The Spurs Starting Bryn Forbes is a Failed Experiment

Bryn Forbes is a great story. After being undrafted out of Michigan State, he averaged 2.6 points as a rookie back in the 2016-17 season. Today, after thousands of hours of hard work, he’s the third leading scorer on the San Antonio Spurs, averaging 14.3 points in 27.3 minutes per game. He’s a legitimately good basketball player but, that said, it’s becoming painfully obvious that his presence in the starting lineup is hurting the Spurs much more than it is helping.

The problems with starting Forbes begin on the defensive end. At 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds, he’s overwhelmed by opposing shooting guards each and every night. While there’s plenty of footage of Forbes getting scored on by talented guards — including last game out when CJ McCollum of the Portland Trail Blazers went for 32 points and seven assists — what has really stood out this year is that virtually everyone he defends attacks him without an ounce of fear.

As an example, here’s Dillon Brooks of the Memphis Grizzlies. A run of the mill 6-foot-6 starting shooting guard, Brooks goes through Forbes like he’s not even there.

In both instances against Brooks, Forbes is in good position, he’s adequately physical and he’s doing everything by the book. But it didn’t matter. Forbes simply wasn’t big enough. And, unfortunately, opponents have figured that out. The scouting report is to go right at Forbes because not only is he undersized, he lacks vertical explosion and he doesn’t have a notable wingspan.

To put it bluntly, Forbes doesn’t have the physical tools to survive on the defensive end against starting caliber players. And with the rest of the league noticing, it’s becoming more and more of a problem for the Spurs.

Impact of Bryn Forbes and his Lack of Defense

In theory, with Forbes starting next to Dejounte Murray, San Antonio could simply have Forbes defend the other team’s weakest guard. However, that doesn’t work in reality because Forbes isn’t quick enough to stay with the vast majority point guards. Moreover, Forbes can rarely switch with DeMar DeRozan because his small frame makes it impossible for him to defend any of the league’s forwards.

While Gregg Popovich knows a thing or two about defensive schemes, there are no schemes that can cover for the opposition headhunting and picking on Forbes to get uncontested shots. He’s the weakest link in the chain and most nights that chain is bound to break if all that is needed to break it is direct pressure.

Looking at the statistics, Forbes’ defensive shortcomings stick out like a sore thumb. When he’s on the court, opponents score 116.3 points per 100 possessions — far and away the worst mark on the team. When he’s on the bench, opponents score 103.4 points per 100 possessions. Stated differently, the Spurs operate like a top ten defense in the NBA when Forbes is on the bench but become the worst defensive team in the league when Forbes is on the court.

Last season told a similar story. When Forbes was on the court, the Spurs allowed 110.2 points per 100 possessions. When he was on the bench, that number fell to 107.0. Beyond his defensive rating, other advanced stats don’t take kindly to Forbes’ defense. His defensive real plus-minus last year was -1.75, placing him 83rd out of 101 shooting guards. DRAYMOND, 538’s new defensive metric, evaluated Forbes’ defense last season as the worst on the Spurs and 20th worst in the league.

Bryn Forbes’ Offensive Offense

This writeup wouldn’t be worth putting together to simply state Forbes is a bad defensive player. That should be pretty obvious to anyone who has watched him play.

The bigger problem is Forbes just doesn’t help out offensively as much as it would seem. Given the lack of shooting the Spurs have had at their disposal this year and last year, Forbes’ presence would help the spacing and create scoring opportunities for others, right? It makes sense but there’s no proof that’s actually the case.

This season, the Spurs score 103.6 points per 100 possessions when Forbes is on the court, by far the worst rate of any player on the team. When Forbes is sitting on the bench, the Spurs score 114.8 points per 100 possessions. Again, to state differently, the Spurs go from a top five worst offense when Forbes is on the court to the best offense in the league when he’s resting on the sidelines.

Last season, it was similar. When Forbes was on the court, the Spurs scored 109.9 points per 100 possessions, the lowest mark of anyone on the team who played at least 1,000 minutes. 

Pinpointing why the offense struggles when Forbes is in the game isn’t as simple as explaining his defensive porosity. However, there are a few things to point to in order to explain it. Firstly, due to his size, teams can sag off of him and recover to contest his shot, so in actuality he doesn’t spread the court as much as his shooting stats would indicate. Watch closely and you’ll notice teams don’t need to pay as much attention to Forbes as they did proven floor spacers of yesteryear like, say, Davis Bertans and Matt Bonner. 

Secondly, Forbes needs screens in order to create shooting opportunities. While that can result in points for him, it also takes teammates out of position, stops any free-flowing ball movement and doesn’t spread the court in any traditional sense.

Beyond those first two points, we could argue that he’s a well below average passer for a guard, so that lack of playmaking hurts the offense. When he gets a pick, it’s rarely to create for others. We could also point to the shots he attempts in transition that no one else on the team has free license to shoot. Is the rhythm-breaking nature of those shots more detrimental than meets the eye?

Even if we can’t pinpoint exactly why Forbes hurts the offense, it’s becoming clear that he does. Two seasons of the Spurs scoring their fewest points when Forbes is on the court is too much to overlook, especially since the reason he’s on the court in the first place is to help the Spurs put the ball in the basket.

Bryn Forbes Dragging Down Others

Considering the Spurs are the worst defensively when Forbes is on the court and the worst offensively when Forbes is on the court, it’s no surprise that his backcourt mates are struggling when he’s on the court — but the numbers are still illuminating.

When Murray plays with Forbes, the Spurs are outscored by 10.1 points per 100 possessions. When Murray is in without Forbes, the Spurs outscore opponents by 11.9 points — a 22-point swing. With Derrick White and Forbes together, the Spurs are outscored by 14.5 points per 100 possessions. Without Forbes, White and the Spurs outscore opponents by 8.6 points — a 23.1-point swing. Patty Mills goes from being outscored with Forbes by 26.2 points to outscoring opponents by 15.0 points — a 41.2-point swing.

Another way to look at it is to take a peek at Murray’s individual production. With Forbes on the court, one would assume Murray would find more room to operate and thus be more productive. But that’s simply not the case. Per 36 minutes, Murray averages 22.8 points and 11.1 assists with Forbes off the court. With Forbes by his side, Murray’s per 36 minutes numbers plummet to 15.6 points and 6.7 assists. White’s individual numbers also crater when Forbes is on the court.

What Should the Spurs Do with Bryn Forbes?

In a different universe, the Spurs could try to move DeRozan for an All-World defensive player who could try to fortify the defense even when Forbes is on the court. The problem is that in this universe, there’s no proof that Forbes helps on the offensive side of the court so it’d be foolish to go out of your way to try to accomodate the idea of Forbes as a starter. 

I don’t see any alternative other than to send Forbes to the bench. My preference would be to start White but I can see Pop’s hesitancy to start both point guards while Murray is on a minutes restriction. So, while I never thought I’d advocate this, I think starting Mills over Forbes is a step in the right direction.

At least with Mills, he is quick enough to competently defend a certain segment of the point guard population in the NBA. Murray, in this alignment, would mostly defend shooting guards. And if you remember correctly, in the 2017-18 season, Murray and Mills started quite a bit next to each other and the results were somewhat promising, as that pairing outscored opponents by 5.1 points per 100 possessions.

And obviously I wouldn’t be a Spurs fan if I didn’t mention the name Lonnie Walker IV at this point of the writeup. Before taking a deeper dive into this situation, I would have hesitated nominating Walker due to his questionable outside shooting touch. But considering that there’s little proof that Forbes does much spreading of the floor, I can no longer make the case that Walker’s possible lack of shooting is a legitimate concern. 

Off the bench, there’s a decent to good chance Forbes won’t hurt the team as much. He might actually help the team, even. Put him in a situation where he’s defending bench guards and is the recipient of the bench unit’s ball movement and he could thrive.

So, What Will Pop Do?

Pop has been effusive with his praise for Forbes so I’m not too hopeful he’s going to make the right move anytime soon. We’ve seen Pop yank Murray after a turnover and sit White due to passive play but Forbes getting reprimanded is rare by comparison. 

Even outsiders are more apt to criticize and lay blame at the feet of DeRozan for his lack of three-point shooting and LaMarcus Aldridge for his erratic play.

In a way, it’d be easier if the solution to solve what has caused the Spurs to lose five straight games would be to trade away DeRozan or Aldridge — or bench Trey Lyles or even Murray. But if Forbes is the problem like I think is the case, I’m worried that Pop and the rest of the coaches won’t figure it out in time to save the season.

Forbes being a failed experiment as a starter is San Antonio’s inconvenient truth and doesn’t fit with any of the popular narratives about what ails the Spurs. On the surface, he looks like a good fit in the starting lineup. The truth, however, is that Forbes starting is the leading problem.