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The Microscope: The Value of Matt Bonner (and More)

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The Microscope: The Value of Matt Bonner (and More)
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The Microscope is your recurring look at the NBA's small-scale developments—the rotational curiosities, skill showcases, coaching decisions, notable performances and changes in approach that make the league go 'round.

 

Eyeing Gregg Popovich's Carousel of Big Men

The San Antonio Spurs offer plenty of tasty morsels for basketball junkies, but Gregg Popovich's careful balance in his rotation of big men ranks as one of the more intriguing subplots around. Not only could few head coaches get away with appeasing a handful of NBA-caliber big men while feeding them varying roles and minutes, but even fewer yet could do so with such remarkable strategic grace. Pop has an absurdly firm grasp on his team's limitations and does a fantastic job of managing a variety of imperfect options in the wide spectrum of situations that the NBA season provides.

As such, it's worth keeping a close eye on how Popovich chooses to dole out minutes and choose his lineups over the course of the Western Conference Finals. The Oklahoma City Thunder present problems for any opponent on both ends of the court, and though the Spurs' bigs have thus far produced in the postseason, their utilization presents Popovich with his most straightforward avenue to manipulate the Thunder's usable lineups. 

After Game 1, there isn't a ton of specific differentiation to report, though I'm curious to see if Matt Bonner gets more minutes in Game 2 than the 11 he saw on Sunday. Bonner saw just a minute of playing time in the second half (thanks to a sudden—and curious—46-second third-quarter stint), but his offensive impact was rather significant. Bonner himself went scoreless on his two attempts from the field, but while he was on the court in Game 1, the Spurs posted an offensive rating of 118.6 points per 100 possessions while doubling their accuracy on three-point attempts (4-of-8; 50 percent) relative to when Bonner was on the bench (4-of-16; 25 percent).

Bonner's presence on the perimeter makes it incredibly difficult for two-big Thunder lineups to appropriately rotate and guard on the interior against San Antonio's pick and rolls, and, as a result, Oklahoma City's perimeter players were forced to leave wide-open shooters in order to collapse into the paint.

But of course, as is so often the case, Bonner's time on the floor also coincided with San Antonio allowing 118.6 points per 100 possessions, good (bad?) for a -2.4 net rating overall. The defensive tandem of Bonner and Tiago Splitter proved very incapable of defending against the Thunder's dribble penetration, though in Bonner's defense, the Spurs' D stood tall whenever he shared the court with Tim Duncan.

That trend may or may not hold up over the course of the series, but if Popovich and the Spurs can buy Bonner more court time alongside Duncan (and better yet, if Bonner could hit some shots), San Antonio could wind up being even more unguardable than usual.

 

Derek Fisher's Ongoing Battle against Logic

I've given up trying to explain it. I still refuse to believe that Derek Fisher has some chromosomal predisposition to hit big shots, but the contrast between his unfailingly terrible regular-season showing and his oddly decent play during the postseason thus far can only be evidence of some kind of magic.

Just to put things into the appropriate perspective: In 20 regular season games for the Thunder this season, Fisher posted a 5.9 PER (15.0 would register as perfectly average, mind you) and a 0.394 effective field-goal percentage. Those numbers have ballooned to 13.2 and 0.570 (!!) in the playoffs, as Fisher has become legitimately useful as both a backup ball-handler and spot-up wing shooter.

That's not indicative of a player "elevating his game;" it's a borderline incomprehensible jump from a player who so often does his teams more harm than good. At the same time, even Fisher's harshest critics have no choice but to swallow each made three-pointer with a shrug; we can point to every flaw in his regular-season performance as evidence of why he shouldn't have been playing 20 minutes a night for OKC, but for whatever mystical reason, he's managed to be a wholly competent postseason performer.

 

The Slim Margin of Danny Green

Another notable tidbit in regard to the Spurs' rotation: When Danny Green's shooting touch left him in Game 1, so, too, did his utility to San Antonio's offense.

Green's function in the starting five mimics that of fellow wing Kawhi Leonard: He sits in the corner (and on the perimeter, in a more general sense) as a release option. If Parker finds himself bottled at the rim or Duncan runs into a double team, there will be Green, lying in wait to expose a defense foolish enough to rotate away from him. Considering that Green converted 43.6 percent of his three-pointers in the regular season (and, that even after Sunday night's 0-of-5 performance, he sits pretty with a 40.0 percent mark in the playoffs), that's a fairly viable threat.

But if those shots don't fall, Green doesn't have the same innate matchup advantage that Bonner does. Although even a slightly chilled Red Rocket forces opposing bigs to choose between rotating to the rim and sticking with their assigned sharpshooter, Green's defender could be athletic enough to cheat off of him and still recover enough to prevent a drive or challenge a shot. His skill set may be more diverse than Bonner's, but by nature of size and positional orientation, his shaky shooting has much more of a negative impact.

The Spurs are obviously well-equipped to deal with the possibility that one shooter or another may not be accurate on a game-to-game basis (as Green's shots grow errant, in steps Gary Neal or Stephen Jackson, etc.), but without his capacity for hitting the corner three, Green could see his role in this series reduced considerably. The triangular pressure of Oklahoma City's best lineups doesn't allow San Antonio to cross-match Green onto opposing point guards, making him a solid—but unremarkable—wing defender. He's a decent ball-handler and a good cutter, but incompatible in his default setting without a steady jumper.

Green may continue to start, but that doesn't mean he'll see consistent minutes; after consistently playing around 25 minutes a night against the Clippers, a potentially range-less Green could average somewhere in the 10-to-15 range over the course of this series.

Statistical support for this post was provided by NBA.com.

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