here, so it’s time to move on. The examples to back this unfortunate reality up keep piling, with Sunday’s win over the Heat being the latest.

Observations

  • It keeps getting said but bears repeating: when the role players/bench shows up, the Spurs are a better team. Aldridge and DeRozan were themselves last night with efficient 20 and 21-point outings, respectively, but the starters as a whole did not have a great game, with everyone posting a negative +/- (with Forbes and Aldridge doing the least amount of damage at -6 apiece). On the other hand, the five bench players (Mills, White, Walker, Marco Belinelli and Jakob Poeltl) were all double-digit pluses, ranging from +10 for Walker to +21 for White. This is one of those cases where these are not misleading statistics. The starters got out to a slow start and fell behind by as many as 11 before the bench came in and brought the Spurs back. The second half followed a similar theme, with the bench just being the better unit of the two. It’s always ideal for both units to show up, but the bench has so much more firepower that a big performance from them is usually a bigger boost to the team on any given night.
  • DeRozan’s streak of 13 straight games with 20+ points on 50% shooting and 3+ assists (an all-time record for NBA guards) came to an end yesterday by just one shot as he posted 20 points on 7-16 shots and 9 assists, plus another 9 rebounds. It was still a good performance — although he had another Vinny (a.k.a. toe-on-the-line three-point attempt) — and he seems to have discovered a good balance between knowing when to set his teammates up (especially when someone else has a hot hand) vs. when to seek out his own looks when the Spurs need it. If he keeps this up for the next few weeks, it’s hard to imagine the players/media won’t vote him in as an All Star reserve. He’s earned it.
  • Yet another interesting Coach’s Challenge, this time with under 1:30 left in the game. The Spurs were holding on to a precarious 105-100 lead when Jimmy Butler was fouled by DeRozan and given the continuation for the and-1 on a White goaltending call. Pop at first seemed hesitant to challenge because he knew a foul had occurred and likely wanted to preserve his challenge and timeout. However, Becky Hammon convinced him to challenge not because it would get the call overturned, but because the refs would see it was a non-shooting foul as Butler took another dribble after the contact from DeRozan, and that’s a change they are allowed to make upon video review even if that’s not what is being challenged. That is exactly what happened, and although the Spurs technically lost the challenge and a timeout because the call of a foul was upheld, it was still a beneficial “loss” since it took Butler’s basket away and put the ball on the sideline for the Heat. Such are the quirks of the Coach’s Challenge.