Getting Spurs’ Ford in gear might signal shuffling

By Jeff McDonald

The playmaking guard is on the mend, ready to soon resume his place in the Spurs’ rotation after being out since early January.

His coaches are excited, because he brings a dynamic few others on the team possess. He is a player with eyes in the back of his head, a Mensa-level basketball IQ and the enjoyable propensity to thread passes through the eye of a needle.

Manu Ginobili? Well, yes.

But also T.J. Ford.

“I can’t wait for T.J. to get back to 100 percent,” reserve guard Gary Neal said of the Spurs’ backup point man. “That’s a lot of open shots for me.”

It also could mean fewer minutes for Neal, but more on that later.

Tonight against Denver, Ginobili is likely — though not guaranteed — to reboot his season after a second stint on the injured list. His strained oblique has healed, and he’s been practicing at full tilt since the All-Star break ended.

Ford has played two games since missing 24 with a torn left hamstring suffered Jan. 10 in Milwaukee. His return to full strength could cause coach Gregg Popovich to reshuffle his second unit.

Reintegrating Ginobili back into the rotation is a no-brainer. Finding time for Ford, at the expense of other reserves who have been playing well, will be Popovich’s challenge over the season’s final two months.

“We’ve been playing a different way without him,” Popovich said. “It’s always an adjustment to see if you want to change that willy-nilly.”

The Spurs signed Ford to a one-year veteran minimum deal in December with designs on giving him all the available minutes at backup point guard.

Through the first two weeks of the season, it seemed to be working out. A pass-first distributor whose unselfishness fueled the offense for the Spurs’ second unit, Ford — a former college player of the year at Texas — seemed content to find everyone else for open jumpers and layups.

“I think we had a nice little chemistry before I got injured,” Ford said. “I’ve got the concept of the offense. I know where everyone is supposed to be.”

When Ford limped off the floor in Milwaukee, it pressed Neal — a shooting guard by trade — into duty as Tony Parker’s primary backup.

Though it isn’t his natural position, Neal manned the point admirably, and even developed some Ford-like ESP with center Tiago Splitter on the pick-and-roll.

Ford’s return, in theory, could eat into some of Neal’s minutes at point guard. Ginobili’s impending comeback will place a premium on everyone else’s minutes on the wing.

Popovich certainly isn’t going to complain about finally getting guys healthy. But it does create quite a rotation puzzle going forward.

“When somebody comes back, it always changes the dynamic, and you don’t know how it’s going to change it,” Popovich said.

“There’s no right or wrong. You’ve just got to feel it and see what the circumstances are each night.”

Neal looks at the upcoming competition for minutes, behind both Ginobili and Parker, as a positive development.

“When you get your chance, you’re going to have to play great to stay in the game, because we have so many good guards,” Neal said.

Ford’s return hasn’t quite created a rotational ripple effect yet. Still searching for basketball shape, Ford logged eight minutes against Chicago and 16 against Charlotte.

In the blowout win over the Bobcats, Ford scored seven points, made all three field goals, had three assists but — in a testament to his rustiness — committed three turnovers.

“My job is to allow other guys to make plays,” Ford said. “It’s not about me making plays. My role is to control the second unit and make sure we’re productive for the time we’re out there.”

What that second unit ultimately looks like is a matter to be determined over the next few months.
Twitter: @JMcDonald_SAEN

Leave a Reply