Legacy, the Spurs offense, and an unlikely hero

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

In the middle of the story of the Spurs' transformation from a post-up heavy, slow-it-down offense, to the juggernaut they are today, there's a special spot for an unlikely player who's played with the Big Three from their last championship to today.

The roster of the San Antonio Spurs has 11 championship rings combined. Four for Timmy, three for Manu and Tony each and one for...Matt Bonner. It's not a much-celebrated fact, but Bonner was on the roster in 2007. But for most Spurs fans, the strongest memories of Matty aren't generally about the good times.

Matt Bonner, the longest tenured Spur apart from the Big Three, was at one point synonymous with failure. The period in which the Spurs relied on him to be a contributor was not a prosperous one. San Antonio was trying to figure out how to adjust to Tim Duncan no longer being the best player in the league and the super teams were forming -- first the Lakers and then the Celtics. Those were the days when Pops Mensah-Bonsu and Malik Hairston were titillating young talents and Drew Gooden was seen as a possible savior.

That was also the time in which the Spurs realized the importance of floor spacing and Bonner was at the heart of that adjustment. Obviously, the trade-off came on the defensive end, where Bonner couldn't match the impact of his predecessors. But with the front office figuring out how to built a good defense without elite defensive players, offense was the best way to win. The Spurs went all-in and it paid off, as Bonner and the similarly defensively limited DeJuan Blair played over 3,000 combined minutes for a team that won 61 games in 2011.

But Manu got hurt and the Spurs faced the team that boasted a front line that would go on to be a huge problem for every team in the Western Conference for the following years. The three bigs the Spurs used that series (Duncan, Bonner and McDyess) had their struggles, but the defense fell apart whenever Bonner was on the court. Meanwhile, Splitter and Blair held their own and showed they were ready for bigger roles. That series sealed the fans' image of Bonner as a negative for the team.

The next year he was still an integral part of the rotation, providing spacing for a second unit that relied on stretching the floor to decimate teams with Ginobili-Splitter high pick and rolls. But once again, Bonner couldn't provide a positive impact in the playoffs. That was the last time Bonner would play over 1,000 minutes in the regular season. Pop turned to Splitter and Diaw as Duncan's partners, and once he did that the Spurs returned to the finals for the first time in six years.

*****

That summary of Bonner's career with the Spurs makes him sound like part of the problem, a shining example of the dark ages in which the smartest team in the league lost its way. To some, that could be Matty's legacy. But that view is extremely narrow.

Teams don't normally sustain their excellence through decades with the same core, not only because the stars age but also the role players. Bonner was thrown into the fire because the Spurs needed to find a way to replace the irreplaceable. No free agent the Spurs could get at that point could replicate the impact Bowen and Duncan had in their primes on the defensive end. And Bonner's contract has always been small enough that it didn't prevent the front office from trying.

It wasn't that Pop suddenly decided that he didn't like defense or was blinded to the limitations of an unathletic big that couldn't protect the rim or blow up pick and rolls. But both the league and the abilities of the Big Three were changing. The reality was that, for those seasons, going with offensive-minded players and hoping for a decent defense was the Spurs' best chance to sustain their success. Those years weren't lost because of Pop's stubbornness in playing Bonner. If anything, those years were lost because it's not easy to replace Bowen and rebuild your defense from scratch.

But I'll go even further: those years weren't lost at all.

That period had a huge impact on the Spurs' offense as we now know it. As the Spurs figured out they couldn't just throw the ball into the post anymore, they needed alternatives. That's when those high pick and rolls emerged as a great option and Bonner's spacing was necessary in those first years. The Spurs' misdirection plays often rely on a big man on the weak side that can pull the second big out of the paint.  San Antonio is one of the teams that tries to take advantage of secondary break opportunities on every trip down the floor and Bonner's ability to hit threes as the trailer was a huge part of that for years. And that's not all.

Bonner wasn't just an offensive player. He was exactly the type of offensive player that would become a staple of most team's offensive game plan. The Spurs were, as always, a little ahead of the curve and valued stretch fours earlier than a lot of their competitors. And, while the goal surely was to win it all, they used those pre-Kawhi Leonard and pre established-Splitter years to experiment, to redesign their offense thinking about the era to come. Some of those innovations are still patently recognizable while there are only traces of others. But watching footage of the 2007 title, it's obvious that the changes were profound.

Obviously, Bonner is not directly responsible for them. He was only a tool for Pop to use and there is a case to be made that another stretch big would have been just as helpful. But Pop has mentioned that he uses what he sees the players doing to add to the offense. And the Spurs have had opportunities to dump Bonner in the past and go for another stretch big and haven't. So it's easy to think that Bonner has helped to make The System what it is today.

Eventually, as people look back on the Spurs dynasty, they will go directly from the 2006/07 championship to these past two seasons. Hopefully, a championship will crown that return to relevance. They will see that Bonner was only a bit player in the last championship, and during the renaissance. They will likely conclude that the team was simply better when they had superior bigs playing significant roles. But what they might miss is the very important role Matty played in the transformation the Spurs underwent over those years and which has them on the brink of a title.

Matt Bonner is a free agent and will likely leave San Antonio after this year. The few that will actually feel bad about that will likely cite the fact that he genuinely seems like a great guy. The numbers won't be kind to him and he will receive less credit than pretty much anyone else involved for the past great couple of years, which seems fair.

But anyone that wants to know the full story of how San Antonio's offense went from a slow-it-down, pound teams in the post to a three point heavy, pace-and-space attack will need to go back a few years. And that's when they'll see why, despite almost a complete roster turnover, Matt Bonner stayed in San Antonio for eight years.

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