Every year, going way back to the “old” Spurs teams from last decade, there has been a newcomer who has captured our hearts and imaginations in new and exciting ways. You remember the names: Mario Elie, Jaren Jackson, Kevin Willis, George Hill, and, as recently as last year, Gary Neal. We clamor for more playing time for this player, we grouse about his lack of touches, and we talk at length about his strengths (and less about his weaknesses). Earlier in the season, I thought this was Danny Green’s year, and to some degree it has been. But I think the poster boy for our affection this postseason is going to be Boris Diaw.
I want to break down Boris’ game a bit and make a case for why Boris should not be viewed as a short-term measure. I think he’s a key to the future for this team.
Boris is now the starting C (or PF, depending on your view of such things) for the top seed in the West. I did not expect this when he was signed. I thought he would be good, but that by the time the playoffs started, he’d be a spot-use center, useful for small lineups and some second-unit or garbage time work. It was a good fit, because he was going to be the 5th big we had needed since the beginning of the season. It was a low-risk, medium-reward move that the Hive Mind of the Spurs has become known for. Like so many others, it turned up daisies. Everyone is starting to realize what he can do and the impact he has on the team when he is on the floor.
What Boris Does Well
Offensively, Boris is the perfect stretch-4 for this offense. He has shown he can hit the trey, although he does not shoot it with regularity and he certainly doesn’t force it (or any other shot). He has shown that he can operate within Pop’s motion offense, creating space for other players with solid screens and finding spots on the floor where he can be effective. Most of all, he shown us that his passing ability is absolutely off-the-charts good. He knows where players are supposed to be in the offense (hat tip: Les Bleus) and he is adept at finding those players. In 20 regular season games with the Spurs, he has 47 assists and 28 turnovers, which is not a great per-game average. But in the last 5 games of the regular season, he averaged 24 minutes, 3.8 assists, and 2.2 turnovers. In two playoff games, he has 5 assists and 3 turnovers, with a +12 in Game 1 and a ludicrous +41 in Game 2. And while I don’t have stats to back it up, I’d argue he’s the reigning king of the Spurs “hockey assist”.
I suspect his assist-to-turnover ratio is going to improve as he gets more comfortable with certain players. Yes, he has a Manu-esque tendency to force a pass or two every game that he should not. We live with it from Manu and we should live with it from Boris as well, because he makes up for it with fantastic passes that lead, either directly or indirectly, to wide-open shots. Boris’ offensive game is about flow. When he is in the game, the ball moves, bodies move, and the offense flows.
Defensively, we have seen him excel at isolation defense with posts. I loved watching him bang with Dirk a few weeks back and have continued to watch him be effective on the block. Last night, he gave Paul Millsap fits when Millsap was trying to get open in the low post. He’s also a solid help defender and is athletic enough to have several highlight reel blocked shots this year (including one that was called a foul against Phoenix that was a travesty of a call). He’s still learning this defense, to a degree, so I think there is room for more improvement. He’s a decent, but not spectacular rebounder, but he does know how to use his (ample) girth to eat space under the rim.
What Boris Doesn’t Do Well
Score. That’s why he’s not in Charlotte anymore. Don’t look for Boris to average 15 points per game for this team (or maybe any other). I don’t think he gives a rip about that. (In fact, there’s a great post from our friends at Pounding the Rock here that talks about Boris’ basketball upbringing in great detail. Worth a read.) What does he care about? I think it’s the same thing as Pop: good basketball and winning. All of that to say, if you are counting on Diaw average 15 ppg and be a second (or maybe even third) scoring option, you’ve probably got the wrong guy.
On the other end of the floor, Boris struggles a bit with pick-and-roll defense. I don’t have the Synergy stats to look at, but I suspect he’s not our strongest big defender in that particular area. Then again, I’m not sure who our best one would be. Maybe Tiago? As mentioned, he’s not the strongest rebounder in the world either, but he is certainly not the worst.
The Future of Boris
I have no idea. I hope it’s as the Spurs starting power forward next year. He is an unrestricted free agent, but I have to think that the Spurs could get him back with a reasonable offer, because, simply put, San Antonio – with his best friend Parker and motion-offense loving coach Pop – is the best place in the league for him to play. He is a fine natural complement to Duncan’s skillset and his passing ability makes him an asset to the offense. At only 30 and with a game not exactly predicated on athleticism, he could easily be valuable for 4-5 more seasons.
Farther down the road, he may also be a nice complement to Tiago Splitter, who looks to be the heir apparent at starting center. With the passing skills both of them possess, I can see more high-low post work going on and incorporated into the motion offense the team now runs. If Boris is the 4, Tiago may need to become more aggressive as a scoring threat, but I suspect that will happen naturally in the A.T. (After Tim) Spurs system anyway.
In short, I have fallen in love with Boris Diaw and what he brings to these Spurs. I want him to continue to start for the postseason and I want him back next year. I’m no numbers or salary cap guy, but I think he’s worth a reasonable contract for several years. Wayne commented to me today that a 3 year deal at 3-4 million per year might do it. The reality is Boris has every incentive to stay and play in San Antonio: perfect personnel, perfect coach, perfect system.
If you are interested in learning more about the Xs-an-Os of the Spurs offense, I ran across a site you should check out. It’s called Spurs Motion Offense and it highlights some of the fundamentals of the common sets Pop runs. Worth a look if this is your kind of thing.