Matt “the Mendoza Line” Bonner
The geeks may have yet to inherit the courts, but basketball has long been in the midst of a statistical revolution.
To the casual fan the revolution has yet to take hold. Identifying superstars hardly requires advanced statistics beyond points per game and the number of SportsCenter highlight appearances. More often than not what analytics reveals are the unsung role players. Box score deficient yet unique skill sets awaiting their next contract from Daryl Morey.
Matt Bonner represents the ultimate quandary for number crunchers–from Wayne Winston to John Hollinger, Bonner’s plus-minus and advanced statistics paint a valuable basketball asset. The eye test often suggests otherwise.
Admittedly, statistical formulas are not my forte, but the theories they produce are something I can wholeheartedly grasp onto. In trying to sum up Bonner’s value to the San Antonio Spurs an answer came back that traces back to sport analytics baseball roots. Matt Bonner is the Mendoza line of “stretch fours”.
Mario Mendoza was a defensive specialist shortstop whose sub par batting averages threatened to offset his contributions. On his career, Mendoza batted .215, though the Mendoza line is also stated to be .200. Any player (pitchers excluded) whose batting average falls below the Mendoza line is generally considered to not be a viable Major League baseball player.
Finding a similar statistical formulaic cutoff for useful rotation NBA players is much more problematic. The numbers most relevant to Matt Bonner’s career are 6-10, roughly 23 feet and his ability to make near 40 percent of his shots from that distance, but finding statistics that determine at what point his weaknesses make him a complete non-asset is much more difficult.
But unscientifically, just observing stretch fours, those who are worse than Matt Bonner–and I mean as overall players, not necessarily shooters–are either non-rotation players or are out of the league. Steve Novak, Anthony Tolliver, Brian Scalabrine, Marcus Haislip, and of course Kevin Pittsnogle, to name a few.
The stretch fours that are more talented than Matt Bonner–Dirk Nowitzki, Rashard Lewis, Anrea Bargnani, Antawn Jamison, and even the fat Rasheed Wallace–have solid footing as valuable contributors. Finding a player better than Matt Bonner that does not deserve a roster spot or a player worse than Bonner who does, that can be rather difficult.
Is there anything wrong with being the litmus test for stretch fours, so to speak? No. Unlike the standard for useful big men, the unique skill set of a stretch four (legitimate size, shooting ability) and its scarcity make it a very valuable commodity. The qualifier naturally is what role you expect him to play.
Even if it’s just for the regular season, Matt Bonner has the shooting touch to absorb minutes (an underrated skill) and the size to offer some resistance to power forwards. But expecting Bonner to guard the opposing team’s best big man or finding an offensive rhythm while the other team stays at home on shooters for extended minutes, as the San Antonio Spurs have had to do because of injuries and/or personnel deficiencies, is a recipe for failure.
Those that feel we overvalue Matt Bonner at times on this site fail to see what we view him as: a valuable contributor on a good team when given a minor role. Admittedly, anything past 15 minutes and the Spurs are likely to get diminishing returns. The longer Bonner is on the court, the more his flaws become apparent. But at his price, with his experience, it’s not as if the Spurs have overvalued him. They’ve merely been forced to overextend his role for lack of better options.
So what to do with Matt Bonner? If an upgrade can be had, then by all means do it. There are certainly better players out there. The problem is, those players cost more money. Likely more than Peter Holt can afford given the luxury tax payments the team already owes.
Assuming the Spurs land Tiago Splitter with their full mid-level exception, there are not many free agents they can acquire for the league minimum who are better than Matt Bonner. When losing a replacement level player, it’s probably best to have his replacement in place.