Too early for San Antonio Spurs to hit panic button on Bryn Forbes

San Antonio Spurs Bryn Forbes. Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photos by Logan Riely/NBAE via Getty Images)
San Antonio Spurs Bryn Forbes. Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photos by Logan Riely/NBAE via Getty Images) /

Bryn Forbes’ production has slipped after a career year in 2018-19. But with easy solutions to his problems, is it too early for the San Antonio Spurs to give up on him?

There are a few unofficial rules of thumb in the Ferguson household whenever NBA games are on, especially when the San Antonio Spurs are playing.

To give you an idea of how things work: Rule No. 1: No commercial breaks. Always keep something playing on each television. Rule No. 2: When LaMarcus Aldridge scores a basket, boxes out, grabs an uncontested rebound — heck, if he even makes a free throw — brace yourself for my celebratory, panther-like growls and chest bumps (my father can begrudgingly attest to this).

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And as a follow-up to that, Rule No. 3: if Aldridge, Carmelo Anthony, Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Tom Brady, or Allen Iverson (yes) are playing, that game takes priority on the biggest TV and it’s essentially non-negotiable.

In the grand scheme of things, none of that matters, but it gives you a gist into how we approach sports fandom. We come up with cringeworthy phrases, one of which stands out as one of my absolute favorites:

“He just made the Forbes list.”

The mantra made its debut a few weeks ago, when Spurs sharpshooter Bryn Forbes hit on 10-of-13 from the field in a 25-point, five 3-pointer barrage against the Houston Rockets. One by one, challengers came; Russell Westbrook and James Harden being the most prolific — and one by one, they all failed in their attempts to contain Forbes from deep.

In short, they all made the Forbes list.

We started using that term on Dec. 3, bursting with laughter with every Forbes make, getting the extra kick out of Spurs commentator Bill Land yelling “Sparty!” after every make.

Unfortunately, we can’t remember the last time we were able to use this phrase.

To imply that Forbes is suffering a fall from grace compared to last season would be depreciative. We live in an era where anyone and everyone wants to hoist 3-point shots and some of them haven’t been able to toss to a rock into an ocean. Forbes, on the other hand, could have tossed a boulder into that very ocean.

In 2018-19, a mere 19 players found net on more 3-point attempts and only seven players league-wide were more accurate than Forbes’ 42.6 percent.

But, like following up Vince Carter in a Slam Dunk Contest, Bryn Forbes has found trouble in following up such a noteworthy season. Forbes’ percentages have been on the free fall, dropping nearly 6 percentage points in both field goal (45.6 to 40.1) and 3-point percentage (42.6 to 36.5).

For a player whose primary purpose is to space the floor and make defenders pay for focusing too strongly on the Spurs’ two All-Stars, Forbes has only been slightly better than the league’s average from deep. Through 35 games, the encore has been a mild disappointment, even prompting some fans to encourage scraping Forbes’ minutes in favor of younger talent.

Even after signing a two-year, $6 million bargain contract a year ago, it feels as though the fourth-year guard is once again on audition for the rest of the league.

With that are two critical questions regarding Forbes: is it too early to close the curtain on him? And with the second half of the season the horizon for a suddenly up-and-coming Spurs group, what can Forbes do to save the show?

What’s gone wrong for Forbes this season?

The SparkNotes way of answering this? He simply hasn’t hit shots with the same regularity.

Save for a few outliers, he’s also been able to generate the same sorts of looks from a season ago. Within the Spurs’ starting lineup most nights, Forbes is the only proven, season-to-season knockdown shooter from 3-point range. When defenses understand that, it becomes easier to game plan for.

The best example of that would be J.J. Redick, who, even while sharing a court with All-Star players Joel Embiid, Jimmy Butler and Ben Simmons, shot under 40 percent from deep for the first time in five seasons. One year and a new situation later, he’s back among the elites at 46 percent, good for No. 4 in the league.

This isn’t an accident. The idea of spacing the floor is difficult when only one player on the court is a bonafide spacer and everyone else can shoot, but not to the point where defenses are living in apprehension of it.

These tides are beginning to change for the Spurs.

Over the last two weeks, the Spurs are not have not only become the No. 1 ranked team in 3-point percentage, but now, they rank No. 15 in attempts, way up from the league-worst 27.3 attempts per game. Just weeks ago, that seemed like sacrilege.

Only recently have opposing defenses begun to fully respect the floor stretching abilities of LaMarcus Aldridge. It also helps that he’s forcing the issue. Last Saturday against Milwaukee was just the second time in a 372-game run with the Spurs that Aldridge took more 3-pointers (seven) than mid-range shots (four).

They say old habits die hard. But for Aldridge, both habits are still alive and well; we’re just finally seeing it on canvas.

That in mind, it’s likely Forbes misses sharing the floor with a player like Davis Bertans from a season ago. Though far from an All-Star, what he brought to the floor last season is something the Spurs have had trouble replacing.

Advanced numbers have seldom been friendly to Forbes, who, according to Cleaning the Glass, “helps” the Spurs to a minus-26 wins (no, this is unfortunately not a typo) at his current on-off differential rate this year.

But in 2018-19, Forbes and Bertans shared the floor together for 707 minutes, and gave their best impression of Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash, dropping teams with a plus-8.4 net rating and a whopping 120.8 offensive rating. That sort of love has been hard to find for Forbes this year.

He’s much better than spreadsheets will paint him out to be, but that’s one of many factors as to why the first half of this season were such a struggle.

This appends another problem with the Spurs to this point. At the start of the season, there were too many cooks in the kitchen who weren’t threats from deep. And while Forbes is not part of that group, his over-dribbling has more or less become a potential recipe for disaster.

It’s not that Forbes can’t create his own shot, because he absolutely can. Of every 10 shots he makes this season, about two of them are Forbes in full-on survival mode, creating and fending for himself.

But on those takes where Forbes is being tasked with creating without the luxury of a screen, the numbers and film don’t look favorable. Here’s a clip of him on a switch, drawing Kristaps Porzingis. Time considered, he’s unable to execute.

This year, the percentages have been almost too close to tell apart. Per NBA tracking stats, the plays in which Forbes gets into his trusty “one dribble, then shoot” have come almost just as often as when Forbes is taking three to six dribbles and shooting.

Those numbers tell a story: the more dribbles he takes, the less effective he becomes. Here’s a quick graph I made to make that point more visual.

Throw the negativity aside for a second. When at his best, Forbes is still one of the best shooters the game has to offer, and as close to perfect a complement to slash-and-kick artists like DeMar DeRozan and Dejounte Murray or gravitational pick-and-roll pullers like LaMarcus Aldridge.

As an outside observer, there are a few tweaks here and there that, presumably at least, could get Forbes back into his 2018-19 form.

What could work for Forbes?

Piggybacking on what we just discussed, there’s no reason to obfuscate this; a lot of what happens in the future boils down to Forbes simply making shots. He’s actually been getting cleaner looks; in 2018-19, Forbes saw “open shots” — described by the NBA as four to six feet of space — on 41.1 percent of his shots. This year, that number ballooned to 47.9.

The big difference has come in the makes. To put Forbes’ standout season from a year ago into perspective: among players taking at least three 3-pointers per game, Forbes ranked fifth. Ahead of both Splash Brothers. Ahead of teammate Davis Bertans.

In other words, ahead of your favorite shooter — as long as your favorite shooter isn’t Danny Green, Joe Harris, Buddy Hield or um, *gulps* Kyrie Irving.

History always points to football as the “game of inches.” If that’s true, basketball must be the game of feet. On those “open” shots we just discussed, Forbes shoots 37.2 percent. Respectable.

Bring that defender one inch forward — now, what NBA tracking calls “tight” coverage — and now we’re in trouble.

An extra foot or two may as well be a walk across the moon for Forbes — or at least an extra 8 percentage points. On that tighter coverage, he’s hitting only a 29.4 clip. Putting that into the context of win percentages, it’s the difference between the likelihood the New York Knicks win a game, and say, the Detroit Pistons.

In video form, it’s the difference between a shot like this and a shot like this.

The easy fix is to make shots. In the meantime, Forbes can rely on sheer reputation. Defenses still fear his ability to percolate on any given night, which means they think twice before sagging off on lesser-talented shooters and when Forbes does get the ball of catches, the bites on fakes and the closeouts are usually hard.

The potential’s been there, especially for someone shooting nearly 54 percent in the restricted area. When he’s not putting guys on the “Forbes list” with deep balls or blowing warm air into his hands — a routine dating back to his pre-NBA days — he was putting the ball on the deck, escorting guys to the rim with creative finishes.

When it works out, it looks something like this.

This is something we could have seen coming. Remember the rave that followed us throughout this past offseason? Where fans we’re stoked about either: a) Dejounte Murray’s return, b) How that would look alongside Derrick White, c) Lonnie Walker IV’s all-but-guaranteed breakout or d) all of the above at the same time?

Forbes was on the outside — maybe on the tracks even, of that hype train. But he bulked up for reasons like this. He’s even been referred to as the NBA’s “ironman.” 

Well, Bryn, there are a lot of deficient guards out there. Give them iron.

And even if he never does begin to bully guards in the post, simply making them pay on plays like this could give him the mental boosts needed to rekindle that flame from deep.

Conformity for the Spurs has looked surprisingly beautiful. With the 3-point barrage as of late, they’ve sacrificed a few more mid-range looks. Nonetheless, Forbes can find benefits from each area. Analytics lovers, cover your eyes, ears and maybe even your mouths for this next paragraph, because the debate has been played out.

If the 3-ball isn’t dropping, Bryn has also proven to be a serviceable mid-range shooter. His bread-and-butter seems to be either curling off screens or taking hand-offs from bigs. This season, he ranks No. 3 in mid-range shots (behind guess who?) and is shooting at a respectable 47.2 percent clip.

He isn’t quite Aldridge or DeRozan, as it relates to mid-range effectiveness, but he is at least in the same neighborhood, literally and figuratively.

Aldridge is the quintessential king of the “middy,” leading the NBA in both makes and attempts while keeping defenses honest and his percentages efficient. DeRozan isn’t far behind, ranking No. 2 and makes, and No. 3 in attempts (behind that other old Spur).

There have been 478 players that have appeared in an NBA game this season. Only 84 of them have taken at least two midrange shots per game. Forbes is among them. And to basically be a miss-make-miss-make, 50 percent shooter through that stretch shows his capabilities at the very least. If nothing else, this is merely food for thought.

And as we close, one note should be made: none of this is meant to discredit what Forbes brings to the table. Let his story — from a two-college, undrafted and undersized combo guard in 2016 to a starting guard for a postseason fixture — he told beyond his time.

Forbes is what he is on defense. At 26 years old and 6-foot-2, he’s a few decades tardy on the idea of putting salt in his shoes and praying for height, the way Michael Jordan apparently did as a child. But to compensate, he plays hard, works through screens and gives what he has.

more spurs. January history on San Antonio's side. light

If you look closely enough, you’ll see that LeBron traveled (sorry) and you’ll see the chip that remains on Forbes’ shoulders. He plays the game of basketball with a permanent focus, a defiant scowl on his face, and a confidence reminiscent to that of say, Allen Iverson.

He’s far from Iverson, a top-three shooting guard to ever step on the hardwood. But he’s got the heart. The next time you watch the Spurs play, watch Forbes after a turnover and see how upset he is with himself. You like to see that out of key players. And best of all, he seems to have that rare “flip-the-switch” ability in bigger games.

The last memory of the 2018-19 Spurs — besides watching Derrick White fight back well-earned tears in his post-game presser after a Game 7 loss — was watching Bryn Forbes (and Rudy Gay) keep the Spurs afloat offensively when the Spurs’ stars had to rely on defensive talent. On that night, it was Forbes who stepped up as a name to remember.

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Christmas is behind us, and gone are the days of Santa Claus. For the Spurs now, the only list that matters is the Bryn Forbes List. And if San Antonio has any hope of digging their way further out of this hole, they’ll have to hope he remake that list — the Forbes List… and check it twice.