Bruce Bowen: Myth vs. Reality
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.