Bruce Bowen: Myth vs. Reality

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In the lead up to nearly every Lakers-Spurs game, I get the same question from countless people: How are the Spurs going to stop Kobe Bryant now that Bruce Bowen is no longer as effective as he used to be? This question is based off of two myths: Once upon a time Bowen actually shut down Kobe and Bowen has declined significantly, particularly since last season. Neither of these are true. Yes, Bowen has managed to slow Kobe at points over the years but his defensive style has never proven able to stop the black mamba consistently. And yes, Bowen lacks the lateral quickness he once had, but his speed hasn’t changed drastically since last season. The difference between Bowen in 07-08 and this season has more to do with Popovich’s increased focus on offensive consistency than it does Bowen’s continued decline.

Before we move into the highly discussed Bowen-Kobe rivalry, let’s pinpoint the current state of Bowen’s defensive abilities. At 37 years old, Bowen is undoubtedly in the winter of his career. Since joining the Spurs in the 01-02 season, Bowen started in every game in which he played before this year. During the Spurs’ early season struggles, Popovich moved Bowen to the bench and decreased his minutes significantly (Bowen averages 27.8 minutes a game for his career but earns just under 20 minutes a game this season). Given Popovich’s preference for veteran players (a tendency that has led him to continue to utilize several players far past their prime), Pop’s decreased utilization of Bowen suggests Bruce must really have slid a peg or two.

But plenty of data (as well as the plain old tactic of trusting one’s eyes) suggests otherwise. Bowen is most often used in the 4th most common 5-man unit deployed by Popovich. The four other men he most often plays with are Matt Bonner, Michael Finley, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. It’s important to note that of the other four, two are generally regarded as defensive liabilities, particularly for the Spurs’ standards. Of the five most common units, this group of players has the strongest defensive efficiency rating: 87.3. In fact, the second best defensive unit the Spurs deploy has a defensive efficiency rating nearly ten points higher. To put that rating in perspective, the best defensive team in the NBA, the Cleveland Cavaliers, has a defensive efficiency rating of 98.4.

The fact of the matter is, Matt Bonner and Michael Finley aren’t lockdown defenders. And although Duncan and Parker are both known as good defenders (Duncan is more accurately described as a “great” defender), they can be found on the Spurs unit with the worst defensive efficiency as well. Like it or not, Bowen’s presence on the court remains a (if not the) key factor in the Spurs having a good defense versus having a great defense.

If statistics don’t convince you, use the good old eyes God gave you. When Bowen comes into the game, opposing offenses have a tendency to lose steam and lose it fast. Throughout the season Bowen has successfully executed masterful defensive performances time and time again. My favorite was our double overtime victory over the Mavericks on December 9th. During his 27 minutes on the court (many of which came in overtime), Bowen covered everyone from J.J. Barea to Jason Terry to Dirk Nowitzki. And as he traveled from average scorer to mortal scorer to surreal scorer, his effectiveness ballooned ever greater.

If Bowen remains such a potent defensive force than why has Popovich decreased his minutes so significantly? Well, two reasons. The first is that little number I mentioned earlier: 37. Bowen is borderline psychotic about his conditioning but no workout regimen can bring the biological clock to a screeching halt. If Popovich wants Bowen to continue to be as effective as he once was, he realizes Bruce has to be used in an increasingly surgical manner.

The second reason has a lot to do with the Lakers, actually. After a 4-1 thumping in last year’s Western Conference Finals, everyone understood that the Spurs needed some tweaking if they were going to sneak past LA this season. The most decisive “tweak” Popovich made was to use more offensive minded 5-man units a greater percentage of the time. By replacing Finley with Mason, Bowen with Finley, and Oberto with Bonner, Popovich sacrificed defensive ability for offensive output at 3 of the 5 starting positions.

As I’ve said repeatedly, I think this is the right strategy. No matter what point of decline you think Bowen may be at, it is clear this team is no longer the defensive juggernaut we once were. We may still be one of the top 5 defensive teams in the league but we do not possess the talent to stop the Lakers entirely; our best hope is to slow them down. But in order for the Spurs to win a 7 game series against the Lake Show (or at least stand a better chance than last season), we have to show more offensive consistency than we did in ’08. I often complain about the awful droughts the Spurs’ offense suffered last season. The Spurs cannot sacrifice an entire quarter of offensive output and expect to outscore LA over the course of 48 minutes. By leaving more shooters and less stoppers on the floor, Pop is giving us a better chance to upset Los Angeles.

The funny thing about our inability to stop the Lakers completely: It has far less to do with Kobe Bryant than you think. Yes Kobe is one of the most potent scoring threats of this or any generation. But that was true in the heyday of the Spurs dynasty. The difference in the Lakers then and the Lakers now has all to do with their depth and little to do with their superstar (It’s not so difficult for Kobe to be less selfish when he has justifiably more faith in the guys he is passing to). Which brings me to the second myth: Once upon a time Bruce shut down Kobe.

Bowen has a very particular defensive style. He never focused on blocks or steals. His entire goal was to limit a player’s options. Every player has options: He can pass to one of his many teammates. He can drive to the basket with either hand. He can shoot at several different points on the floor. Every player prefers certain of these options over others. Bowen’s entire goal is to get you to choose the option you’d least prefer, or at least eliminate the option you’d most prefer. If you are a mediocre mid-range shooter who prefers finishing at the rim, Bowen will give you just enough room to where you feel comfortable giving your underwhelming jumper a try. If you prefer to catch and shoot, Bowen will make it damn near impossible for you to get your hands on the ball in the first place (see his masterful defense of Peja Stojakovic in the ’08 Western Conference Semi-Finals for further evidence).

But if you are Kobe Bryant, there are two problems: Your options are nearly limitless and although some may be inferior to others, none are really that bad. My description of this style of defense and the problem Kobe poses to it may remind you of something; it is fundamentally the same defensive approach described in Michael Lewis’ much discussed New York Times piece, The No-Stats All-Star. Despite the praise heaped on Shane Battier and his defensive acumen, yesterday’s box score from the Lakers-Rockets game tells a slightly different story.

My point is that some players possess enough skill that, when at the peak of their careers, they cannot be stopped. Everyone has bad nights. Some days Kobe’s fadeaway just isn’t falling. Some days Duncan’s bank shots just keep popping off the rim. It is not immediately clear that these off days are the by-product of a defensive plan well executed. Sometimes they may be. But those games occur against Portland and Sacramento only slightly less frequently than they occur against Cleveland or Boston. And in reality, they don’t occur that frequently at all, no matter the opponent. I would argue that there is no strategy that can undoubtedly stop an immortal scorer when he is at his finest. I’ll have you note that, for all the recognition Battier has received since the publication of Lewis’ article, the piece ends with Kobe nailing a 3-pointer to win the game.

This all brings us back to Bowen: Although Bowen’s style is the most versatile defensive approach in basketball, it may not actually be the best against Kobe Bryant. Despite whatever cracks you may make about his being a cheap player, Bowen is not actually a very physical defender. He tries his hardest to limit your options without using contact to do so, realizing a smart player can easily transform even the slightest contact into a trip to the line. But this allows Kobe too much space to get comfortable. A gruff, foul prone defender like Ron Artest may be better suited to slow down Kobe; there is a chance the frequent contact will cause Kobe to lose his mental edge. There is also a chance it’ll piss him off and he’ll drop 50 on you. But that’s what you’ve got to realize when you are covering Kobe Bryant: You are playing a game of chance and Bryant’s the house. And you know what they say about the house.

  • micheal slack

    great article, i really enjoyed reading it and couldnt agree more with what you wrote

  • Oscar

    Good piece and analysis on Bowen’s defensive styles and tactics. It makes me wonder on the progress San Antonio has made in its hopeful attempt at cloning a new Bowen in Udoka, since Udoka has been getting more and more minutes and is obviously in Pop’s plans to use throughout the playoffs. If consistent, and with realistic improvement, where do you think Udoka’s ceiling would be? Is he more of a Bowen, Battier, or Artests type defender? Will he ever be consistent offensively? I know it’s a Bowen blog, but Bowen is just so consistent and effective at what he does, (as your article describes) that he doesn’t worry me at all.

  • mike

    great article

  • ThatBigGuy

    Great article. Bowen has been one of my favorite players during his tenure with the team. MANY times he would get the better of my roommate’s favorite players and they would moan and complain about bad shooting nights or dirty play, but I didn’t have to say anything because we got the W. He’s in my top 10 list of favorite Spurs of all times. Between his ultimate professionalism on the court and generosity off the court, he will always be one of my favorite people and players.

    On the topic of him slowing down, I agree completely with the idea of Pop using him as a surgical instrument. That’s the definition I’ve been searching for in my head for a couple weeks. Note that his +/- is usually twice as good as other players with his average minutes.

    As far as Bowen being a Kobe stopper…remember when Reuben Patterson played for the Blazers and claimed he was the Kobe Stopper? Kobe then single-handedly smashed the Blazers in an opening round series. Cookie Cutter Sideline Reporter A got a hold of Bowen, who was in his defensive prime, and asked him is he was a Kobe Stopper. Bowen kinda grinned and said, “No one can stop Kobe. Just call me the Kobe Perturber.”

    Great guy.

  • Juan

    Nice. This season I only hear games on radio and follow them on GameCast-like applications. I was afraid that Bowen was finally had hit the wall and dropped his performance significantly. I hope is not just optimism from you and he actually can give us a defensive edge we seem to have lost this year.

  • sunbomb

    Now that sir, is a great article and a great read.

  • Tim

    Awesome article!

  • D Counts

    “Bruce has to be used in an increasingly surgical manner.”
    That was an awsome way to describe Bowens reduced playing time this year. Great article!!

  • Rick

    Even being a diehard Lakers fan, this is an extremely well-written analysis. Unfortunately, in many games, “Edward Scissorshands” has shut down Kobe and killed the Lakers shooting the trey. Once a defender gets in Kobe’s face as does Bowen, it becomes a personal challenge to Kobe; that’s when he is at his worst, hoisting up the bad shots. All I can say is that I will be happy when Bowen does slow down or retire.

  • Simon

    Unbelievable post, just a great read – thanks, and keep them coming.

  • Martin

    Rick, it’s true that Bowen had some good defensive games against Bryant earlier in Bryant’s career. However, Bryant also had some monster games against the Spurs. And for the past four or five years, Kobe has been annihilating Bowen on a regular basis. Look at Kobe’s scoring average against the Spurs for the past couple years.

  • dach

    one thing that kobe has never done is bitch about bowen being “dirty” like so many other star players… he always seemed to relish the challenge that bowen gave him…

  • ruth bader ginobili

    Graydon, what do you see Bruce’s minutes at for the playoffs? In the ’07 title run, he’d often play 40+ in close games. Can he be a good defender at that volume this year?

    Hope TNT does those website cameras again. I loved the feed that focused on Bruce chasing Kobe last spring.

  • Rodrigo

    Great article… throughout the years Bruce has been one of my favorite players in the league… and btw i don’t think he has slowed a bit… it’s just Pop being cautions willing to have his cup full for the playoffs when D will win the games… the development of the scoring should be whole by then…

  • ytb

    Love your last line! Great read.

  • Benjamin

    Whoever the author is………you have fabulous writing ability and analysis of the facts. Greatly enjoyable piece no matter whose team one is a fan of (Spurs fan here.)

  • http://www.48minutesofhell.com Graydon Gordian

    Ruth Bader Ginobili,

    Honestly, I’m not sure how many minutes Bowen is capable of. It’s completely possible Pop has been resting him so he can use him for long stretches during the playoffs. But if I had to guess, I think Bowen will see a similar amount of minutes as well as the same type of minutes, regardless of how many he could be playing.

    I say that because, as I mention above, Pop has been running with more offensively oriented units for the first 3 quarters but often puts our stoppers in to close out the game. For instance Hill has recently seen less minutes overall but more during the 4th. Similarly Bowen has played an awful lot of his minutes this season during the fourth quarter.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if, during the playoffs, you saw a lot of late game scenarios with the big three, Mason and Bowen on the floor: Three shot creators, one pure shooter, and one stopper. It’s a small lineup but if the regular season is any indication, Popovich has a new found affinity for small ball.

    Also, Congrats on having one of the better commenter names I’ve ever seen.

  • Krista

    I get tired of people saying Bowen is dirty, especially since, as you point out, he is not a physical defender.

    When I was a kid, after constant fighting with my sister on long road trips, my mom would finally tell us to sit still and not to touch each other. So, I would just point at my sister. Knowing full well it drove her nuts. She’d complain, but my mom said point back. My sister knew it didn’t bother me and would just sulk.

    Bowen is a pointer. And opponents who complain are like my sister was. They can’t annoy him back so they want the refs to stop him. Kobe doesn’t care if Bowen points. Bowen doesn’t get down when Kobe scores. He just keeps playing and gets his finger ready.

  • Duncan

    spurs are not a dynasty. they win when they can: lock-out season, crook referee. they couldn’t win back to back, they’re a “win when we can” team

  • McShane

    Did you read the article on Battier? Its entire premise was that Battier plays by probabilities and is mostly unselfish. And as we all know, winning or losing one game is hardly enough to support meaningful statistical conclusions – and one player still has to rely on his team to get results anyway.

    And on Kobe being the house – you’ve heard of counting cards, right? There are ways to improve your chances, but unlike gambling in a casino, the other team can improve their chances as well.

    McShane – Spurs Fan.

  • ChillFAN

    Great article, thanks.
    What was difficult watch was that Kobe was not needed for most of the game, he could sit or defer to teamates scoring.
    Conventional wisdom says, force the ball to the lesser players, even if it means open shots, but
    I’d actually prefer “Kobe dropping 50,” as you mentioned, because that means lots of misses and few assists. It works for him against the Knicks or the Raptors, not in a 7 game series. It works when the Spurs eventually double him quickly, getting the ball out of his hands in the final minute.

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