A Stat for Bruce Bowen


In the obituaries written for the career of Bruce Bowen, you were likely to find something along these lines:

Judging by his statistics, Bruce Bowen is not good at anything. And yet, he managed to remain a key contributor in the NBA for more than a dozen seasons.

Seriously, look at his stats…most statistics show that Bruce Bowen contributed nothing to an NBA team.

And this from a well-reasoned article in favor of hoisting Bowen’s jersey high above the AT&T Center floor.

But Bowen is anything but a failed basketball player. Not even the most anti-Spurs cynic would hit him with that label. Instead, traditional box scores fail Bowen.

I was happy to learn of a statistical model which does not fail Bowen.

Steve Ilardi has had my ear (more on this in the coming weeks) of late. In response to my bemoaning the absence of a single measure that communicated Bowen’s actual worth, Ilardi kindly pointed me toward Bruce Bowen’s defensive adjusted plus-minus.

The plus-minus is, cribbing a line from Steve, a “stat [that] simply keeps track of the net changes in score when a given player is either on or off the court.” He continues:

Unfortunately, however, the plus-minus stat doesn’t always fare particularly well in the messy real world of NBA basketball. For one thing, some players spend most of their time on the court in the company of very good teammates, while others frequently play in tandem with much weaker players. The plus-minus stat doesn’t account for these inequities at all. Likewise, some guys always find themselves matched against the opponent’s best players, while others more often face the opposing team’s second unit. That’s another big problem as far as the plus-minus stat is concerned.

Enter the adjusted plus-minus: “it reflects the impact of each player on his team’s bottom line (scoring margin), after controlling statistically for the strength of every teammate and every opponent during each minute he’s on the court.”

Steve Ilardi would know. He helped pioneer the model while on staff with the Kansas Jayhawks. And he’s a contributor to the database at 82games.com.

He wrote this by way of email: “In my latest adjusted plus-minus (APM) model for the 08-09 season, Bowen had…a stellar Defensive APM rating of +4.10 per 100 [possessions].  This placed him among the top handful of perimeter defenders in the league.”

My first thought was great, and, wait, last year? The same year we all filed Bowen into the but-has-lost-a-step folder?

Dr. Ilardi concluded with this postscript:

I just went back and looked at Bowen’s Defensive APM in a six-year average model (all seasons evenly weighted from 2003-2009).  His Defensive APM number of +2.95 was 4th best among perimeter (non-big) starters/high-minute guys over that span.  He only trailed [Ron] Artest (+5.09), [Shane] Battier (+3.92), and (ironically enough) [Manu] Ginobili (+3.24).

  • Rye

    I’m not surprised. Whenever Bowen or Thomas were on the floor last season, particularly in tandem with Duncan, the Spurs often looked elite defensively. I had no statistical data (until now) to back that up, just my own two eyes.

    The whole “Bowen has lost a step” notion was overblown. He may not have been at his absolute peak, but he was still a highly effective defender.

  • Anthony McDonald

    Seriously, who cares about numbers?!? Basketball, and most sports, aren’t about numbers….it’s about the joy we had watching him. Bowen was a pro’s pro. He defensed the Kobe’s, Nash’s and Ray Allen’s of the world. I don’t need a jacked up formula to tell me that he was a game-changer. To me, he should be on the All Spurs First Team…..along with Duncan, Robinson, Parker, Gervin.

  • Pressurez

    Well I’m glad our real defensive stopper should be back fully healed from his ankle injury:)

  • Tim C

    I’d be interested in knowing where RJ ranks on that list. And as Pressurez said, I’m happy to know that our other defensive stopper will be back healthy this season.

  • http://www.48minutesofhell.com Timothy Varner

    Strangely enough, Tim, I was just getting to know DeJuan Blair.

  • http://myspurslink.blogspot.com Robby

    Bowen’s contribution might not reflect the stat sheet. But if watch the Spurs games closely, you will notice how he affects the game on the defensive end.

    He is a great defensive player that sadly didn’t win the DPOY award througout his career… I’d also like to mention on a side note that Duncan has been voted to the All defensive team 12 straight years and yet, he haven’t won the said award…

  • Tim C

    Yeah, I spent the better part of the weekend getting to know him. Just thought I would share. Thanks for reading :)

  • http://www.justyler.blogspot.com JT

    Where’s the stat line for winning over my heart?

  • Crow

    Adjusted +/- helps in understanding performance as a teammate and performance in a role and especially defensive performance.

    Sports without numbers is just motion and hope. Don’t care about the numbers at many levels and in fine detail and at the pro level you leaving a lot of room for stuff that can hurt you. To care about the numbers doesn’t necessary mean staring them all the time and knowing them precisely, and some coaches and GMs don’t as much as I might think they should. But caring about them they do in their own way or at their own peril.

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