By BECKLEY MASON LINK
From The Ny Times NBA Blog- Off the Dribble
Ever since the San Antonio Spurs and Coach Gregg Popovich decided to go all-in on a fast-tempo offense that emphasizes the 3-pointer, the offense has hummed along at incredible efficiency. The one clinking noise ratting around in the otherwise smooth offensive machine has been the dilemma of what to do with the second front court spot. That is, the one not occupied by future hall of famer Tim Duncan.
This season, the Spurs have primarily played Boris Diaw and Tiago Splitter at that position, with DeJuan Blair often starting then playing few minutes after the first quarter. The odd man out has been Matt Bonner, he of limited athleticism and unlimited shooting range.
It’s a curious dynamic, because Bonner would seem to complement the Spurs’ best players so well. Offenses that feature shooting big men are nearly impossible to stop, especially with a speedy point guard like Tony Parker at the helm. And Bonner is actually less of a defensive liability, at least against post players who rely on power, than someone like Steve Novak, who sees more minutes than Bonner while filling a similar role for the Knicks.
This season, the Spurs’ defense has actually been better with Bonner on the court than when he sits, according to the N.B.A.’s statistics site.
Instead, the Spurs have accorded significant minutes to Blair, possibly in an attempt to showcase him for a trade. It’s hard to imagine that Blair’s play has been all that enticing to other clubs. Opposing teams have consistently and productively targeted him in pick-and-rolls, and he doesn’t do enough on offense, where he’s a decent rebounder and that’s about it, to make up for his defensive shortcomings.
However much Blair is playing now, it’s unlikely that he factors seriously into the long-range plans of the Spurs this season. Splitter, a competent player on both ends with real size, remains the conventional choice to receive the most minutes as the Spurs near and then enter the playoffs. The real question is how much the Spurs can get out of Boris Diaw.
Diaw, hypothetically, offers much of the same offensive dynamism as Bonner, though with the added benefit of deft feet on defense. But in reality, Diaw is often an offensive nonentity. He has a bad habit of pump-faking a 3-pointer when there is no one around him and the right decision is to just hoist up a long one.
It’s a fake that only dupes the most gullible defenders because it doesn’t much resemble his actual shot, so it isn’t convincing, and no one thinks he’s going to shoot it anyway. So despite an excellent 42 percent average from deep, Diaw shoots fewer than two 3’s per 36 minutes, about three times fewer than Bonner. For all his shortcomings, Bonner is actually rebounding better than Diaw, too.
Data tracking Bonner’s combinations with the Spurs top three players are off the charts. They’ve only played together for 66 minutes this year, but when Parker and Bonner play together the Spurs outscore their opponents by a ridiculous 26.3 points per 48 minutes. So it’s not clear why, exactly, he gets so few minutes from a coach so attuned to the needs of his team.
The answer might come from last year’s playoffs. After playing 50 minutes in the first three games against Oklahoma City, including 24 in Game 3, Bonner essentially couldn’t get on the floor. He played a total of three minutes the rest of the series as Oklahoma City overwhelmed the Spurs with snappy ball movement and pressure defense.
Perhaps Popovich looks into his team’s future and sees a collision with the Thunder juggernaut to the north. Or he might want to stow Bonner away and surprise teams with him in the playoffs. There are definitely lineups, even against the Thunder, in which Bonner can be useful.
When the Thunder play Kevin Durant at small forward, Bonner can do damage from beyond the arc just like Shane Battier did in the Finals, when Serge Ibaka repeatedly abandoned him to help on penetration from Dwyane Wade and LeBron James.
Splitter, with his size and two-way competency, will no doubt command the most minutes alongside Duncan throughout the season and playoffs. But the Spurs need a player like Bonner to keep the floor spaced for Ginobili and Parker. Maybe that player can be Diaw, should Diaw suddenly become more aggressive when he has the chance to shoot. Or maybe Stephen Jackson will return from injury and play heavy minutes as a stretch four.
Whatever his plan, it’s certainly strange that Popovich has hidden Bonner the way he has this year. It’s the kind of decision that, from a less respected coach, would do more than raise eyebrows. But his legacy of unconventionality demands we wait for him to continue tinkering, and assume that it’s all for good reason.