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Breaking Down the Spurs’ Backup Small Forward Situation

David Blair/Zumapress/Icon Sportswire

Kawhi Leonard is one of the best players in the NBA. Once you get past Stephen Curry, LeBron James and Kevin Durant, he and a handful of other guys all have an argument for that fourth spot.

But the San Antonio Spurs would probably like a capable small forward to back him up.

Leonard has missed 16 games in each of the past three seasons with a variety of injuries, but the Spurs still don’t have a quality 3 to soften the blow when he’s injured (or even just when he checks out of the game).

Right now, a combination of Kyle Anderson, Rasual Butler and Jonathon Simmons is holding down the fort, but their collective play so far has supported the assertion that San Antonio’s depth behind Kawhi isn’t all that strong. Since all three are capable of filling that role but either haven’t played up to par or just haven’t gotten in the minutes to show their skill, the solution to this problem probably doesn’t require a trade or signing.

San Antonio will likely have to decide on one (possibly two) of the trio as rotation members throughout the season, so let’s examine that situation and decide who has the upper hand.

Before continuing, here’s a statistical comparison to chew on as we go more in-depth on each player:

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Kyle Anderson

The Spurs’ first-round pick in 2014, many saw Anderson as the steal of that draft. He was a projected as a mid-first-rounder but fell to the Spurs at No. 30. Anderson, a smart, unselfish player with great ball-handling ability despite minimal athletic burst, would fit perfectly in San Antonio.

Granted, it’s been just over a full season, but “Slow-Mo” hasn’t quite lived up to expectations.

He spent most of last season playing with the Austin Spurs, San Antonio’s D-League squad, and succeeding there. When he did make it to San Antonio, his playing time was inconsistent, and he wasn’t at all a featured option (13.4 percent usage, an average player reaches 20).

During the 2015 offseason, Anderson won the Las Vegas Summer League MVP for the Spurs’ championship team and looked out of place in a good way among that competition. The 6’9″, 230-pound forward was too tricky with the ball, too skilled in the post for the inexperienced players at Summer League, and he averaged 21 points in 27.3 minutes at Vegas.

So far in 2015-16, however, despite slightly more consistent playing time (he hasn’t racked up a DNP-CD yet), the results have been similar. He’s done a lot of dribbling around trying to make something happen, but he can’t seem to get to the hoop against the athletic, smart defenders of the association. Defensively, poor foot speed spoils his good intentions.

This is an ongoing problem that could end up preventing Anderson from ever becoming an above-average NBA player. Lots of skill with mediocre athleticism usually wins out against tons of athleticism and mediocre skill, but it doesn’t often beat above-average skill with above-average athleticism. The D-League and Summer League features a lot of raw athletes who haven’t fully honed their basketball skills, but the NBA has guys who are both athletic and skilled.

All that said, Anderson is only 22. He has plenty of time to figure out the ins and outs of NBA players to become effective, and he’s in good shape to do so under Gregg Popovich.

Rasual Butler

Butler is a smart defender and has grasped the Spurs’ offensive system rather quickly. Right now, that’s earning him 9.0 minutes per game, as he’s not really hurting San Antonio when he enters the game.

However, he’s a spot-up three-point shooter by trade who isn’t hitting those shots. The 36-year-old has knocked down 5-of-22 shots from downtown, good (or bad) for 22.7 percent. He banked one in from the wing Wednesday night against the Bucks, so that success rate easily be 18.2 percent. There’s really no excuse for all those misses, as 72.7 percent of his attempts have either been open or wide open.

If those shots start falling at a better rate, great, Butler can be very helpful. Until then, though, he doesn’t have a skill that sets him apart from Anderson and Simmons, other than the Spurs-friendly mindset to move the ball around quickly.

Jonathon Simmons

And here’s the wild card.

Simmons is the guy you search for on Twitter a couple times per game (games he plays, at least) to see if anybody has posted a Vine of what he just did. OK, maybe I’m the only one who does that, but my point is this: he’s an insane athlete who makes highlights.


He even made some sweet alley-oop music with Kawhi Wednesday night against the Bucks.

He can’t really shoot, and he may play a bit too aggressively on both ends of the floor for Pop’s liking right now, but the 26-year-old rookie’s potential is obviously greater than Butler’s and probably even better than the considerably younger Anderson.

He provides a different type of excitement for the Spurs reserves, more of a “how did he get that high?” than “what a pass!”

Simmons’ stats have been better than both of his fellow reserve 3s, although, the sample size is an issue. Even though it’s tough to decipher that much from his production in limited minutes, it’s easy to see that this guy is already a very good on-ball defender who can take advantage of open driving lanes on offense. He did those things in the D-League, and now the skills are translating to the NBA.

How Will This Shake Out?

Look at the Spurs’ four main bench players right now: Patty Mills, Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw and David West. That’s a wonderful mix of players to have in your second unit, but it could use some more explosiveness and defense.

Enter Simmons.

He probably will get his share of DNP-CDs for the rest of the first half of the season, but I can definitely see him stepping into that final second unit spot by the time the playoffs roll around. He’ll understand what he can and can’t do on the floor, with Pop’s constant reminders.

Anderson, who likes to handle the ball frequently and isn’t a good defender, may not be the best fit for that group during the 2015-16 season. Once Ginobili retires, I like Slow-Mo as a pseudo point guard for the second unit, with a guy like Simmons playing next to him to cover up his defensive shortcomings. He’s probably best used as a fringe rotation player for the rest of the season, similar to the way he’s currently being used.

Butler is fine, but he doesn’t shore up any of the second unit’s weaknesses that well and doesn’t have much potential to provide more than he does now, except for a few more of his threes dropping. He’ll likely fade into the background throughout the season and into the playoffs, making more of his contributions in the locker room and on the practice floor.

Jonathon Simmons. Remember the name (and its unique spelling).

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