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Boris Diaw turns around career with Spurs, but don’t call him rejuvenated

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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – Boris Diaw was playing some of the worst basketball of his career in 2012 – when he was playing at all. Not even the Charlotte Bobcats, en route to the worst record in NBA history (7-59), deemed him worthy of minutes every game. Diaw looked out of shape and lethargic. As his production and conditioning worsened, the Bobcats finally, mercifully bought him out.

Two years later, Diaw was in the running for NBA Finals MVP with the Spurs.

Did San Antonio rejuvenate him?

“No!” Diaw snaps before breaking into a laugh.

“If I was rejuvenated,” Diaw says, “that means I got old at some point.”

Diaw certainly hasn’t looked over the hill with the Spurs, whom he signed with after his 2012 buyout. He has played in more wins (204) than anyone the last four years. His combination of points (1,270), rebounds (617) and assists (420) as a reserve in that span is unmatched.

And he has helped the Spurs to a 34-6 start and nine straight wins this season heading into their matchup with the Cavaliers tonight.

“He’s a really smart basketball player, probably one of the most intelligent players in the league,” San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said.

Draft buzz in 2003 called Diaw a 6-foot-9 point guard. Now, the Spurs list him as a 6-foot-8 center-forward. He has also played both wing positions during a 13-year that also included stops with the Hawks and Suns.

He has shown amazing athleticism. Yet, his weight – listed at 250 pounds – is a common concern.

And as he put it, “I’m at the same time very easy to coach and at the same time very hard to coach.”

Diaw was difficult to coach in Charlotte, where then-Bobcats coach Paul Silas ripped his effort and commitment. He was also difficult to coach in Atlanta, where he told isolation-favoring coach Mike Woodson he couldn’t play for him.

The common theme: Both coaches wanted Diaw to score more.

“I’m not that,” Diaw said. “I need teammates and good teammates. I need a system where the ball is moving, where it’s team basketball.”

Diaw said he has long recognized how much his team’s style affects him, but he can’t always control it. He fit with the Hawks, who drafted him No. 21 in 2003, until they fired Terry Stotts for Woodson. He clicked for Mike D’Antoni’s Suns, but then they replaced him with Terry Porter and traded him to Charlotte. There, Diaw meshed with Larry Brown before the Bobcats fired him and hired Silas.

So, Diaw knew what he wanted when he became a free agent in the spring of 2012: a team that shared the ball, was headed to the postseason and could become a long-term fit.

The Spurs just weren’t certain they wanted him.

Though Popovich declined to look back on Diaw’s Charlotte-to-San Antonio transition – “When did he play for Charlotte? Twenty years ago or something?” Popovich said. “It’s 2016” – Tony Parker remembers it well. The Spurs point guard, who grew up with Diaw in France, recalls Popovich and San Antonio general manager R.C. Buford asking about Diaw.

“Charlotte was saying stuff about him,” Parker said. “I’m like, ‘Are you serious?’ I’m like, ‘I’ve been playing with him with the national team. There’s no way Boris is like that.'”

Parker’s message to Popovich and Buford: “We have to do it. He’s going to be perfect.”

In many ways, Diaw has been.

He appears to get along well with Popovich, and the Spurs’ emphasis on ball movement suits him to a T. Diaw also  provides them with a versatility that creates mismatches.

Start with Diaw’s scoring ability.

Put a smaller player on him, and Diaw will post him up. Put a bigger player on him, and Diaw will take him to the perimeter. Guard him too closely there, and Diaw will drive to the basket. Too loosely, and he’ll shoot 3-pointers.

Diaw is the only player shooting 60% on both post-ups and drives (minimum 10 attempts of each). Here’s the field-goal percentages of all 90 qualifying players, Diaw represented by a black dot and everyone else gray:

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Player Team Post-ups Drives
Boris Diaw SAS 61% 63%
Kevin Durant OKC 63% 58%
Nikola Vucevic ORL 53% 61%
Blake Griffin LAC 43% 66%
Charlie Villanueva DAL 60% 49%
Giannis Antetokounmpo MIL 55% 52%
Andrew Nicholson ORL 50% 56%
Arron Afflalo NYK 59% 47%
Kawhi Leonard SAS 53% 52%
Chris Paul LAC 50% 55%
Shabazz Muhammad MIN 55% 50%
Kelly Olynyk BOS 57% 47%
Paul Millsap ATL 53% 49%
Jabari Parker MIL 53% 48%
Evan Turner BOS 46% 54%
Thaddeus Young BKN 50% 49%
Karl-Anthony Towns MIN 47% 52%
Nikola Mirotic CHI 45% 54%
Carmelo Anthony NYK 45% 54%
Dwyane Wade MIA 45% 53%
Greg Monroe MIL 43% 55%
Shaun Livingston GSW 56% 42%
Mirza Teletovic PHX 44% 53%
Harrison Barnes GSW 52% 44%
Luol Deng MIA 44% 52%
Derrick Williams NYK 46% 50%
Marcus Morris DET 50% 45%
DeMar DeRozan TOR 43% 52%
Andrew Wiggins MIN 46% 48%
LeBron James CLE 43% 51%
Amir Johnson BOS 53% 40%
Brook Lopez BKN 48% 45%
Al Horford ATL 48% 44%
Russell Westbrook OKC 42% 49%
Danilo Gallinari DEN 53% 39%
David West SAS 51% 40%
Chris Bosh MIA 39% 51%
Lance Thomas NYK 50% 40%
Rudy Gay SAC 53% 37%
Kenneth Faried DEN 53% 37%
Zach Randolph MEM 43% 46%
DeMarcus Cousins SAC 44% 44%
Jared Sullinger BOS 42% 46%
Deron Williams DAL 39% 48%
Ryan Anderson NOP 47% 39%
Ersan Ilyasova DET 40% 46%
Mason Plumlee POR 53% 33%
James Harden HOU 38% 48%
Rodney Hood UTA 40% 46%
Josh Smith LAC 44% 42%
David Lee BOS 43% 43%
Joe Johnson BKN 40% 44%
Kyle Lowry TOR 38% 46%
Khris Middleton MIL 41% 43%
Pau Gasol CHI 40% 43%
Marvin Williams CHA 60% 23%
Jeff Green MEM 43% 40%
Jon Leuer PHX 40% 43%
Wesley Matthews DAL 35% 47%
Spencer Hawes CHA 41% 42%
Luis Scola TOR 45% 38%
Klay Thompson GSW 40% 42%
Bojan Bogdanovic BKN 41% 40%
Kobe Bryant LAL 35% 45%
Jimmy Butler CHI 34% 46%
LaMarcus Aldridge SAS 47% 33%
Nerlens Noel PHI 39% 41%
Anthony Davis NOP 34% 46%
Nicolas Batum CHA 41% 36%
Derrick Favors UTA 45% 30%
Gordon Hayward UTA 31% 44%
Markieff Morris PHX 32% 42%
Gerald Henderson POR 33% 41%
Kevin Love CLE 53% 21%
Andre Drummond DET 41% 33%
Tobias Harris ORL 32% 40%
Stanley Johnson DET 36% 34%
Kristaps Porzingis NYK 39% 31%
Kevin Martin MIN 27% 42%
Terrence Jones HOU 42% 27%
Draymond Green GSW 28% 41%
Aaron Gordon ORL 25% 43%
Michael Carter-Williams MIL 21% 46%
Julius Randle LAL 30% 38%
PJ Tucker PHX 26% 40%
Marcus Smart BOS 30% 36%
Paul George IND 20% 46%
Frank Kaminsky CHA 33% 30%
Noah Vonleh POR 15% 38%
Metta World Peace LAL 8% 30%

The only other player in Diaw’s class is Kevin Durant.

Diaw’s 3-point shooting has also jumped to 38% after dipping last year. He’s shooting 37% from beyond the arc with the Spurs, more than enough to force defenses to account for him.

And scoring just scratches the surface of what Diaw brings to the table.

Whether he’s spotting up on the perimeter, driving to the hoop or posting up, Diaw is looking to pass. Thought he pre-draft evaluations were overblown, Diaw often resembles a point guard in a power forward’s body.

Diaw is a solid position defender. He helps on the glass, too.

All this adds up to a prime playoff contributor. Opponents will have a difficult time finding a weakness to exploit. Meanwhile, Diaw will create mismatches.

The Spurs – with Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Danny Green and Parker – have the talent to compete with anyone. Diaw help them turn the style of any game to their favor.

That’s why Parker, who has played only for San Antonio and never even entered free agency, is so glad the Spurs listened to his recommendation. It’s telling that, when trying to clear cap space for Aldridge, San Antonio traded Tiago Splitter rather than Diaw.

Unlike most post-buyout free agents, Diaw wasn’t looking for just a few-month destination to finish the season in 2012. He wanted to find a long-term home, and it appears he has.

“Hopefully,” Parker said, “we can finish our careers together.”

NBA lowers 2020-21 salary-cap projection to $116M

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The Knicks, Raptors, Hawks and Grizzlies project to have major cap room next summer.

Just a little less now.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

The salary cap won’t be set until the summer it takes effect. So, there’s plenty of time for the exact number to fluctuate. But this projection was updated after evaluating how teams spent this summer – a key factor.

For perspective, the salary cap is currently $109,140,000. So, going to $116 million next offseason would still be a significant increase – just not as large as previously expected.

Next year’s free agent class is weak. It’s Anthony Davis then… maybe not a single other star. So, small shifts in the cap projection will create only minor ripples.

Everyone has their eyes on the 2021-22 cap. LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Bradley Beal, Rudy Gobert, Victor Oladipo, Jrue Holiday, Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan could all be unrestricted free agents that summer. That amount of talent availability requires careful planning.

Magic exercise Markelle Fultz’s $12M team option

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Magic general manager John Hammond said he had “no idea” when Markelle Fultz will play.

A couple encouraging assessments and an uneventful video later, and Orlando is guaranteeing Fultz $12,288,697 in 2020-21.

Magic:

That’s the power Fultz still holds as a former No. 1 pick. Even Anthony Bennett had his third-year option exercised. (He just never made it to the third season of his rookie-scale contract, taking a buyout instead.) It’s tough to cut bait on premier young talent.

But Fultz’s NBA career has been so miserable so far. With the rookie scale increasing under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, he’s due a significant salary.

Because the 76ers drafted Fultz, Orlando had more leeway to decline the option without embarrassment. But the Magic are clearly committed to Fultz.

They had until Oct. 31 to decide on these options, which are for the 2020-21 season. These were easy calls on Jonathan Isaac ($7,362,566) and Mohamed Bamba ($5,969,040). But it’s nearly unfathomable Orlando didn’t evaluate the mysterious Fultz in training camp, preseason and even into the regular season before deciding on his future.

Perhaps, the Magic believe the early show of faith will give Fultz much-needed confidence. If so, this is an expensive bet on a player totally unproven at this level.

At least there’s major upside to it.

Rockets owner: Harden and Westbrook talk like brothers ‘instead of one thinking that he’s the mentor’

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Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta hasn’t hidden his discontent with Chris Paul‘s shortcomings.

Sure, Fertitta says plenty of niceties about Paul, whom Houston traded to the Thunder for Russell Westbrook. But even Fertitta’s optimism about James Harden and Westbrook – who were friends as kids and played together in Oklahoma City – includes what sounds like criticism of Paul.

Fertitta, via Sam Amick of The Athletic:

James and Russ go back a long ways in California, so they can talk to each other like brothers, you know, instead of one (player) thinking that he’s the mentor. I just think it’s going to go well.

At the very least, it’ll be impossible to convince anyone that assessment is uninfluenced by seeing Paul throughout the previous two seasons. At most, it’s a deliberate shot at Paul.

Paul has always been the general. As he has gotten older, that has bended into being the mentor.

It’s often very helpful. Paul’s focus, discipline and intensity have generally served his teams well. His teammates have benefited from following his lead.

But Paul can also wear on people. I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened with Harden, who’s better than Paul and had established himself as Houston’s franchise player before Paul ever arrived. Paul had never even gotten past the second round before teaming with Harden. If you were Harden, how much would you want to hear Paul telling you the right way to do things? There were clearly issues between the two.

Now, Harden and Westbrook get a fresh start together. They sound quite eager about teaming up.

But don’t assume it will definitely go better. It’s like friends becoming roommates. Sometimes, it strengthens the relationship. Sometimes, it ruins the relationship. It’s often difficult to tell which way it will go until moving in.

Remember, Harden and Paul were initially enthusiastic about their partnership.

Thunder unload stars for all the right reasons

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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

So many teams spent this summer trying to create star duos. The Lakers (LeBron James and Anthony Davis), Clippers (Kawhi Leonard and Paul George), Nets (Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving) and Rockets (James Harden and Russell Westbrook) certainly succeeded.

Meanwhile, the Thunder already had a star duo in place… and disassembled it.

Oklahoma City became the first team in NBA history to trade two reigning All-NBA players in a single offseason. Why did the Thunder take the unprecedented step to move Paul George and Russell Westbrook?

  • Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
  • 2021: Most favorable of Rockets (top-four protected), Thunder and Heat first-round picks
  • 2021: Second-most favorable of Rockets (top-four protected), Thunder and Heat first-round picks
  • 2022: Clippers first-round pick
  • 2023: Heat first-round pick (top-14 protected for three years then unprotected in 2026)
  • 2023: Swap rights with Clippers first-round pick
  • 2024: Clippers first-round pick
  • 2024: Rockets first-round pick (top-four protected)
  • 2025: Swap rights with Rockets first-round pick (top-10 protected) or Clippers first-round pick
  • 2026: Clippers first-round pick
  • 2026: Rockets first-round pick (top-four protected)

That’s an incredible collection of resources. Before anyone even knew a rebuild was underway, Oklahoma City got a huge head start toward its next era.

Not at a bad time, either.

The Thunder had stagnated post-Kevin Durant. They won in the high 40s and lost in the first round the last three years. Westbrook was aging. The supporting cast was expensive, especially considering the luxury-tax repeater bill. There was no clear way forward.

The Clippers offered a lifeboat. To entice Kawhi Leonard to sign, they traded five first-round picks and two first-round swaps for George. L.A.’s desperate was Oklahoma City’s gain. Suddenly, the Thunder had assets and a direction.

They traded Jerami Grant to the Nuggets for a top-10-protected first-rounder. Then came the dramatic, era-ending move. Oklahoma City worked with Westbrook to send him to Houston, securing another couple first-rounders and first-round swap rights.

Of course, a large part of the Thunder’s return was taking the burdensome contract of Chris Paul (three years, $124,076,442 remaining). But it’s not as if Westbrook’s contract is desirable, and his runs a year longer with a $47,063,478 salary in 2022-23.

Paul is also still a good player. So is Danilo Gallinari, whom Oklahoma City got from the Clippers to make the salary match in the George deal.

For all their effort to tear build for the future, the Thunder have a team that isn’t much worse presently. Paul, Gallinari and Steven Adams fit well together. More than a few interesting role players could fill the gaps. If everyone stays healthy and if Oklahoma City wants to compete, this group could fight for a playoff spot.

Those are big ifs, though. In their new phase, the Thunder bought out Patrick Patterson and let Alec Burks out of his deal so he could sign with the Warriors. With the same opportunity to back out, Mike Muscala (1+1 minimum) stuck with Oklahoma City. The Thunder also re-signed Nerlens Noel (one year, minimum) before pivoting, but I like that value in any situation.

If Paul and Gallinari avoid injury, Oklahoma City might stay in the race. But it’s easy to see the Thunder wanting to boost the value of their own first-round picks.

Oklahoma City did well to delay the incoming draft picks until years later, when the Clippers and Rockets might not be as good as they are now. That allows a great opportunity to rebuild on someone else’s dime while avoiding dispiriting tanking. Or the Thunder could tank themselves and really stock up on draft capital.

After years of competing, Oklahoma City was short on prime young talent. The Thunder have a few players with potential, including No. 23 pick Darius Bazley, but no real standouts beyond Gilgeous-Alexander, who came from L.A. in the George trade.

The rebuild is just beginning. A step back after a decade of stellar play will be difficult. But considering the chance of maintaining a playoff level next season while securing this influx of assets, Oklahoma City put itself in much stronger position.

Offseason grade: A