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Why the Spurs refuse to add a backup point guard

The Spurs keep signing forwards instead of the backup ball handler most fans would agree they seem to need. Here are the possible explanations for that decision.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at San Antonio Spurs Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs recently waived power forward Alize Johnson to sign combo forward Stanley Johnson. The move is not too interesting on its own, since Johnson is a fairly known commodity at this point as a long, athletic defender who can score in transition but lacks a reliable outside shot, and his fit with the Spurs is simple to figure out.

What is actually interesting is that the Spurs brought in another forward instead of the ball handler most people would agree they clearly need. They seem to disagree that addressing the issue should be a priority, which is curious. There are two likely reasons for that.

The Spurs have a lot of faith in Blake Wesley

The simplest answer to the question of why don’t the Spurs sign another ball handler, preferably young, to back up Tre Jones is that they believe they have their man already in Wesley and are just awaiting his return.

Wesley has only played a couple of games in his rookie season so far before getting hurt, but he looked promising and seemed to be the pick to take over the minutes that became available when Josh Primo was waived. If the Spurs liked what they saw and think he’s more ready to contribute than fellow rookie Malaki Branham, keeping the spot open for him would make sense. It’s similar to why Jeremy Sochan was granted the starting job. The coaching staff probably wants Sochan to know that his playing time and role are clear, and no one will take his spot even if he struggles. The same could apply to Wesley, who might have gotten some sort of assurance that he’ll get minutes when he returns. This year is all about development, after all.

There are two potential issues with that line of thinking, though. First, if development is the goal, not having a competent ball handler around the second unit could have actually hindered the progress of other players, who have had to deal with lineups that lack a key skill. Second, if the Spurs truly are that high on Wesley’s ability to perform this year, bringing in someone like Sharife Cooper on a minimum deal or converting Charles Bassey’s two-way contract into a regular one while using a two-way deal on a ball handler wouldn’t be a big issue. Even if that player does well, the coaching staff could simply choose to prioritize Wesley like they have Sochan over players like Doug McDermott or Keita Bates-Diop, who could realistically help more now based on experience alone.

It’s possible the Spurs have not gotten another ball handler because they are just waiting for Wesley, but things might be a little more complicated than that.

The Spurs don’t seem to want any small backup ball handlers

San Antonio came into the season without a backup point guard in its rotation. The ball handler for the second unit was supposed to be Josh Primo, who had the size and skillset of a shooting guard when he was drafted but spent a year developing his handles and his point-of-attack defense.

Since waiving Primo, the plan has been to have 6’6” Josh Richardson taking on ball-handling duties while 6’5” Romeo Langford is often responsible for guarding the opponent’s main ball handler. Richardson actually ranks second only to Tre Jones in average dribbles, average seconds per touch and time of possession. Langford has spent the vast majority of his time on the court defending guards, and the players he has guarded the most in terms of possessions are Anthony Edwards, Donovan Mitchell, Kevin Porter Jr., Devonte Graham and LeBron James. Of that list, Graham is the only one who is not his team’s main initiator, and going further down it shows that he often guards point guards. It seems like the Spurs’ plan for this season was to have a wing-sized player be their nominal backup point guard, and they have remained committed to that plan even after waiving Primo.

There could be different reasons for their decision that actually make sense. For starters, having a group of guys that are all taller than the average point guard makes switching a lot easier. Any lineup that doesn’t feature Tre Jones should be able to, in theory, switch one through four, considering the versatility of the power forwards. As for the offense, not having a ball-dominant floor general allows Devin Vassell and Keldon Johnson to have the rock more and empowers the bigs to be playmakers. While Jones ranks first on the team in total touches, the wings rank first and second in frontcourt touches while Jakob Poeltl and Zach Collins trail them, which means that Jones might walk the ball up, but he doesn’t hold it once the team starts to run its offense.

There are some benefits to going this unconventional route, as it can help establish a defensive identity and keep the ball in the hands of the core players, which is something a rebuilding team should want.

It’s probably a combination of the two

The fact that the Spurs didn’t bring a traditional backup point guard into the season is probably a good indicator of their desire to lean towards lineups that are bigger not only at the forward spots, but also in the backcourt, which explains why they have not brought in any small ball handlers even though they could use one. If the goal is to remain committed to switching and to have the wings score and the big facilitate often, it makes sense.

That said, it will be interesting to see if when he’s healthy, Wesley takes over some of the minutes currently going to Langford and the veterans. He might not be as big as a lot of wings, but at 6’4” he has good size for a guard, could see his progress sped up by getting minutes with the big team, and has some ball handling and playmaking skills.

Either way, it seems like not having a traditional point guard in the second unit to act as the main ball handler is not bothering the Spurs that much, so we might not see them make any new additions who would solve the issue for a while.