SAN ANTONIO — In perhaps the most surprising move of the offseason for the San Antonio Spurs, they brought back a familiar face in Bryn Forbes.
Spurs fans will recall that an undrafted Forbes stood out for San Antonio in Summer League in 2016 with his ability to knock down the three-ball, and the Michigan State product was able to develop that skill in the G League when it was still the D League, eventually carving out an NBA role as a sniper.
Forbes started 143 of the 145 games that he played in his last two campaigns for the Spurs, and in the 2018-19 season he played more minutes than every Spur whose name wasn’t DeMar or LaMarcus. While he did his job and hit 40% from deep, it became clear that Forbes’ lackluster defense was a weak point for the starting unit.
Every NBA team should have exactly one player whose entire job is to come off the bench and drain threes, and as long as there's just one of those guys playing a limited role, the team defense should be able to survive over the course of a 48-minute contest. Unfortunately for Forbes, he was thrust into a role that exposed his defense more, and he shared the rotation with Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli who both did the same job and had the same weakness.
San Antonio’s defense suffered for it and many fans soured on Forbes, but the injuries, roster management, and lineup decisions that put him out on a limb were beyond his control. When the Spurs went to the bubble in Orlando, Forbes was replaced in the starting lineup and left on the bench while Gregg Popovich gave other players more opportunity.
After the bubble, Forbes left San Antonio and signed a deal with the Milwaukee Bucks.
In Milwaukee last year, Forbes averaged 19 minutes mostly coming off the bench. He was at his best in his ideal role as a reserve shooter, averaging 10 points per game while hitting 47% from the floor and 45% from three, both career highs. He was the fourth-most accurate shooter in the league last season.
Playing in his optimized role, Forbes increased his shooting efficiency so much that he nearly matched his career-high scoring average despite seeing his minutes cut by almost a third. His defense is still about the same, but coming off the bench he didn’t have to try to guard top-tier backcourt players.
Last season Forbes attempted the fewest two-point shots since his rookie year, but hit a career-high 51% of those attempts and looked more comfortable than he ever has off the dribble.
His three-point shot forces defenders to guard him closely several feet behind the arc, and almost 65% of his shot attempts last season came from at least 24 feet away from the basket. Forbes did a decent job leveraging that last year using quick fakes to attack closeouts, and when he got into the paint he finished with solid touch on his floater and even euro-stepped around a few defenders.
In the playoffs, Forbes absolutely lit up the Miami Heat in the first series, notching two games with 22 points and hitting 16/33 from deep in the four games. In the next series in Brooklyn he played over 21 minutes in each of the first two losses, and that was the last time he played more than 15.
Phoenix did a good job of targeting Forbes in pick and roll during the Finals, seeking him out punishing his defense. He played 12 minutes in Game 1, 10 minutes combined in the next two games, and then didn’t see the floor in the last three contests.
The Bucks won the title and Forbes won a ring after arguably the best season of his career. Nobody can take that away from him, and those who try based on the fact that Mike Budenholzer shortened his rotation in the Finals are missing the point entirely. Milwaukee won a championship because they surrounded a generational talent in Giannis Antetokounmpo with the best players to maximize his skills, and Forbes played his role to perfection on the way.
Giannis assisted on 58 of Bryn’s made baskets, and many were as simple as handing him the ball beyond the arc and watching it arc in.
Forbes had another year left on his deal with Milwaukee if he chose to take it, but he opted out instead and returned to San Antonio.
"This is like my second home," Forbes said in a video released by the team when he signed. "It feels good to be back in the organization I started with, and learned a lot from, and part of what helped me grow in so many ways, not just in basketball but in life. I'm just excited to get back to it and get back to work with these guys, and try to do some good stuff."
According to Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News, Forbes’ young children stayed in San Antonio while their dad was working toward an NBA championship. He joins a long list of players who love this city enough to put down roots here.
The Spurs’ roster that Forbes is returning to looks very different than the one he started 81 games for just two years ago. DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rudy Gay, Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli are all gone as the organization has fully embraced the youth movement. At 28, Forbes is one of the older players on the roster. He’ll be the only guy in the locker room with a ring. At the same time, he has tremendous familiarity with the players who are still here in San Antonio.
"Experience is a big thing. I started with Dejounte, Derrick was here the next year, played a few years with Jakob. Left and saw some things, saw what it took to get to a championship. I think that experience is something I'm gonna be able to take on with me and hopefully be able to give to our team and the young guys."
Nobody would say that Forbes led Milwaukee to a title because that isn’t what role players do. However, it’s inarguable that his year up north was productive, meaningful, and full of lessons that he can bring back home to San Antonio.
Perhaps the most important thing everyone has learned about Bryn Forbes over the last several years of his career is what he is and what he isn’t. At this point, there’s enough evidence to say that he is not an NBA starter, and should not be deployed as such. However, he absolutely is a high-level sniper off the bench, and that role is nothing to sneeze at.
Spurs fans worried that Forbes will be recast in a leading role for this team should rest easy. It would take a series of serious injuries for him to become an emergency starter, and it would be shocking if he got more minutes than Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, and Lonnie Walker IV, who have all continued to improve.
Forbes will almost certainly play a role similar to the one he played in Milwaukee: come off the bench, shoot the lights out, and guard lesser opponents. It’s the role he was born to play and the role that Patty Mills vacated this summer.
San Antonio was among the worst teams in the league last season in terms of three-point attempts and accuracy, and Forbes’ only job will be to help in that regard. It would be surprising if he didn’t do that job at a high level.