Bruce Bowen wasn't a pricey pickup, but the Spurs are at a loss without him
Tim Duncan is among the front-runners for the MVP award, while a reenergized David Robinson has lifted the Spurs into tide contention. But equally vital to San Antonio last month during its 13-game winning streak—the longest in the league this season—was the play of 30-year-old forward Bruce Bowen, who is among the NBA's best bargains.
As a defensive specialist the 6'7", 200-pound Bowen provides the same toughness on the perimeter that Duncan and Robinson do beneath the basket. It is no accident that the Spurs were 38-12 at week's end with Bowen in the lineup, as opposed to 11-12 during his seven-week absence in January and February with a broken finger on his right hand. All he will cost San Antonio this season is his salary of $715,850, plus the price of a round-trip ticket to China.
The Spurs were desperate for a stopper like Bowen after Kobe Bryant torched them for 33-3 points per game during the Lakers' sweep of last season's conference finals. They'd hoped to fill that role with multidimensional Derek Anderson, who was limited to 41 minutes in the series because of a separated shoulder. But Anderson declared his intention to sign with the Trail Blazers last summer, prompting the Spurs to work a sign-and-trade with Portland for Steve Smith, a terrific spot-up shooter but no match for Bryant on D.
Last July, San Antonio coach and general manager Gregg Popovich sent head scout Lance Blanks to Beijing, where Bowen, a free agent, was participating in an NBA-sponsored goodwill tour of China. "We needed to show him that we really wanted him," says Popovich. All his former coaches—Rick Pitino with the Celtics, Larry Brown with the 76ers and Pat Riley with the Heat—had raved about Bowen, but none had made keeping him a priority. Blanks persuaded Bowen to sign a two-year, $1.5 million contract.
After Miami lost Bowen to San Antonio, Riley tempered his raves considerably, pointing out that Bowen had the lowest offensive production among starting small forwards in 2000-01. Of Bowen's energy, athleticism, leadership and defense, Riley said, "I believe that these things can be found and taught."
With Bowen in the starting lineup, the Spurs got off to a 20-4 start; after Bowen broke his finger on Jan. 9, they dropped 13 of their next 24. "You really don't know how good Bruce is until he isn't around," says Robinson. At week's end Bowen was averaging a paltry 6.9 points while shooting 36.9%, but Popovich looks beyond the numbers. "He is not a great shooter," says Popovich, "but he can make the big shot."
Bowen has always been an in-your-face defender, but the security of having shot blockers like Duncan and Robinson has made him even more aggressive. During San Antonio's 108-90 victory over the Lakers on March 20, Bowen held Bryant to 20 points and forced him into seven turnovers. Before the game Bowen had asked reporters to refrain from calling him a Kobe stopper. "Not smart," he said. "All that does is fuel his fire."
On Sunday, Bryant took revenge, scoring a game-high 31 points in the Lakers' 96-95 win, their seventh victory in eight games against San Antonio. Kobe stopper or not, L.A. still has the Spurs' number.
Making a Difference