On Bruce Bowen and Retired Numbers
Posted by Zach Lowe on Sep 3, 2009
Bruce Bowen retired today. He will be variously remembered as one of the top defenders of his era, an indispensable role player on three San Antonio title teams and, in some quarters, a dirty player who hit at least a couple of guys in the groin.
Google suggests that many, many fans will remember Bowen as a cheap shot artist. When you type “Bruce Bowen” into the Google search bar, here are the options Google supplies for you:
Bruce Bowen groin; Bruce Bowen All-Star; Bruce Bowen stats; Bruce Bowen dirty player; Bruce Bowen kick; Bruce Bowen dirty; Bruce Bowen wiki; Bruce Bowen kick Wally; Bruce Bowen defense; Bruce Bowen spa.
That’s right—”Bruce Bowen groin” is apparently the most popular string of words typed into Google about Bruce Bowen. Sadly, “Bruce Bowen defense” ranks a distant 9th.
Is this fair? Is this an appropriate way to remember Bowen?
The guys at 48 Minutes of Hell and Project Spurs are doing the rhapsodizing thing, and a campaign has already started for the Spurs to retire Bowen’s number alongside those (according to InsideHoops) of George Gervin, David Robinson, Johnny Moore, James Silas and Sean Elliott.
I’ll get to the retired number thing in a second. But I’d submit that reducing Bowen’s career to “cheap shot artist” is unfair. Bruce Bowen is one of the most unique players in the history of the NBA. Judging by his statistics, Bruce Bowen is not good at anything. And yet, he managed to remain a key contributor in the NBA for more than a dozen seasons.
Seriously, look at his stats. He could never score. We know that. He scored only 5,290 points in his career and never averaged more than 8.2 in a season.
He’s an awful rebounder. His defensive rebounding mark of 10.1 last season—his highest mark since 2006—ranked 80th among 81 forwards eligible for the scoring title, ahead of only Jason Kapono, according to Basketball Reference. (He and Kapono jockeyed for the title of “worst rebounding forward in the NBA” for the last half-decade). Bowen ranks in the middle of the defensive rebounding pack if you consider him a guard, but the Spurs mostly played him with two other guards last season, according to 82games).
He doesn’t help his team as a passer or creator on offense, largely because he can’t beat anyone off the dribble. He assisted on just 3.7 percent of the baskets San Antonio scored with him on the floor last season, which would have ranked last among guards eligible for the scoring title and 77th among 81 such forwards, ahead of only the Stockton-esque quartet of Louis Amundson, Reggie Evans, Bird Man and Jason Maxiell, according to BR.
Even though he was a defensive ace, he couldn’t block shots, and his steal numbers were average. He is a career 41 percent shooter from the floor. His PER cracked 10 once—in 1998, with Boston.
In other words, most statistics show that Bruce Bowen contributed nothing to an NBA team.
And yet, despite an almost complete lack of visible basketball ability in a box score (and beyond) sense, Bruce Bowen is likely going to have his number retired and go down as one of the most memorable players of the last 15 years among hoops junkies. And there are two reasons—and only two—why he made this happen.
1) He became a tenacious, aggressive, relentless man-on-man defender. I’ll leave it to the Spurs blogs to tell you about that, but you probably know about it already.
2) He mastered the corner three.
If you follow basketball closely, you know Bowen has mastered the corner three. It’s his shot. But I had no idea how monogamous Bowen was to the corner three until I started scrolling through his NBA hot spot data. He never strayed, unless he was able to cut to the rim and get free for a lay-up—which is sort of like someone who never cheats on his/her spouse unless Mila Kunis or the straight woman/gay man equivalent (Matthew McConaughey?) grabs them and demands instant gratification.
Here are two random hot spot charts. First, the 2004 regular season:
Look at that!! Bowen took 251 three-pointers, and 228 came from the corner. That’s insane! And he barely took any shots between the three-point line and the rim. Add up long two-point jumpers and those floaters just outside the rim area and you get 197 shot attempts—just more than two per game. That is some serious discipline.
One more shot chart: The 2005 playoffs, when the Spurs won their second title of the decade.
*Note: For whatever reason, NBA.com appears to be supplying data on only about half the shots Bowen attempted during the post season. I can’t figure out why.
In this playoff season, anyway, Bowen’s fidelity to the corner three only strengthened.
I love this about Bruce Bowen. There is a lot to be said for a player who knows what he is good at and sticks to that. Especially when that player is surrounded by stars who can do everything else anyway.
But does he deserve to have his number retired? I’ll discuss, after the jump.
My initial reaction was that retiring Bowen’s number would be ridiculous. The guy scored 5,290 points in his entire career—and it was a long career! And a quick glance at the list of players whose numbers have been retired shows that Bowen would be among the three or four least prolific offensive players ever to receive the honor.
But there is precedent for retiring the numbers of players who may have had limited (offensive) skills but nonetheless meant something special to their team and their city—especially if they won a title along the way.
Dave Twardzik, for instance, fails any objective test for having one’s number retired. But he played a key role on a beloved title team (the 1977 Blazers) and has stuck around the NBA in high-ranking personnel jobs since his playing career ended. Brad Davis scored just 7,866 points over 15 NBA seasons, but Dallas fans loved him because he was considered to be among the hardest-working players in the league and played heavy minutes on the Mavs playoffs teams of the mid-1980s. And so Dallas retired his number. Mark Eaton scored 5,216 points in his career—74 fewer than Bowen—but the Jazz retired his number anyway. Like Bowen, Eaton was a defense-first (and, really, defense-only) player. Unlike Bowen, he played his entire career in one place, an endearing rarity.
So, sure. Go ahead and retire Bowen’s number. It wouldn’t be outlandish or anything.
I’ll end on an unrelated aside: It’s great fun to go through the lists of retired numbers and rank the “best” and “worst” lists. Obviously, the C’s have retired more numbers than anyone (21 in all, and they “retired” #18 twice, plus Johnny Most’s microphone), but the Lakers (Chamberlain, Magic, West, Goodrich, Worthy, Baylor, Kareem, and Chick Hearn) and Sixers (Chamberlain, Barkley, Greer, Cheeks, Dr. J, Jones, Cunningham and mike man legend Dave Zinkhoff) could give the C’s a run in terms of pure quality.
The worst lists? I’d nominate the Nets, who have two obviously deserving guys in Dr. J and the late Drazen Petrovic along with some very pedestrian names. And then there’s Orlando, which, according every source I checked online, has retired one number: 6, for “the fans” (or “the sixth man”).
There should be a rule: You have to retire a player’s number before you can retire anyone else’s. Yes, the C’s retired the number 1 in honor of Walter Brown, their original owner, in 1964, but they had already retired the numbers of Bob Cousy and Ed Macauley by then, according to NBA.com.