Boris Babacar Diaw is a very interesting basketball player. He's a man whose identity and role on the court can shift from game to game, from play to play...it can even shift within the same play. He won't impress if you just look at him sharing the court with some of the World's best athletes who have 5% body fat, but he's one of the most skilled and versatile players in the game. Basketball-Reference lists him as a power forward and as a shooting guard -- has that ever happened before?
Boris is an otstanding offensive basketball player. He's adept at setting screens, spotting up, cutting, moving without the ball, posting up, playing point-forward, rolling to the basket, and certainly passing the ball. Looking at the Spurs' best offensive lineups that have played at least 30 minutes together you will find Boris Diaw in each of the top-ten lineups. Of the lineups that have an effective FG% above 50, Diaw is in every single one. That's not enough minutes to draw a conclusion from you say? There are only 16 five-man lineups that have played 30 or more minutes together for the Spurs so far this season.
Manu should be Sixth Man of the Year
In a race that features front-runners from other teams, including Taj Gibson and Reggie Jackson, here's why Manu deserves the award.
Let's look at a couple more offensive stats for Boris. This remarkably efficient scorer is shooting a whopping 55.5% from the floor, much higher than Manu's 46%, and is good for sixth best in the league. That percentage is where the true bigs reside -- the ones who can't shoot outside of four feet. The other two players that actually shoot threes in the top-15 are the wildly-efficient LeBron James and his teammate Dwyane Wade (who may be the worst three-point shooter of all-time, making his fg% inside the arc more impressive.)
That's not it though. Boris is one of the league's most efficient scorers at one of the most inefficient play-types in the game. His 1.03 points per possession (PPP) on post-ups is the 13th best mark in the NBA, and he's had a decent amount of possessions from there as 17% of his possessions come in the post. To put that 1.03 PPP in the post into perspective, Dwight Howard is currently producing .76 PPP on post-ups.
So, he's a great situational post player who knows how and when to utilize possessions down low, but he's also a very good three-point shooter. His 42.9% from deep is good for 12th in the league, and on three-point spot-ups he's posting an elite 50%. It's not just the post or from deep that Diaw can hurt an opponent. He's shooting above average from nearly every spot on the floor, and he only takes 11% of his shots from the spots he isn't above average from. That's smart, efficient play.
He isn't often in an iso situation, but when he is, he's putting up an insane 1.36 points per possession. His iso possessions (25) don't qualify him for Synergy's rankings, but to get a sense of how good he's been on his very limited attempts, Kevin Durant is third in the league in PPP on isos at 1.09.
This Boris, as Gregg Popovich recently said, is just a good basketball player.
Diaw's amazine shooting may surprise you, but anyone who has followed this league for some time knows that Diaw is one of the best passing big men in the game. His assist numbers are down from his peaks in Phoenix, but it's the new, aggressive Boris who is looking to score more that has caused this. He's still absolutely elite in his passing, it's just that his new-found confidence in scoring has made it less important that he create shots for his teammates. It doesn't mean that he can't thread the needle or whip a 30-foot pass around a defender to an open teammate. It's just that the evolving Diaw has realized he can be just as effective, if not moreso, in looking for his own shot.
The best defensive lineup in the league by Defensive Rating includes Boris, along with Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, and Tony Parker. They've only played 77 minutes over 17 games together, but they're holding opponents to a stellar 79.5 points per 100 possessions. The more-used lineup where Tiago is in for Boris is also good defensively, posting a 92.6 DR. But the difference is that the one with Boris also posts an excellent 114.1 Offensive Rating (for a +34.6 net) , while the one with Tiago struggles with a 93.6 OR (+1.00).
On defense, he doesn't have the length or height to be a great rim-protector, and he's not quick enough to consistently check the faster and more athletic bigs who work from the outside. What he does do well is work within the system, and he has as good an understanding of the game as anyone else in the league. He almost always makes good decisions and is very rarely caught out of position. Boris also guards bigs that like to shoot from mid to long-range. While it's true that in some games players have off-nights, Boris has had good individual defensive showings on Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Love. Those are certainly two of the better bigs outside of the post.
In no way am I trying to make the case for Boris being some kind of great individual defender. Sharing the floor with Timmy and Whi will certainly make even the worst of defenders look serviceable on paper. Get this though, Boris is in seven of the ten best defensive lineups for the Spurs (minimum 30 minutes), including the two best. Only one of the lineups that Boris is in also has both TD and Kawhi, and only two others feature Tim Duncan or Kawhi. Boris is just a guy who can fill whatever need his team needs him to. He not only fits into any offensive lineup, he is also a great system defender.
Now that you know that, it's probably unsurprising that Boris is in ALL eight of the team's best net-rating lineups (minimum 30 minutes). The OG big-three of Tim, Tony, and Manu each appear in five of those eight lineups. Stats all have their problems, and I'm not suggesting that net-rating is the holy grail of stats, but I think it is clear that Boris is one of the most important players on the team. His ability to mesh with all lineup types -- big, small, offensive, defensive, starters, bench, even American or international -- has been critical to this team's success. This cat can do it all, and the Spurs are much better because of it.
Boris is the Spurs' sneakiest weapon. He can hurt the opposing team in so many ways. He's handled his defensive assignments, and he fits into any offensive lineup the Spurs can put together because he can do so much on that end. Whether he's draining spot-up threes, setting some of the best screens in the league or efficiently working in the post, Boris can morph into whatever form his team needs him to. He doesn't need the ball to make the team better, but if he has it I always think that good things will come from it. He isn't usually one of the Spurs' best three players, but he is almost always the fourth or fifth best player for the team.
This is the season of Boris Diaw. It's clear that the Spurs need Tim, Tony, and Kawhi healthy to have a shot, but it's Diaw that is the key. It's been his progression from pass-first big to aggressive offensive weapon that helped Tim keep the team afloat as injuries decimated it. It's his ability to do whatever it is that the Spurs need of him that makes this team better than they were last season. It's the difficulty in scouting him that presents other teams with a question that is impossible to answer. It doesn't matter how much tape the opposing coaches break down of the big man, because Boris doesn't rely on any set plays or pet-moves. He plays jazz-ball, reacting to the action on the court, soloing when it seems the best course of action, or just laying back and making the game easier for his teammates by doing all of the little things at a high level. It is his versatility, basketball IQ and creative genius that make this special player the most important x-factor for the best bench in the league.
It's likely that neither Manu or Boris actually win the award as the Spurs' bench (see Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli) as a whole have been great all season. Gino and Bobo also have the misfortune (at least when it comes to national recognition and consideration) of playing for the Spurs (who are expected to be among the best in the league, and injuries don't matter,) and they likely hurt each others chances of winning the award. Manu captured my imagination and heart long ago, and he remains my second favorite player of all-time and he is the only person that has ever caused me to root against the US in international play in any sport. Even though Manu is the quarterback of the second unit, it is Boris who has been more valuable to his team this year.
Just as you can't look at traditional stats to see that Tim Duncan is still the best big man in the game, it is completely impossible to see just what Diaw adds to the team from the box score. The Spurs have the best bench in the league, and they all deserve to be recognized for that. It's just that Bobo has been the most important piece, the player that is likely to be in any end of game situation, and for that he deserves the Sixth Man of the Year Award.