Nearly a quarter of the way through the 2021-22 NBA season, the back end of San Antonio Spurs’ main rotation remains a conundrum. When everyone is healthy, the top seven players have been obvious, with Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Keldon Johnson, Doug McDermott and Jakob Poeltl starting, and the first two players off the bench in terms of minutes played being Devin Vassell and Lonnie Walker. After that it’s been a bit if a mashup, with the remaining available minutes mostly going to Thaddeus Young, Drew Eubanks, Keita Bates-Diop and Bryn Forbes.
While the debate over who should be getting backup center minutes rages on and is definitely a topic worth discussing, the time has come to look at another spot: backup point guard. For the most part, Gregg Popovich has been staggering Murray and White’s minutes to fill the position, but there are still some open minutes that have mostly been going to Forbes. He came into the season as one of the team’s few known sharpshooters but so far has struggled (at least by his standards) at the strongest aspect of his game. When he isn’t hitting threes, the combo guard doesn’t provide much else to have a positive impact on the floor.
The other candidate for the job is Tre Jones: the Spurs’ second round pick from 2020 and a more traditional point guard who had a breakout Summer League performance before a preseason injury slowed him down. He has gradually been receiving more minutes lately, culminating in a 12-point, 2-rebound, 2-assist outing in the Spurs’ thrilling crutch-time victory over the Boston Celtics on Black Friday. With both McDermott and Vassell out, it was one of those rare games when both Jones (18 minutes) and Forbes (23 minutes) got extensive playing time, sometimes together, and their stark contrast in style was on full display.
On offense, Forbes is purely a shooter with range that Jones lacks, while Jones’ current shot arsenal mainly consists of using his speed to drive to the basket either for a floater or to kick the ball back out to a shooter. In that regard, Forbes is theoretically a better fit when White or Murray is on the court running the show for the second unit, as they also tend drive first and kick it back out if the lane closes down.
However, for the minutes when neither of the Spurs starting guards are on the floor, Jones seems like the better fit for two key reasons: ball-handling and defense. Jones is the Spurs only true ball-handler outside of the starting unit, and even though Walker and Vassell will get their share of touches and iso-plays, the Spurs still need someone to bring the ball up the court, initiate plays, and make something happen when the play breaks down, and as he showed against the Celtics, Jones can make that happen.
More important than his ball-handling, however, is the defensive energy and hustle he provides. Defense is this Spurs team’s calling card this season, as they don’t have enough offensive firepower on most nights to compensate for a bad defensive outing from their fringe Top-10 unit.
Not to pick too much on Forbes after an off shooting night against the Celtics while Jones simultaneously had one the best games of his very young career, but it was one of those cases where plus/minus doesn’t lie, and Jones led the team with a +17, and Forbes was a team-worst -14. Some of that is thanks to Jones being on the court for a good chunk of the team’s game-winning 15-0 run, and while Murray rightfully deserves credit for making most of it happen on offense, it still required getting defensive stops against a Celtics team that been red-hot up until that point, and Jones certainly played a role in making that happen.
None of this is to say Forbes should be completely benched, and I’m on the record saying I don’t have an issue with Pop giving him a chance to see if his shot is on each night, but at this point Jones has earned a spot in the main rotation, and Pop shouldn’t hesitate to replace Forbes with him with the former is having a bad game. There’s also the option of taking the aforementioned approach of playing Forbes with Murray or White and Jones when neither is on. Regardless, he deserves a role in every game.
At this point, it’s hard to say if either player will have a future with the club beyond this season — a certain promising rookie named Josh Primo lurks in the wings — but at this point Jones probably has a better shot, so it wouldn’t hurt to give him more of a chance to prove his worth.