And Now For Something Completely Different: The Curious Case of Boris Diaw

There are more similarities between Charlotte Bobcats’ forward Boris Diaw and the above Monty Python sketch than just the mere fact that both involve France. The Python sketch, part of this longer piece about flying sheep, involves two Frenchmen trying to demonstrate their plan for international air travel. All the components we’d traditionally recognize on a modern airliner (such as seats and a baggage compartment) are there, but the absurdity is that they’re tucked inside an unaerodynamic package (a sheep) that ruins the entire thing.

In much the same fashion, many of the components of Diaw’s game look to be a perfect fit for the NBA. He’s always done a lot of things well, which was particularly illustrated last season when he averaged 13 points per game (on 51 per cent shooting) and added 5.3 rebounds, 4.0 assists and just under a steal and a block per game. Despite that success in individual aspects of his game, though, the whole package has just never quite seemed to click, and progress in certain areas has been accompanied by declines in others. For example, when Diaw moved from Phoenix to Charlotte midseason, he picked up considerably more playing time and increased his points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steal averages, but his shooting efficiency declined dramatically in the process (from 56.7 per cent to 49.5 per cent).

That’s a trade you’d probably make, though. Sure, that’s a dramatic decline in shooting efficiency, but a large part of that comes from having your point guard change from Steve Nash to Raymond Felton, and having your offensive scheme change dramatically as well. The Suns’ wide-open offence (when they decided to employ it last year) focuses on creating good, open looks for players early in the shot clock. Diaw never saw a ton of court time with the Suns, but he made the most of it when he did, knocking down shots when he got the opportunity. It also helped that he was usually surrounded by more threatening scorers, which created more space for him. With Charlotte last year, he received more court time and was more of an offensive focus, but was still draining buckets at a reasonably efficient pace and was contributing in other key areas. Last year, it could have been argued that Diaw had finally received the playing time he deserved and was starting to fit the components of his game into a functional package—an airplane instead of a flying sheep. The future looked bright.

However, Diaw’s resurgence had a tough time staying in the air, as he soon regressed into the one step forward, one step back pattern that has marked his career. This season, he’s dramatically improved his free-throw shooting, moving from a 68.7 per cent mark last year and a 71.1 mark for his career to a 76.8 per cent mark this year. However, his field-goal percentage has dropped from 51 per cent to 47 per cent and his three-point percentage has fallen off a cliff, from 41.4 per cent to 31.7 per cent. He has also declined in rebounds, assists, blocks and steals.

One major flaw in Diaw’s game is his lack of ability to get to the line, similar to what I criticized Andrea Bargnani for last week. Free throws are one of the easiest ways to score, but Diaw has only averaged 1.7 attempts per game for his career, very low for someone whose career average is 9.4 points per game. It looked like he was making some progress in that area last year, going from 1.2 attempts per game in Phoenix to 2.1 in Charlotte (still very low, however), but this year, he’s regressed right back to the 1.7 average. His relatively low free-throw attempt and rebound numbers suggest and observation reinforces that Diaw could stand to play more physically. He has the size (6’8, 235 pounds) to do so, so if he’s able to figure out a way to pull it off, that could add a significant dimension to his game and make it more of a cohesive package.

Diaw (whose full name is Boris Babacar Diaw-Riffiod) has always shown flashes of potential. He won the European Junior Championship with the French national team in 2000 and went on to star in the French league before the Atlanta Hawks selected him in the first round of the 2003 draft. He didn’t do much in his first couple of seasons with Atlanta, but was sent to Phoenix in the Joe Johnson trade and found a home in Mike D’Antoni‘s run-and-gun offence. He was a key part of the “Seven Seconds Or Less” era (and there are some fascinating passages on him in Jack McCallum‘s wonderful book of that title), filling in particularly aptly when Amar’e Stoudemire went down. He was named the NBA’s Most Improved Player at the end of the 2005-06 season, and clear sailing seemed to be ahead. Since then, he’s fallen into the frustrating pattern of simultaneous progression and regression, though.

It’s not that Diaw needs to become an elite player for the Bobcats to have success. He’s not their first offensive option (that would be Gerald Wallace), and they have plenty of other players who can score, including Stephen Jackson and Tyson Chandler (when healthy). They do need him to become a solid contributor, though, and that’s where the 08-09 Diaw was far superior to this year’s edition. Diaw can still take over for certain games, but his consistency has been lacking and he’s often looked out of place. If he can find a rhythm and get his game together, he could be a key contributor to the Bobcats’ resurgence. If not, he’ll continue to be one of those enigmatic cases where the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.

One thought on “And Now For Something Completely Different: The Curious Case of Boris Diaw

  1. Diaw never averaged a lot of minutes with the suns? He averaged a TON of minutes. 35 min a game, 2 points, 1 rebound, and a bunch of passes.

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