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How starting Tre Jones has helped turn the Spurs around

Although it hasn’t translated to many more wins (yet), the Spurs have clearly been a better team since moving Tre Jones to starting point guard.

San Antonio Spurs v Washington Wizards Photo by Jess Rapfogel/Getty Images

Note: the following data finalized prior to Monday’s game against 76ers.

Tre Jones has now been a part of the starting lineup for nine games in which the Spurs have walked away with three wins. Granted they were against one of the other five teams in despair at the moment: Pistons, Hornets, and Wizards, but nevertheless it has been apparent that the Spurs made a turning point when Pop jokingly had this epiphany that Tre and Victor Wembanyama needed more playing time together.

I have already seen Twitter present endless examples of how the Spurs have a positive NET rating for the first time this year over the course of these games where Jones was a starter. Kirk Goldsberry’s latest post shows how much the Spurs have improved in net rating. But more importantly, I wanted to investigate how underutilized Jones has been so far.

Below I made a graph showcasing all duo combinations this year that have played at least 400 minutes together. This is an arbitrary number, but given we are halfway through the season, this breaks down to at least 4:45 minutes of playing time together per game. The metrics used to measure these duos are the team’s winning percentage and the duo’s box plus-minus rating. Box plus-minus has a variety of box score statistics used to calculate it in which you can read about more here. I have highlighted Spurs players in orange, as well as the top 15 (blue) and bottom 15 (red) pairings based on box plus minus.

The reason for comparing win percentage was to show that I don’t believe the Spurs’ number of wins accurately reflects the potential of the team. Minutes restrictions, point guard experimentation, or whatever it may be, has not allowed us to see the final form of even this year’s roster. The dotted line represents a general linear regression of the two variables and most data points follow this. Immediately, we can observe the four Spurs data points that appear as anomalies far above this line. Devin Vassell/Jones and Wemby/Jones are playing at a level we do not see any other bottom teams compare to until we move to teams in the .400 range (Warriors being the first at .450 with the Chris Paul-Klay Thompson combo). Vassell/Wemby and Jones/Jeremy Sochan are the only other two duos that have a positive box score for the Spurs.

All partner combos that average less than 10 turnovers per 36 minutes include Jones. Besides Vassell/Keldon Johnson, any combo with Tre also averages more steals than the rest of the team. When Tre is on the floor, the team shoots slightly more threes per 36 minutes, which could be attributed to better ball movement but altogether their accuracy in making them isn’t significantly different.

One harsh truth is that Wemby’s outrageous stats are not immune. His pairing with Malaki Branham ranks as one of the worst 15 in the league which goes to show that who he shares minutes with on the floor really matters. Point guards who can’t find the looks necessary for the big man will ultimately set both of them back. Also ranking at the bottom are Zach Collins/Sochan, Branham/Sochan, and Cedi Osman/Johnson.

Many of the other bottom 15 duos come from those teams at the bottom of the standings. For the Wizards, Kyle Kuzma and Jordan Poole have set a historical low in combined net rating and appear multiple times. Poole and Coulibaly have the lowest box score plus-minus at -17.6 among the 517 duos plotted. Meanwhile in Detroit, the distribution of performances is slightly better than Washington’s with Killian Hayes and Ausar Thompson having the worst plus-minus at -10.4. What can be insightful for some better teams such as the Jazz and Mavericks is noting how much certain combinations deviate from their team’s typical production. John Collins and Keyonte George should not be left on the floor together, and neither should Derrick Jones Jr. and Grant Williams.

Among the top 15 duos labeled, I was amazed to see the number of Philly combos. Tyrese Maxey, Joel Embiid, and even Nic Batum are all represented multiple times with Batum and Embiid possessing the highest plus-minus at +16.4. I was surprised that Denver’s top duo wasn’t Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic given the efficient numbers they both put up individually. The Clippers and Celtics both make it with two duos each, and a brief shoutout to Derrick White for continuing to be such an underrated piece of this most recent Boston team.

This next graph takes a deeper dive into just the Spurs pairings by comparing the eFG% (offensive/scored vs. defensive/allowed). eFG% simply provides more weights for threes in an attempt to make for a more accurate measure than just FG%. It is calculated using the following formula: (2pt FGM + 1.5 * 3pt FGM) / All FGA. The dotted lines just mark what is considered average in the NBA this season.

You will first notice that the only three combos that are above average on offense all contain Jones. I will further praise Tre by pointing out his ability to lift up what might be an inefficient player. Don’t get me wrong, I still love Sochan, and he brings a lot to the table. But if we look at any pairing of Sochan, it ranks below average in offensive eFG% and defensive eFG%. With Wemby, they become just barely above average in defense, but with Jones, their offense skyrockets.

Defensively, Vassell and Wemby are the best combination, allowing just 51.3 eFG% from opponents. Keldon Johnson continues to be impactful when his shots are falling. However, in recent games against the Hawks and Bucks, his struggles to find a different way to contribute if he isn’t shooting well showed. His most productive partners are Vassell and Jones, but that is a clear trend with the rest of the Spurs rotation. We see this trend similarly with Osman, and that can be generally expected with role players who provide a solid but narrow area of strength to the team. Ultimately, if they are unable to deliver what their playing style is typically known for, they can be a liability on the court. But I believe it is important to hold those who are playing a significant role, such as KJ, to a higher standard given Pop and fans expect him to be a consistent third scorer.

Lastly, I finished this deep dive by showing that Jones starting is a different product than Jones coming off the bench. I compared an array of metrics with his top three partners. Rating is the amount of points scored/allowed per 100 possessions. Rebound% is the simply the percentage of missed shots collected by the Spurs and AST/TO is the assist to turnover ratio. True shooting percentage is similar to eFG% but also factors in free throws and PIE is Player Impact Estimate in which you can view the whole formula for here.

Generally speaking, Tre has been able to play with each of the other main stars for more minutes since the transition and has improved in almost every metric while on the floor with them. This is a hopeful trend moving forward as Wemby might be able to play more minutes as well.

A Jones/Vassell backcourt is by no means the final solution to rebuilding this Spurs franchise as they look to grab another guard in what might be a relatively weak 2024 draft. But I do think Jones has proven his ability to bridge the gap for younger players finding their footing. On the other hand, as much as we love our young corps, it will also be important to let certain players walk if they are bringing down the production of Jones, Vassell, and Wemby.