Ah, Winter Shoes, it is finally your turn. Bonner is an amazing contributor for the Spurs during the regular season. In the role of back up big playing 20 minutes a game, Bonner is probably one of the best in the entire league. He spreads the floor well thanks to his fantastic three-point stroke, rarely makes mistakes and defends better than he gets credit for. Most lineups including Matty do great, and his individual numbers are exactly what you want from a three-point shooting big. And then the postseason starts.
It seems like year after year Bonner fails to make a positive impact in the playoffs. As an example, take last postseason; he took 1.7 less three-pointers per 36 minutes in the playoffs than in the regular season and his efficacy (i.e. the reason he plays in the league) decreased 7%, from a stellar 42% to a pedestrian 35%. Last season, Pop cut his minutes almost in half, partly because of his mediocre performance and partly because other coaches made adjustments that rendered Bonner, for lack of a better word, useless. So, is Matt Bonner too inefficient and easy to game plan for that he will never help a team when it counts the most? History would suggest "yes", but with some small adjustments, Bonner could become a viable, if not deadly, weapon off the bench. So what are these adjustments you ask?
Shoot the midrange jumper
Bonner's release is not necessarily too slow, but his form is strange and he needs room to be effective. Unsurprisingly, he faces a different kind of defensive pressure in the playoffs when it comes to close outs. When he is chased off the three-point line, Bonner lacks the resourcefulness to make something happen, which leads to resetting plays with less time in the shot-clock. Expecting Matty to improve his handles and learn how to finish at the rim or dish it to the open man seem like wishful thinking, considering we are discussing an athletically-challenged (in the context of the league), 31-year-old veteran that has never displayed those skills. However, what he might be able to do is remain a threat, even when he can't take 3-pointers, by shooting more from midrange.
During the regular season, Bonner takes more shots from behind the arc than from any other spot in the floor combined. But even with a small sample size, he has always been average to above-average on long jumpers. If Bonner could master a one dribble pull up going to his right after a pump fake, he might be able to be useful in a playoff setting. Even if he developed that weapon, teams would still chase him off the 3 point line, but Matt would have something to fall back on to counter the opponent's defensive game plan. No one is going to leave his man to close out if Matty is not behind the arc, but Bonner could make that fact work for him by pulling up, basically unguarded. If he starts hitting that 18-footer consistently, eventually the defense would have to adjust. This is not ideal, but it might be the only somewhat realistic way Bonner can transform his game and help the offense in the postseason.
Defend without fouling and draw charges
Bonner does an amazing job of bothering shots without fouling in the regular season, as his 1.8 fouls per 36 minutes is only bested by Tony Parker's 1.4. He accomplishes that by standing his ground and getting his arms up, instead of futilely trying to block the shot. Matt keeps his hands off face-up forwards trying to penetrate and when helping on guards. That is textbook containment defense.
Unfortunately, the playoffs are called differently. Role players like Bonner don't get the benefit of the doubt by officials, which has led to a lot more fouls being called on Matt. In the postseason, his personal fouls per 36 minutes climb to a team leading 5.2. The only way Bonner can turn that around is by being smarter and wilier, instead of trying to match his opponent's physicality. Front guys on the low post, without being overly aggressive and wait for help if you are physically over-matched, instead of pushing. When guarding face up threats, be a pest off the ball and try to deny them access to their preferred spots, but keep your hands off them once they get the rock. As for help defense, Bonner is a smart system defender who knows when to give a hard foul if it's needed (don't laugh). What he cannot do is block shots or get steals. Yet there is one area in which Bonner could reasonably improve, which coincidentally would help offset his ridiculously high foul rate: draw charges.
As previously mentioned, last postseason Bonner fouled 5.2 times per 36 minutes while going to the line 1.1 times himself. That -4.1 individual foul differential is the worst of all Spurs bigs, by far. The team has similar numbers in terms of total fouls committed with Matt on and off the court, but not thanks to Bonner. What Matt can do to help bridge that gap is to improve in something he does adequately: drawing charges. During the regular season Matt ranked 26th among power forwards in charges drawn with 0.22 per game - nothing to write home about, but decent. During the playoffs, however, he didn't take a single charge. His minutes were reduced, but Bonner failed to make an impact in the one area of help defense he is above average. This upcoming postseason, Bonner will probably see limited minutes yet again. He needs to adapt his game to be effective in shorts spurts; coming off the bench and taking a charge or two would go a long way towards reaching that goal.
In reality, what Bonner needs to do in the playoffs is hit three-pointers. There is no use in having a three-point specialist that cannot hit the shot when it really counts. Now, there is a case to be made for giving Bonner minutes even if he is not hitting, simply because of the way his mere presence spaces the floor and forces other teams to adjust. Some might say that Pop shares the blame for some of Bonner's failures by the way he uses him and in which lineups, but these posts are about what the player can do. I believe that with some small adjustments, Bonner could become a solid 10-15 minutes a game playoff contributor. He just needs to diversify his offense a little and foul as little as possible, while ideally drawing a charge here and there. With his contract being only partially guaranteed next season, this very well might be Bonner's last chance to prove he can contribute in the playoffs. I, and I'm guessing every other Spurs fan, hope he makes the most of it.
Stats courtesy of Hoopdata, Basketball-Reference and NBA.com