I like Matt Bonner. He seems like a really smart, funny guy. He likes some of the same bands I do, and he seems down to earth even after earning millions. He can poke fun at himself and that's rare in a league of gigantic egos. He is also a really good basketball player. Just like fellow ginger Brian Scalabrine, Bonner dominated in Italy in his stint abroad and would destroy any non-professional baller despite sometimes looking goofy out there. Unlike Scal, Bonner has traditionally been better than a lot of NBA bigs as well. You can do a lot worse than the Red Rocket as your fourth big, and he has never been overpaid.
While it's unlikely that the majority of Spurs fans like Matty as much as I do, most people seem to have come around to the point of no longer actively disliking him as much as they have in the past. To some, Bonner was the poster boy for everything that has gone wrong with the Spurs since the championship years. The Spurs slowly moved away from their defensive tradition, going with offensive players like Matt instead of the defensive-minded bigs of the past, which cost them dearly in the playoffs. It was never Bonner's fault, of course, but his arrival roughly coincided with San Antonio's "decline" and he certainly received a lot of the blame.
Bonner also failed to contribute individually in the playoffs. His post season struggles have been largely exaggerated but, in the eyes of fans, Bonner couldn't fill the shoes of Robert Horry despite having a similar role, albeit with far different tools. That Bonner was miscast as a starter early in his Spurs career surely didn't help and he is also a shining example of the Spurs opting for continuity over risk-taking, an approach a sector of Spurs fandom has always resented. Plus the old "eye test" does Matty no favors.
That has always been interesting to me: how Bonner polarized fans and made us question the value of stats vs. what we could see. Bonner doesn't look like a good basketball player out there. He runs awkwardly, can't jump very high, has short arms, is not particularly strong and has one of the weirdest shots in the league; a trebuchet release that is as consistent as it is displeasing for purists to watch. Most people would dismiss him as a player after two possessions but it's not a coincidence that he has received playing time from one of the best coaches ever. Bonner does a great job of making up with effort and fundamentals what he lacks in athletic ability and natural talent. And then there's the numbers.
Bonner's advanced stats have always painted him as, at the very least, an average player. Before this past season, Wins Produced and plus/minus have always loved Bonner and his PER was usually around league average. Even his notorious and universally accepted flaws found dissonant numbers contradicting them. His MySynergySports numbers had him usually ranked as a good defender and his on/off numbers show that the team usually rebounded better with him on the court. I will obviously avoid the debate and simply point out that Bonner was likely never as good as some stats suggested but he was better than perception led many to believe.
But that's all on-court stuff. The other, even more fascinating, aspect of Matt Bonner is that he is something of a cult hit playing for a team that is everything but. No one, outside of Spurs fans, really likes the Spurs. People respect them and some experts enjoy the offensive execution, but they don't have that charisma that draws in either casual fans looking for thrills or die-hards looking for weirdness. But Bonner has always enjoyed a popularity that extended past his talent, at least among a group of fans, dating from his Toronto days.
From using public transportation to get around the city to putting KG on his ass, Bonner did things to endear himself to fans that never seemed like desperate attention-grabs, just a guy being himself and having fun. That's hard to do. (If you don't believe me, ask Dwight Howard how those Barkley impersonations worked out for him.) He continued doing that in San Antonio. He had a sandwich blog. His Coach B videos are hilarious. He uses New Balance shoes in a non ironic way. He had Q&A section on Hardwood Paroxysm. He lobbied to be included in the three point shootout using social media without even having an official Twitter account. Matt Bonner is weird and likable and most people wouldn't associate the Spurs with those adjectives.
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Seven years after joining the team, Bonner may end up spending what looks to be his last season with the Spurs in much the same way he spent his first two: as an end-of-the-bench big who doesn't get minutes. He fell out of the rotation last season and it doesn't take much imagination to see Jeff Pendergraph or Aron Baynes leapfrogging Matty and relegating him to mop up duty. The alternative would be the Red Rocket having a bounce back season at the age of 33. After simultaneously being a weirdly popular and divisive figure among fans, Bonner's career in San Antonio will likely end with him being neither condemned nor vindicated, but as that guy no one thinks about except to make transactions work on the trade machine.
I'm sure Bonner wouldn't choose to go out like that, but I think he will be fine with it. The man knows who he is. He will continue to work hard and be generally likable, fulfill his contract obligation and if it comes to it, exit San Antonio quietly. I know I'm probably in the minority but against all logic and reason I'd be okay if the Spurs re-sign him. Unfortunately I just don't see it happening considering his age and the Spurs' cap situation. Maybe he goes back to Toronto, where both he and his family feel at home. Maybe a contender adds him or he gets a nice contract from a middling team.
Regardless of what happens, I think I will always remember Bonner fondly. Few people exemplify that weird, self deprecating sense of humor better than Winter Shoes. He's definitely "over himself." He puts team first, is a consummate pro and he has always based his game on fundamentals rather than flash. He's succeeded against the odds because he kept pounding that rock. In a weird way, he represents the modern incarnation of the Spurs better than anyone else, even Tim Duncan, whose talent allows him to transcend labels.
I know a segment of Spurs fans will be counting the days until Bon-Bon leaves, and they will have perfectly logical reasons to justify their stance. But I'm sure at least some of you will feel the same weird, misplaced heartache I will when the longest tenured Spur, outside the Big Three, dons the Silver and Black for the last time. And that's why whenever Bonner does something Bonner-esque this upcoming season, I will try to savor it since it will probably be the last chance I'll get to root for that flawed, limited, efficient, weird, funny, likable guy.