The Lost Season: Boris Diaw, 05-06

[flash http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jRJNUueNoao&feature=BFa&list=PL2A8E6EC888408C7A&index=33]

With the threat of a shortened or even cancelled season upon us, there is very little we can do other than watch U19 tournaments or read books to restore a shred of basketball into our lives. What we can do, though, is reminisce over other “lost” seasons. Seasons which saw players or teams achieve extraordinary things that go beyond titles or awards, only to fade back into the background one year later. Here we will bring the tale of these lost seasons, the ones that touched us on a personal level, the ones we will never forget, though history itself might. we start with the story of Boris Diaw, and his magical 2005-2006 showing.

Steve Nash is a 2 time MVP, one of the greatest point guards ever, and the operating force on what most people would concur were the funnest offenses of all time. And yet somehow, though if you ask him he’s certain to tell you he doesn’t want to, he may be even better as a martyr.

Everybody and everything has taken a shot at Steve Nash throughout his unique NBA career. Mark Cuban passing up on re-signing him because Erick Dampier was just too attractive to gloss over. Joe Johnson breaking his face in the 2005 playoffs. Amar’e Stoudemire’s microfracture surgery in 2006. Tony Parker’s head, Robert Horry’s hip, and Stu Jackson’s gavel in 2007. Duncan’s 3 pointer in 2008. Shaq’s primadonna routine to go with Terry Porter’s Terry Porter routine in 2009. Kobe Bryant airballing a shot straight to Ron Artest’s hands in 2010. Hedo Turkoglu. Vince Carter. 3 different all-star players – Johnson, Stoudemire, and Shawn Marion – all separately deciding that for whatever reason, getting the ball wherever they want it and whenever they want it just wasn’t fun. Robert Sarver selling away draft picks, players, and childrens’ souls. The list goes on and on.

But through all the dirty blows, the infuriating stupidity, and yes – the bad luck – nobody did more to harm Steve Nash’s NBA career than Boris Diaw.

The Arrival

July of 2005. The Phoenix Suns are coming off a 62 win season, one that netted Mike D’Antoni a Coach of the Year award, Steve Nash his first MVP, and brought back joyous, offensive minded basketball to the forefront of the league. Momentum is at its peak, legions of fans have gathered behind them, and yet – the San Antonio Spurs knocked them out of the playoffs in 5 games, and still loom in the background. To deal with this robotic behemoth, sharpshooter Quentin Richardson is sent to New York for Kurt Thomas, giving Phoenix a defensive big man who can match up with Finals MVP Tim Duncan. A promising line-up of Nash, Johnson, Marion, Stoudemire and Thomas – 3 all-stars, a defensive anchor, and an up-and-coming, all-around 24 year old in Johnson, who is coming off a season of 17 points per game with 47% shooting from 3 – completes a picture as bright as the Arizona sun.

Only Johnson wants out.

With the bright lights promising roster opportunity to be the number 1 option on a terrible team proving too tempting to resist, Joe asks the Phoenix Suns not to match the 5 year, 72 million offer the Atlanta Hawks offered him in restricted free agency. Phoenix is almost saved by Atlanta’s minority owner Steve Belkin, but a judge steps in, sending Johnson in a sign-and-trade deal to Lotteryville, Georgia. The Suns save face with two future first round picks (which would eventually become Rajon Rondo, sold off to Boston, and Robin Lopez), and a French guard from the end of the bench named Boris Diaw.

The Preamble

Over his first two NBA seasons, Boris Diaw neglected to show any indication that he was, indeed, an NBA player. Fitting perfectly with the profile of the early 2000s international draftee, Diaw was nabbed with the 21st pick of the 2003 draft with a rare combination of natural size and European-honed skill. Diaw was supposed to be a 6’9” guard who could handle the ball, set up his teammates, rebound when asked, and be back in time for tea.

Instead, he took the international draftee stigma one step further and was awful. Shots were missed. Turnovers were turned over. Instead of providing the passing-shooting-guard to Jason Terry’s shooting-point-guard, Diaw played a bench role, and played it miserably. 25 minutes a game in his rookie year became 18 the next, and when Phoenix asked for the disappointing Frenchman as a throw in in the Joe Johnson trade, the Hawks were more than happy to abide.

Phoenix had supposedly liked Diaw ever since the 2003 draft, and were intending to use him as part of an ensemble cast to replace Johnson. The newly signed Raja Bell would fill in the starting 2 shooter/perimeter stopper role. Leandro Barbosa, then still on the upward curve of his career arc, would be the team’s secondary ball handler. Jim Jackson and James Jones had the alliteration corner all covered. And Diaw? Diaw would hopefully give them a little bit of everything in as many minutes as he would be able to play without becoming a liability. For the Mike D’Antoni definition of depth, this was enough.

And then Amare (pre-apostrophe! Man, those were the days) had microfracture surgery.

The Breakthrough

Amare’s injury changed everything. From a team with hopeful depth in the backcourt, no depth in the frontcourt, and a 3 star launching pad that rivaled any trio in the league outside of San Antonio, the Suns were diminished to “Steve Nash runs the show, Shawn Marion does everything else, and dear lord that’s all we have”. When a murderer’s row of an early schedule sent the Suns stumbling to a 4-5 start to their season, it seemed as if the magical Seven Seconds or Less campaign was a distant memory.

But as all this was happening, something else, something bigger had just taken place.

Boris Diaw decided that he’s a passing savant.

It started with a 5 assist performance against the Lakers in the second game of the season. Then it was 6 against Utah. Then, out of absolutely nowhere, an 11-9-11 implosion in a loss to the still-good-but-no-longer-great Sacramento Kings. 6 the next game. Then 5. Then 7. The sort of assists that just didn’t belong at the fingertips of a 6’9” player, not in their sheer volume, and especially not in their quality. On a team with only one creator – even a historically great one like Steve Nash – playing Diaw just enough for him not to become a liability was both no longer a limitation, and no longer an option.

On November 23rd, one night after defeating the Toronto Raptors to get their record back to .500, the Phoenix Suns faced the Houston Rockets. Houston was in a moribund state, without star Tracy McGrady, starting the likes of Luther Head, Ryan Bowen, David Wesley and Juwan Howard next to Yao Ming. The Suns, on the other hand, were starting Boris Diaw.

Phoenix won 100-88, the second in a 9 game win streak. Boris Diaw had 17 points, 10 rebounds, and 6 assists.

Starting Small Forward, Backup Point Guard, Backup Center

Diaw’s elite passing game was his newfound claim to fame, but even in its brilliance, this was hardly the work of a one-trick pony. During his inaugural month of Sundom, Diaw indeed averaged a whopping 5.8 assists in just under 29 minutes per game, but his impact was felt virtually everywhere. Those assists came with 6.3 rebounds, 10.5 points on 53% shooting, and solid defensive work. More importantly, the Steve Nash Magic Show had given Diaw a nasty streak that he never displayed off the bench in Atlanta, aggressively looking to score and distribute instead of lurking in the background, hoping he isn’t subbed back out for the likes of Dion Glover.

As the games drew on by, fluke talk was dying out and sheer amazement was emboldening its stand. But Diaw wasn’t done. On a team with so little depth everywhere, and specifically in the frontcourt, a 6’9” player who does virtually everything couldn’t be laid to waste solely in the backcourt.

When he was given the starting job for good that night against Houston, Diaw was registered as a small forward, a minor shift from his previous shooting guard billing. But as Diaw’s game grew stronger, Phoenix’s desperate need for size grew as well. The shift to backup power forward – those 8 or so minutes in which Marion was catching his breath – was seamless. Then came yet another bump, this time as Kurt Thomas’ backup at the 5. One has to imagine that even D’Antoni himself had to be skeptical as to how far this could be stretched, and yet, there Diaw was, manning the pivot, and there were the Suns, winning basketball games.

Prior to the 2003 draft, Diaw was projected as an outlier at shooting guard. Now he was an outlier on virtually every level, bordering on ridiculous. The man legitimately played 5 positions, starting smack dab in the middle at the 3, sprinkling in some 1, seasoning with 5, spending time in between when necessary, his long reach giving other starters a hand both as Nash’s secondary ball handler and as Thomas’ paint dwelling companion.

February 2006. The Suns are 36-17, coming off a win against the Paul-Pierce-and-garbage Boston Celtics, when it is announced that Kurt Thomas has been diagnosed with a stress fracture in his foot. Normally, one would have to plug his backup center into the starting line-up. Except the Suns’ backup center already started at small forward. Not anymore.

When Kurt Thomas was ruled out and Boris Diaw officially became a starting NBA center, the Suns were riding a 5 game winning streak. They extended it to 11, finishing the season with a Kurt-less 18-11 run, and grabbing the second seed in the Western Conference playoffs. Steve Nash, still the architect, still the master, wins his second straight MVP award (to the chagrin of many, and we’re not having this discussion here). Diaw, who finished the season averaging 13.3 points on 56.4% true shooting, 6.9 boards, and 6.2 assists a night, wins the NBA’s Most Improved Player award, in one of the easiest votes that the ridiculous award has ever had (with apologies to David West, who had an incredible breakout campaign, and teamed up with a rookie Chris Paul and fellow waiver wire pickup Diaw to single-handedly win me my fantasy league).

But in the playoffs, you need to have size, right? Diaw just can’t be a playoff center, right? Right?

The Peak

In the first round, the Suns faced a Lakers squad with very little frontcourt strength. Lamar Odom was never truly an inside presence, Kwame Brown was starting at center and still every bit the laughing stock. But Phil Jackson saw a weakness, and exploited it. Kwame and Lamar routinely got the ball against Phoenix’s 6’9” and 6’7” starting big men, and with Kobe Bryant at his peak, it was very nearly enough. The Suns had to become just the 9thteam to come back from a 3-1 playoff series deficit, and withstand a 50 point game from Bryant in an overtime Game 6, just to get to the next round. Yet another 7 game series against a Los Angeles squad followed, this time against the one hit wonder Elton Brand-Sam Cassell Clipper team, and again, the Suns prevailed, barely.

In both series, the Suns – and Diaw as their center – were severely outrebounded. Diaw posted 5.8 boards a night in the playoffs, understandable for a former small forward but disappointing for a center, and while his scoring increased and his passing remained every bit as crisp, the Suns were exhausted and outmatched entering their Western Conference Finals match-up with the Dallas Mavericks. Heck, they needed the Daniel Ewing debacle to take place, and a miraculous resurgence from February free agent pick up Tim Thomas, just to get past the Clippers. Tim Thomas! THE CLIPPERS!

May 24th. The 2006 conference Finals tip off in a raucous American Airlines Arena in Dallas, the result of the Mavericks somehow being the conference’s 4thseed with it’s second best record. The Mavs have just defeated the defending champs, with the deciding Game 7 taking place in San Antonio. Dirk is at what was then the top of his game. Avery Johnson is still a coaching mastermind. Josh Howard is still relevant.

Steve Nash was his usual brilliant self, dominating the game from start to finish, going off for 27 points and 16 assists, including one of the ballsiest 3 pointers ever seen in the playoffs, down 7, with 2:14 left on the game clock, 19 left on the shot clock, and absolutely nobody set to take the rebound. But we’ve seen Steve Nash do these things on this stage before.

Boris Diaw, however, had done something he was not supposed to do. Guarded by a combination of the lumbering Erick Dampier, the too slow Dirk, and the comatose Keith Van Horn, Diaw obliterated all that was in his path. Off pick and rolls, in isolations, from the elbow, from the post. Nobody on earth could stop Boris Diaw that night. With 5 seconds left in the game and the Suns down 1, Diaw received an inbounds pass from Tim Thomas in the right block, his back to the basket, Jerry Stackhouse all over him. Diaw power dribbled to the middle, spun towards the baseline, sent Stackhouse flying in the air, and calmly netted the 6 foot jumper to seal the deal. Those were his 33rd and 34th points of the night, to go with 6 rebounds and a surprisingly meager 2 assists (though with Nash getting 16, they were hard to come by).

5 games later, the shorthanded Suns eventually saw their demise at the hands of the Mavericks, but Boris Diaw had cemented his status as a force to be reckoned with. 24.2 points on 52% shooting (76% from the line), to go with 8.5 boards and 1.7 blocks a night left basketball fans wondering whether Diaw could actually play center on a regularly sized team, on a regular basis. His assists had suffered throughout the series – just 3.2 a game to go with 3.3 turnovers – but that was what we already knew Diaw could do. It was the rest that he had to prove, and he had. Diaw was given a 5 year, 45 million contract extension before he could even taste free agency. For the Diaw we saw against Dallas, this was an absolute steal.

The Downfall

The 2006-2007 Suns campaign once again projected to be a promising one. Amare was back. Kurt Thomas was healthy. The Nash/Marion/Diaw nucleus remained, bolstered by Bell and Barbosa. And indeed, the campaign was a relative success, with a hard fought and controversial exit at the hands of the same old Spurs, in a de-facto NBA Finals that just happened to be a second round series.

But Diaw was never the same. With Stoudemire back on board, he struggled in a dimished role as the 3rdoffensive option. His production dropped in almost every way possible, and his mood soured. The fragile child from his first two NBA seasons emerged once again, and whether this was the result of guaranteed money or a supposed lack of trust from the coaching staff was irrelevant. One year later, he was traded to Charlotte, where doing-it-all was replaced with lethargy and munchies. Athleticism turned into girth, the player who played all 5 positions became a slow-footed power forward, and short of a desperate run to a 7thseed in 2010 and a bunch of fat jokes on online chats during the 2010 World Championships, Boris Diaw never got anywhere ever again.

It’s easy to dismiss Diaw’s 05-06 campaign as a flash in a pan that was later converted for the making of pastries (do you even use a pan to make pastries? The metaphor worked too well to check), yet another one of Steve Nash/D’Antoni ball’s many creations. Let us not forget, says this theory, as Diaw was doing his thing, Tim Thomas was playing himself into a 4 year 24 million contract just mere feet away. But that would be selling Diaw short. So much of what Diaw did was independent of Nash and the mustachioed mastermind. Diaw was handling the ball when Nash wasn’t, creating for his teammates while the immortal Canadian was lying down near the bench or spotting up in the corner. Diaw was just as instrumental to the success of the Suns’ offense as they were to his.

Where Transcendence Lies

In a game where size plays such a huge factor in everything that occurs, that size often leads us to very direct definitions. Big men do this, little men do that. Put all these roles together and you got yourself a team. When boundaries are crossed, we feel that evil is afoot, and our standards are raised impossibly high. Andrea Bargnani may not be a star, but if he were 6 inches shorter, his style of play would be understandable. Once he broke out of the predetermined mold, he is deemed incompetent until he achieves success.

As the game evolved, however, we’ve seen those boundaries crossed more and more, and that same success has started to arive as well. And when the supposedly impure hybrid becomes an unmitigated winner, we praise them. Michael Jordan was a guard who took the above-the-rim game up a notch, and when it left him, he mastered the post. Dirk Nowitzki led a fringe contender to a championship by being an unstoppable scorer from absolutely everywhere, though traditionally his range would end at around 15 feet and his jumpers would only fall when flat-footed.

Amazing plays are amazing plays, no matter who they come from. It’s what makes us love basketball. Blake Griffin hanging in the air long enough to complete an entire game of Monopoly set on a Russian man’s scalp, or Jason Terry inexplicably succeeding at throwing an orange ball into a round hoop from 30 feet away with a 6’8”, 270 pounder draped all over him in the waning moments of a Finals game, make our jaws drop in awe and our hearts bless Dr. Naismith again and again.

But true greatness lies in these hybrids. My personal basketball fetish is the passing big man. I cheer and I yell and the endorphins flow like crazy when I see a superhuman dunk or a fadeaway taken at a 45 degree angle, but nothing compares to seeing a guy like Al Horford or Pau Gasol place a perfectly constructed bounce pass right in the grasp of a moving target. For others, it’s the diminutive Derrick Rose driving into the paint, where giants roam and pain is guaranteed, only to flip the ball to the edge of the backboard, where it gains a spin that leads it straight into the hoop.

Just as Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were two of the greatest players of all time as one-in-a-generation-that-just-happened-to-be-two-in-the-same-generation passers and team players working within bodies that were built for other skills, just as Lebron James separates himself from today’s field with his elite ability to see the game and find his teammates while working from Karl Malone’s body, so was Boris Diaw.

Obviously, Diaw was not at the level of these legends – he was more of a Lamar Odom, falling just barely short of physical specimen, but with skills that ranged all over the basketball map, skills that promised the world, leaving us yearning for so much more. While the Larrys and the Magics and the Lebrons have transcendence oozing from every pore, the Borises and Lamars are transcendent for their uniqueness, perhaps resonating with us in an even greater way, until they inevitably disappoint.

There will never be another Boris Diaw. That is why it pains us so that we got to see the original and only version show its true form for just a 7 month period. And as we watch the diminished shell of what was once greatness labor around in a Charlotte uniform (or wherever, post-lockout), and we see a rare glimpse of what was with a nice alley-oop to Bismack Biyombo (hopefully) or brilliantly finding a wide open Tyrus Thomas for a clanged 20 footer (hopefully not), we must remember that this was the true Boris Diaw. The one who let Steve Nash down, the one who let us all down, but not before taking to a basketball court and tantalizing our minds with things that shouldn’t be possible.

Noam Schiller

Noam Schiller lives in Jerusalem, where he sifts through League Pass Broadband delay and insomnia in a misguided effort to watch as much basketball as possible. He usually fails miserably, but is entertained nonetheless. He prefers passing big men to rebounding guards but sees no reason why he should have to compromise on any of them.