Statistically, San Antonio Spurs Forward Matt Bonner Is Vital to Success


Matt Bonner is beloved by some and merely tolerated by others.  Fans of Bonner cross the borders of the NBA and into pop culture.  He recently had a comic book dedicated to his exploits as superhero The Red Mamba, and his YouTube Web Series, The Sandwich Hunter, is becoming a staple for San Antonio Spurs fans.

However Bonner, a 10-year NBA veteran, eight with the Spurs, has puzzled modern NBA enthusiasts that value athleticism over fundamentals.

In an NBA sanctioned one-on-one tournament, Matt Bonner would undoubtedly be bounced first.  Imagine a scenario where Bonner drew Russell Westbrook in the first round of said tournament.  The question isn’t if Bonner would win, we need to question if he would even score.  It’s a good thing that the NBA isn’t a one-on-one league.

In last year’s Western Conference playoffs, Bonner averaged only 6:02 minutes per game.  However, when the Spurs lined up against the reigning NBA Champion Miami Heat in the Finals, we saw Popovich inserting three-point specialist into the lineup for significant stretches, increasing his average in the final three games to 8:38 minutes.

In the opening game of the 2014-2015 season, Spurs-fans saw Matt Bonner get the start in the center position alongside the frontcourt stalwart Tim Duncan.

Assuredly, Bonner would not have been in that position had Tiago Splitter been available.

True, Bonner is a situational starter, but could the Spurs benefit from him playing more minutes at either the center or power forward position?

For whatever reason it seems when Bonner plays, at any length of time, the team wins.

The plus/minus is used to evaluate a player’s performance by measuring the overall team’s point differential when that player is participating in the game.

The plus/minus statistic is my favorite in all of sport.  No other stat shows the pure impact a player has on his team more than the plus/minus.

By attributing a metric to the point-value of a player while on the court analysts can get right down to answering the core question: Can a team be of a greater value than the sum of its parts?

An individual does not have to directly score points to have an impact on the game, and the plus/minus accounts for that.  If Manu Ginobili enters a game and scores eight points in ten minutes, the plus/minus of the other four on-court players is impacted, as they contributed to the successful run.

In recent years ESPN has taken the statistic to another by branding the Real Plus/Minus, or RPM, statistic.  This stat involves several factors to help normalize data in the traditional plus/minus system, including the prior-year’s data, that give a truer result than previous versions of the plus/minus.

The Spurs have long since adopted the model of surrounding an immovable core with great role players.  Perhaps the personification of ‘role-player’ is our subject, Matt Bonner.  He knows his, and plays it to perfection.

For Bonner, his 2013-2014 RPM is 2.77.  To state it simply, Matt Bonner gets it done.

Perhaps the threat of Bonner’s shooting range is a cause for concern with opposing power forwards and centers, pulling them away from the basket allowing for penetration by other Spurs.

Defensively, in spot duty, Bonner is great value for the Spurs.  He always plays the non-traditional big man tough, similar to former spur Bruce Bowen who seemed to live inside the jerseys his opponents, for example the season opener where Matt Bonner started to match up early against Dirk Nowitzki.

For whatever reason it seems when Bonner plays, at any length of time, the team wins.

Bonner stacks up well against his contemporaries, and better than one may think, certainly better than I before this study.  An arguable list of combination players similar to Bonner’s position is, in no particular order:

  1. Matt Bonner (SAS): 2.77 RPM
  2. Zach Randolph (MEM): 2.09 RPM
  3. Jimmy Butler (CHI): 2.13 RPM
  4. Pau Gasol (CHI): 1.04 RPM
  5. Al Horford (ATL): 1.50 RPM
  6. Dirk Nowitzki (DAL): 6.35 RPM
  7. Chris Bosh (MIA): 3.18 RPM
  8. Tim Duncan (SAS): 5.33 RPM

In fact, his 2013-2014 RPM is higher than both Tony Parker (2.71) and Boris Diaw (1.95).

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The RPM really shows Bonner’s value to the Spurs, and puts his performance in context when shown against the rest of the NBA landscape.

In the ESPN RPM rankings, Bonner ranks 51st against the entire NBA in RPM.  While not a complete detailed analysis of every facet of an NBA player’s contribution, the statistic is an excellent summary.

I wouldn’t consider this column as the start of a petition for more minutes for Matt Bonner (seriously, Popovich wouldn’t consider a petition).  However, in this age of advanced analytics, and a dissection of a player’s worth, we should be careful not to overlook the true player value statistic of plus/minus.  Clearly, Popovich knows the value of Matt Bonner to the San Antonio Spurs, and in this case the numbers back him up.