Boris Diaw's solid defense was a welcomed surprise.
When Boris Diaw was signed by the Spurs, I confess to thinking he would only be injury insurance. Instead, he was one of the key players in the Spurs' 20-game winning streak that extended to the playoffs. The versatile French forward resurrected his career in San Antonio, after some pretty bad years of infuriating inconsistency.
The question is, can Boris Diaw defy his career trend and keep up the good play in his second season? Better yet, could he even improve?
Boris came into the league as a prospective guard with the Atlanta Hawks, where he failed to make a positive impression for two seasons. In 2004, he was shipped off in the Joe Johnson trade to the Phoenix Suns, where he instantly made an impact after Amare Stoudemire got injured. After that amazing season, Diaw signed a hefty long-term deal and his production slipped, as Amare reclaimed his spot and the offense had to change to reflect that. He remained solid, but unimpressive, in a reduced role.
During the 2008/09 season, Diaw was traded to the Bobcats where he regained his offensive aggression, averaging a career high 12 shots per 36 minutes and 15 points, six boards and 5 assists in over 37 minutes per game. After that season, Diaw turned into one of the most frustrating players in the league, a permanently out-of-shape mess of inconsistency and sporadic brilliance. Over the next 2 years, Diaw played less, shot worse and his passing and rebounding slipped slightly as well. Still, that was enough for a Stephen Jackson and Gerald Wallace-led Cats to make the playoffs in 2010, only to be unceremoniously swept by the Magic. Diaw had almost as many turnovers (12) as assists (16) during the playoffs and was as unimpressive as the rest of his teammates. To start the lockout-shortened 2011/12 season, Diaw showed up out of shape, shot the ball poorly and clashed with coach Paul Silas. After there were no takers for his contract, the Cats waived Diaw and he signed with the Spurs.
Diaw's Short Stint as a Spur
It didn't take Diaw long to show his value in San Antonio. After some good showings, he got the nod as a starter, replacing DeJuan Blair.
On a limited sample size, the starting lineup with him was one of the Spurs' best 5-man units, boasting an impressive 120 offensive rating in the regular season and 117 in the playoffs, while on defense it allowed 101 and 85 points per 100 possessions, respectively. He was relied upon to find the open man when teams trapped Parker on the pick and roll and to defend faster power forwards and he did it well, while also contributing with smart team defense and some accurate, if often reluctant, shooting.
As for his individual performance, Diaw was good in spite of getting the least amount of minutes per game since his Atlanta days. Per 36 minutes, his assists numbers were around his career average while his scoring dropped, as was to be expected in his new reduced role. There were, however, two statistical anomalies that would seem very hard to replicate in a full season: his 3-point shooting percentage (an impossible to maintain 61% on the regular season and a similarly ridiculous 50% in the playoffs), and the best rebounding effort of his career at 7.5 boards per 36 minutes with a defensive rebound percentage of 17.3%.
That surge in boards and stellar shooting percentage from 3, combined with his above-average defense, made Diaw the kind of floor-spacing big the Spurs needed, while his playmaking was a welcome addition to a starting lineup in which only Parker thrived as a creator. His minutes climbed during the playoffs, as did his scoring and rebounding, while his assists remained the same. At 30, Diaw found a team that can afford to give him less responsibility on offense and allow him to pick his spots.
Can Boris perform similarly next season?
The main differences between Boris' current situation and his disappointing second seasons with the Suns and Bobcats are continuity and role. In Phoenix, Diaw had to make room for a healthy Amare Stoudemire, which changed team dynamics dramatically. With the Bobcats, Diaw was relied upon to score prolifically and help organize a terrible offensive team, a role that didn't play to his strengths. With the Spurs, Boris will have some continuity and likely the same role as he had last season, which probably bodes well in terms of what we can expect of him.
The other challenge the multi-talented Diaw has faced his entire career is staying focused, disciplined and interested throughout an 82 game season; that, more than anything, will be the key. Last season his motivation was high, since he was joining a contender. The Olympics were also right around the corner and he needed to play himself into shape before the Games. His contract was expiring. He was joining his good friend Tony Parker. As you see, a lot of factors combined to make the Spurs a great place for Diaw to be in 2012. Will he be as committed when training camp rolls around this season? Rebounding, for example, is mostly about effort and focus. Leonard and Duncan are amazing defensive rebounders, but Diaw will probably have to pull down anywhere between 16% and 18% of available defensive boards for the Spurs to be elite in that category once again, which is critical considering the problems the Spurs display on defense.
The Frenchman is an amazing fit in the starting lineup next to Duncan and Parker for aforementioned reasons but the Spurs will be even deeper than last season and, after failing to adapt and find lineups that worked against OKC in the playoffs, it wouldn't be surprising to see Diaw paired with Splitter or be featured at center in micro-ball lineups. Can Boris adjust? His versatility would suggest so, but like every player, he will probably do better in a defined role.
His 3-point shooting accuracy will likely decrease, but considering he is a career 35% shooter (if we don't count the Atlanta years where he was miscast as a guard), it shouldn't become so bad as to be a liability. It is likely, though, that teams will initially ignore him and cheat off him to help on P&Rs, which will hurt the spacing. To avoid that, Boris will have to take and make wide open shots. Once the other team starts to see him sink those, he could use the more aggressive close outs that will surely follow to get to the paint and use his passing ability. Limiting turnovers will also be key. In the regular season, Diaw had the worst turnover percentage of his career, but he managed to get it down in the playoffs. A full year with his teammates could help understand them and limit the bad passes, as long as he doesn't get overconfident in his ability as a distributor.
It does seem like the "good Boris" the Spurs got late last season was not just a mirage; Diaw can really play and his style fits the Spurs like a glove, as long as he's committed to rebounding the ball. Any worries are more related to non-basketball stuff like his conditioning, his motivation and how he's utilized. Considering he'll return to a team that kept most of its pieces and in a role that fits him, and as a veteran that has seen where a lack of commitment gets you, I expect Diaw to at least maintain his more than adequate overall production from last season.