Running down an unfamiliar mountain at dawn near his New Hampshire home, Matt Bonner stops suddenly and plots the remainder of his journey down the mountain. Breathing a bit heavily, he spies an uncharacteristically icy grotto. His sense of adventure piqued, Bonner steps into the grotto's entrance. To his astonishment, he notes that the entrance is lined with stringed beads! There might be mountain people living there! Being something of a mountain person himself (he chuckles to himself as he prepares his mountain-man dialect), Bonner steels himself for any sort of encounter. The "room" he enters is rather dark, and a river runs through it, and it is hot and humid like a sauna. Its walls are the mossy rocks of the mountain, its floor a tangle of giant, velour carpets. Feeling his way around the room, Bonner notes statues along the wall that are just mouths and cheeks and throats, invariably bearded. The beard is black and the skin is brown, surprising the lily-white Bonner in the heart of New Hampshire. He makes his way through with just a flashlight and finds another beard statue, now hundreds of feet from the entrance. To Bonner's astonishment, this beard statue seems to be made of different material.
"Hello, Matthew," this beard statue proclaims in a totally indifferent voice. Matt Bonner is not shocked by this at all. Par for the course, Matt Bonner reflects, having seen much stranger things in hermits' mountain grottos.
"Hello, gentle mountain-man," Matt Bonner says diplomatically, "Who is hosting this occasion, and how do you know my name?"
"I am whom they called Gilbert Arenas, Matthew. Now you may address me as Agent Zero, or, Hibachi."
"Hello, Agent Zero. How are you?" Matt Bonner says to his one-time opponent, trying to encourage an atmosphere of trust.
"My mission is to help you, Matthew," and Bonner notes that Arenas' diction was at once precise and unworldly, like the late-period free jazz Coltrane albums Bonner's hip jazz friends had him listening to back at the University of Florida.
"I am always willing to be helped... especially by one with taste in beards as refined as yours, Hibachi," Matt Bonner says, trying to get some point of common ground between them.
A gap in the wall a foot beneath the beard opens. Preparing for anything between a handshake and an assassination, Bonner readies his set-shot T-Rex arms. Out pops a microwave. "This is magic, Matthew. It's a Magic Microwave. This will help you heat up in a hurry. Heat a sandwich up, only once, at dawn every day. Trust it, Matthew. But always once, never twice. I know what bringing too much heat does to a man." The bearded mouth sighs, and Bonner knows that Arenas' eyes, despite being glued (no doubt) to the Internet or a worldly periscope or something, now must gaze into some sort of abyss as Arenas says this.
"Thank you. But what will this do for me?" Matt says.
Gilbert answers in a hurry: "Ten percentage points. Every shot. Hibachi. You'll heat up in a hurry. Now, there's the way out. Through that door made of beards."
"Thank you, Agent Zero," Matt says with sincere gratitude (with a dose of supreme skepticism, it's worth noting), as he hoists the Magic Microwave into his gigantic backpack and begins to leave.
"And Matthew," Arenas says as Bonner turns to go, "I like your taste in beards, as well."
"You didn't even have to tell me," Bonner says happily, his beard bristling, "I could tell by the bristling in your own beard."
The mountain encounter ends and Bonner runs down the hill, a bit more slowly because of the gigantic Magic Microwave. Bonner goes to sleep in comfort. Matt Bonner wakes up the next day and the day is just magic.
• • •
Matt Bonner laces up and goes to practice, and heating it up in the Magic Microwave, Bonner has just the best breakfast sandwich and everything tastes a little better. Being a preternaturally gifted shooter and a legendary gym-rat all in one, Matt Bonner is unsurprised to hit 95% of his open corner threes, but it's an open gym and that's just something that happens sometimes when you're Matt Bonner. Matt Bonner was not convinced that the Magic Microwave had done him any good. Sheer random chance could explain everything, after all.
Two weeks of good fortune later, Bonner wakes up in a sweat and realizes that the luck is here to stay. Whatever he's been doing particularly, he vows to continue. Superstition, religion, dying his hair slightly browner? Perhaps it's that Magic Microwave, Matthew?, Bonner chuckles softly as he hears Arenas' voice echo in his head. In any case, whatever it took, Matt Bonner knows that there are no halfway crooks, and that he has stolen something from the obscurity of luck. So Bonner vows to continue his Magic Microwave routine, no matter how shook things might eventually become. Meanwhile, Bonner naturally starts playing more and more at the midrange and rim in practices, finding to his astonishment that the shots are falling there, too, even against his friend Tim Duncan's masterful coverage.
And the shake-up begins almost immediately after he tells his coach Gregg Popovich about his newfound fortune. Bonner hedges against any sort of concrete judgment in his explanation to the coach (and, of course, completely omits mention of the Microwave), saying correctly that the streak mystifies him as much as anyone. Popovich, ever the man of science, proceeds to rigorously test as best he can the effect of the newfound fortune. After awhile, Popovich is convinced: The Spurs have found solid statistical proof that the difference in Bonner's shooting is in fact something like 10 percentage points better, under every condition they can imagine to measure. The season is about to begin, and Popovich reluctantly goes back to the drawing board on his entire offense in case Bonner's streak somehow turns into a trend that survives the rigors of the season.
And at first the Spurs, ever the guarded guards and bastions of the Old Ways, simply pretend to the outside world that nothing has happened and continue using Matt Bonner to throw haymakers from the corner. As they had half-expected, though, after two weeks, Bonner's percentage from 3 (and elsewhere, on those rare alternate occasions) is about 10 percentage points higher, including a few auspicious game-winners (Popovich may be conservative, but even he can't pass up a high-leverage, low-risk shot like that). All the oddsmakers in Vegas and all the sportswriters know that Bonner's luck can't last, that the other proverbial shoe will drop... that is, everyone except for the befuddled group of 25 people in the Spurs organization and Bonner's family that understand that something strange is going on.
And then they start designing sets to get him (at first) marginally more involved, spacing him to get a few extra shots from the midrange and the top of the key. Two more weeks pass, and his advanced stats drop a bit in efficiency and rise a bit in usage. Wait a little longer and he starts to get more minutes and his stats drop a little bit more, as Popovich begins to come to terms with a funky version of the Harden-Sefolosha dilemma as he balances the minutes of new-look Bonner and aging Tim Duncan. The Spurs are more efficient, though, and Popovich finds he has yet another tool to manage minutes.
• • •
The only one of the five stages of grief that coaches can really get any traction from is bargaining. Anger yesterday, depression later, bargaining now and forever. Competition at its core is all about bargaining for as much a share of and as little a brunt of your opponent's bounty, and good coaches are nothing if not competitors. The bargaining begins as opposing coaches look at his numbers and get past their initial anger. Next comes the endless refrain of: "We need to seriously gameplan this weird seven-foot redheaded dude, guys. I mean it, guys, he's not the Matt Bonner you remember. He's even better." Suddenly the prospect of staying home on Matt Bonner becomes a necessity to emphasize rather than a good idea to mention in passing. "Magic Bonner will destroy you if you aren't careful." all the opposing team's sportswriters intone seriously.
And while this is going on, Popovich bargains with his fortune as well. Counter-gameplanning is one of his best qualities, and he quickly realizes that he needs to take full advantage of the Bonner windfall beyond the secondary benefits of spacing. One of his assets is overproducing and he's not maximizing the increased utility that should come from this bounty. So Popovich tinkers and he tinkers, getting Stephen Jackson to accept reduced minutes so they can experiment with Bonner at the 3.
The gameplanning continues, and in midseason, the results are fairly outrageous (literally outrageous; the anger is seething from almost every living person in the world that sees this ridiculous sort of miracle). The midseason period is typified by a game against Denver in which Matt Bonner scores 49 points on 25 shots (including twelve [1.25 PPP!] pick and rolls and 2-3 shooting from the line) and 3 rebounds while guarding Andre Iguodala, who answers this with a 20-15-15 line. The Spurs win with jaw-dropping regularity, their once-great offense humming along like a freight train at new levels of efficiency. The Lakers "panic-trade" (just kidding, the Lakers end up winning this one, too) Pau Gasol and Steve Nash for Luol Deng and Taj Gibson. Suddenly LeBron James' perimeter defense and "second jumps" (for Bonner's height) become the only things that Erik Spolestra ever seems to talk about defensively.
Western playoff teams try everything to stop Bonner and they start to hit on some strategies (though none without plenty of drawbacks, obviously). They attempt to ball-deny Bonner on the entry passes and they attempt to prevent him from getting up shots in the first place. They attempt to get Bonner in foul trouble by driving at him in otherwise-inefficient ways. They attempt to use his relatively lacking defense in space (his man defense is fine) to get an advantage proportional to how much Bonner is able to help the Spurs' offense.
At the end of the day, the opposing coaches weep at what the stats tell them: Matt Bonner's usage is at something like 28% and his shooting efficiency is actually lower than before the magic day happened when all this rad stuff started (because of course he is taking more difficult shots, but with that kind of usage, and still-above-average efficiency? Deadly.). And he turns the ball over more. Bonner is now directly comparable to Kevin Durant, but Durant is still a league above Bonner. It really, really bugs Kevin Durant that this is a real comparison that someone reasonable could make, though.
The only problem is that Matt Bonner has never had Dirk or Durant's scoring cleverness and tenacity. One thing that is so aggravating to watch about Bonner (and this continues after his super-cool day of magic and luck) is that, aside from a neat dribble-drive and hook game, his sole offensive skills are positioning and shooting. The Spurs can use him on the pick-and-roll because he is an excellent pop-out midrange shooter now and an alright finisher, but the risk of turnovers or of Bonner getting caught outside his comfort zone with no escape is ubiquitous. Dirk has a move where he goes on his back foot and fades away, and from which Dirk can accurately finish from just about any distance. And that's just the start of the innovator's deadly offensive arsenal. But Bonner has no innovation, at least in this sense. He's just a lot better at shooting any shot.
The Spurs are happy, though, and feel pretty confident about their title chances (understandably, considering they finish with about 70 wins). They do however note with befuddlement that the efficiency differential gained from Bonner (they estimate their margin is about 3 points per game better, solely because of Bonner's improvement) is almost entirely due to those extra 10 percentage points of magic, even after massive, intelligent game-planning and changing the structure of their offense to take advantage of Bonner's skillset.
They roll through the playoffs on the back of the player their fan base once had called "Winter Shoes", but those snow shoes find extra traction that summer. The next day, after his Finals MVP has been hung from the rafters of the highest buildings, the magic disappears as soon as Matt Bonner wakes up (Bonner comments with horror that the breakfast sandwich is only "alright") and the Spurs are ultimately pretty happy with Matt Bonner even though his Algernon-esque fall back down to Earth will eventually take him out of the league in a few more years.
"That was all pretty rad, I think. That was a pretty cool thing that happened and then stopped happening," the world eventually agrees as it collectively returns to its morning coffee and breakfast and paper.
• • •
What is the point of this story, besides providing something ridiculous for your consideration?
Well, I suppose the point is that the essence of a great scorer is something like that of a great shooter, but with extra percentage points of "magic" on every shot that must be gameplanned against and creatively defended and whose existence must be resigned to by opposing coaches. Carmelo Anthony has a "magical" ability to make inefficient shots not-so-inefficient (which doesn't excuse shot selection questions, of course). LeBron James has a magical ability to get to the line and the rim. Steve Nash and Chris Paul have a magical ability to make the percentages of their teammates increase.
I say "magic" not to mystify the essence of a scorer but to (efficiently and artfully) mean "the end result can be quantified but whose process and full expression would be exceedingly difficult to fully describe". For after all, in one sense, it's a matter of time (and patience for analysis to catch up to the data) before we can figure out how a player makes his own and his team's shot selection more or less efficient and his team's shooting efficiency from locations more or less efficient, and vice versa for the defense he plays. But in another sense, this effect really is sort of magic (whether you call it that, or whether you call it psychophysical deception, or game-planning, or practice, or talent, or a hundred other hidden variables, each of hidden significance and hidden interaction with the end product. [This is incidentally why I tend to ignore preseason reports about what kind of "shape" a player is in unless that is exceedingly relevant to his skillset]).
And all this to say that Matt Bonner does not have that magic (at least not in a world where Bonnersanity is still hypothetical). Richard Jefferson does not have that magic. Boris Diaw and Stephen Jackson, for all the valid critiques you can make and for all their limitations, do have that magic, and have enough awareness to maximize its utility in an unpredictable array of situations. The Spurs got an offense that can magically carve up any defense, and ironically one of the best floor-spacers in the history of the 3-point arc (in Bonner) has played a fundamentally small part in that magical brew. And it seems to me that the key difference is that you can't gameplan against the Spurs' offense, but you can gameplan against the offense of Matt Bonner (same goes for Richard Jefferson). Stephen Jackson doesn't just make love to pressure, his skillset is notably (not coincidentally, one supposes) conducive to handling pressure.
And maybe this is a stretch of a silly thought experiment, but it seems to me that that's what the Rockets gained and what the Thunder gave up in their recent trade, the "magic" of creating shots. Kevin Martin is more than a fine offensive player, he's an excellent offensive player. And yet his smart shot selection and free-throw-drawing ability always strikes me as partially as based on the "not important enough to gameplan against specifically" of the regular season, whereas I would say the opposite for James Harden, who (Manu-like or not; I say not) is fundamentally a very creative offensive player in this sense. And when the defense buckles down, I honestly fully expect Kevin Martin to wilt and James Harden to thrive, even if their per-minute regular season statistics end up similar enough to comment. Not because Harden is more efficient or more of a creator (he is at this point in their careers, but as we're seeing, he has been held to a fraction of his true utility and ability level in OKC), but because as far as coaches are concerned, to gameplan against Harden is to contain him and distribute the efficiency to his teammates. The gameplan against Martin is simply to contain him and to watch his team struggle, all the while sort of hoping he doesn't hit a bunch of threes when you're not looking (none of this in offense to Mr. Martin, whose stats are just as real as Harden's; this is a qualitative observation).
This concept of magic (and sorry for the unfortunate linguistic coincidence, Orlando fans) is, in the end, what makes the Lakers team (and Kobe, as perhaps its final form's spiritual core) scary even with the frailty of age. The Princeton read-and-react offense (or whatever comes out of the strange Lakers' experiment) is for May and June, not for November (though in its final form, it's just as formidable in November). It's frustrating to watch, and I think they should probably coast on talent and pick and rolls from time to time while the offense gels... But really, all the great offensive systems in basketball: the read-and-react system, the Thunder's disgustingly efficient pindown play, the Heat's Total Basketball, the Spurs' motion offense, the Triangle, (sorry again) the Magic's 2009 offense? All of these things were built over the course of years of trying to harness and maximize the magic margins that overhang all the statistics of all the great creative scorers, shooters, spacers, and facilitators. All of these offenses require an absolute minimum of the so-called scrubs like Bonner whose same such magic margins barely jut from a dependable baseline of "just okay", like nearly-fallow fields of alchemy, fallow fields spanning miles of draft busts and one-dimensional role-players that play a banal sport that is called basketball with the scornful irony reserved for Bonnersanity in full focaccia-melt spin cycle.