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Diaw leads strong group of Most Improved candidates
By John Hollinger
When it comes to breakout years, few can match what Phoenix Suns forward Boris Diaw has done this season.
When we last saw the 23-year-old Frenchman, he was mired at the end of the bench for the lowly Atlanta Hawks. After briefly breaking into the starting lineup as a rookie, he quickly fell out of the rotation in his sophomore season and by the end of the year rarely saw action. When he did play, his inability to connect from long range and his reluctance to shoot from any range were a constant source of frustration. He was, arguably, the worst player on the worst team in the league.
That all changed when he arrived in Phoenix as a throw-in to the sign-and-trade deal for Joe Johnson. Suns coach Mike D'Antoni thought the 6-foot-8 Diaw's combination of size and versatility would be an asset in Phoenix's open-court system and figured Diaw might be a diamond in the rough. But even D'Antoni wasn't totally sure.
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images
Boris Diaw has soared beyond the Suns' expectations.
"I thought he could be effective as a four or five," said D'Antoni. "But I didn't know if he could guard fours or fives because he always played one, two or three [in Atlanta]. ... Then he came in and he could guard fours and fives really well. That just opened his whole game up, because he can drive to the basket, he plays like a point guard at the four position, and we can run offense through him."
Diaw took that opportunity and ran with it, thriving as a power forward in the Suns' small-ball lineup and creating nightly mismatches with his varied skills. He averages 11.7 points, 6.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists for the Pacific Division-leading Suns. Additionally, Diaw is shooting 49.7 percent and has keyed one of the league's most improved defenses. As a result, he's one of the favorites to win this year's Most Improved Player award.
Diaw credits a better fit in Phoenix for his sudden blooming.
"The philosophy of the game, they way we play here in Phoenix, it's really unselfish," said Diaw in his French accent. "A lot of passes, a lot of shots, a lot of up and down. The game is faster, too. When I'm on the court I'm able to read better and make passes to my teammates because I know where they're going to be."
Needless to say, his exploits have left those who saw him in Atlanta flabbergasted. While many Hawks fans complained that the team gave up too much by sending two No. 1s to the Suns for Johnson, absolutely nobody said a peep about throwing Diaw into the deal. His hesitant offense made him a bad fit in the backcourt, and the Hawks' overcrowded forward position made moving him to the frontcourt impossible.
"You've got to be happy for a player like that." his former coach, Mike Woodson, said. "I think he's always had skills. I think the fact they're playing him at the four and five has put him in a position where he's found a niche for his game."
That's not to say Diaw is done enduring growing pains. His shooting remains a work in progress -- 20 percent on 3s, 69.3 percent from the line -- and the passive play that marked his years in Atlanta still creeps to the fore once in a while. For instance, during one sequence in his return to Atlanta last week, Diaw caught a pass in the lane and had a chance to post up from short range. Instead he took a dribble, surveyed his options and fed the ball back out to the perimeter, earning a three-second violation for his efforts.
"He's still got to be more aggressive, he's still got to dunk with authority, he's still got to work on his shot," said D'Antoni. "He has those [reluctant to shoot] tendencies, but you can't get upset with him. That's how he plays, that's his game. He'll do that, but I think little by little we can get him to be a little bit more aggressive in finishing."
Despite D'Antoni's efforts, Diaw isn't planning to go on a Kobe-esque gunning rampage anytime soon. That unselfishness, though taken to extremes at times in Atlanta, is part of his style.
"I don't think I changed a lot," said Diaw of his breakout. "I still play the same way, kind of a versatile player. I got better for sure, I get better every year, but I don't think I changed as a player."
Regardless, he's changed enough to have the inside track on the Most Improved trophy. "I didn't realize he was this good," admitted D'Antoni, even though the Suns had been interested in Diaw since he was playing professionally in France.
But the race isn't over just yet. Here's a look at some others who figure to get votes for Most Improved (in alphabetical order):
• Steve Blake, Portland Trail Blazers: Blake was a free agent in the offseason and wasn't exactly overcome with offers after shooting .328 in Washington. He finally landed in Portland, where he figured to be the third-string point guard behind Sebastian Telfair and rookie Jarrett Jack. Instead, Blake has nearly doubled his PER, taken over the starting job and helped make the Blazers much more respectable of late.
• Chris Bosh, Toronto Raptors: In his third pro season, Bosh has taken another big step forward, launching himself past Carmelo Anthony as the third-best player from the loaded 2003 draft. Bosh's averages of 22.6 points and 9.1 rebounds are so impressive that he'll probably pull off the rare feat of making the All-Star squad despite playing for a horrible team. It's not like he's just been firing away for a bad team, either -- he's hitting 50.6 percent from the floor and 81.5 percent from the line.
• Elton Brand, Los Angeles Clippers: With a new commitment to conditioning and an improved mid-range jump shot, Brand has pushed himself into the MVP race and kept the Clippers on pace for a rare playoff berth. The lighter-on-his-feet Brand is averaging career highs of 24.9 points and 2.6 blocks while shooting a sizzling 52.3 percent from the floor. He's been so good, in fact, that the Western Conference coaches might not be able to shaft him this time when picking reserves for the All-Star Game.
• Josh Howard, Dallas Mavericks: Who says four-year college players can't become stars? Howard is another stud from the 2003 draft, stolen at the end of the first round by the Mavs, who've watched him become the second-best player on what is arguably the league's second-best team. His numbers (15.8 points, 6.9 boards) are solid rather than spectacular, but he has one of the league's lowest turnover rates and is a major reason Dallas has improved so much defensively. When he plays at least 15 minutes, the Mavs are a Pistons-like 30-7.
• Andres Nocioni, Chicago Bulls: I didn't include any second-year players on this list except Nocioni, because in general we expect those guys to make sharp improvements. (Besides, have you seen the sophs this year? Ugh.)
Nocioni is the exception, for two reasons. First, he was a much older rookie -- coming to the league at 25 -- so nobody expected him to take a major step up in year two. Second, of all the players to play more than 2,000 minutes or 70 games in 2004-05 and on pace to do so again in 2005-06, he's improved his PER more than anyone except Bosh (see chart).
Now that he's accustomed to the NBA's longer 3-point line, Nocioni has nearly doubled his 3-point accuracy -- from a miserable 25.8 percent to a nearly league-leading 47.5 percent. With that threat established, he can also use shot fakes to set up his drives to the basket. Unfortunately, he's playing fewer minutes because Luol Deng is healthy again, but that's not his fault.
Biggest PER improvement, 2004-05 to 2005-06*
Players 2005-06 PER 2004-05 PER Difference
Chris Bosh 23.55 17.54 6.01
Andres Nocioni 15.75 9.96 5.79
Kobe Bryant 28.83 23.28 5.55
Chauncey Billups 24.32 19.05 5.27
Elton Brand 27.76 22.54 5.22
*Players with 70 games or 2,000 minutes in 2004-05 and on pace for the same in 2005-06
• Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs: Stat of the year: Parker, not Shaquille O'Neal or Tim Duncan, leads the NBA in points in the paint. Yes, it's been beaten to death, but it's still amazing. Diaw's teammate on les blues has done so largely by eschewing the 3-pointer -- he's tried only 22 all year -- in favor of repeatedly driving to the rim for layups and short floaters. The change appears to have worked, as he is shooting 54.8 percent (!), good for second-best in the NBA, and should be making his first All-Star appearance.
• Smush Parker, Los Angeles Lakers: Of course, Tony might not even be the most improved Parker. Smush's career seemed headed straight to nowhere until he arrived in L.A., but he's taken over the starting point guard job for a Lakers team that appears playoff bound. He's not just handing off to Kobe either, putting up 11.5 points and snatching 1.6 steals.
• Gerald Wallace, Charlotte Bobcats: It's no accident that the Bobcats dropped 13 in a row after Wallace went out of the lineup -- the 'Cats are a quasi-respectable 9-21 when Wallace plays at least 15 minutes, and a putrid 2-15 when he doesn't. The high-flying forward leads the NBA in steals and is 10th in blocks, a rare defensive double whammy normally reserved for the likes of David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon, and he's also upped his field-goal average nearly a hundred points. The league's other 29 teams should be embarrassed right now. They paid scant attention to Wallace in the free-agent market this past summer.
• David West, Hornets: Chris Paul might be the biggest reason for New Orleans/Oklahoma City's surprise playoff run, but West's development runs a close second. After a sophomore season that was ruined by injuries and poor shot selection, West showed up this year with a greatly improved jump shot and shrewder judgment regarding when to use it. That has upped his field-goal mark from .436 to .512, and he's improved his other numbers to 17.0 points and 8.0 boards per game -- all of which makes him the biggest threat to Diaw for the award.
Three new Cavs add up to one big train wreck
By John Hollinger
They say good things come in small packages. But bad things can come in packages too, and not necessarily small ones.
For further proof, just take a look at this year's most disappointing players. As luck would have it, each has been packaged by fate with an equally disappointing partner, either by playing with him, being traded for him or being replaced by him.
Having already gone over my candidates for most improved, it's only fitting that I also present the list of candidates for the year's "least improved" -- those who dropped off last year's "most" list. Since the league won't be presenting an award in this category, I have my own name for it -- the All-Train Wreck team.
Before I present the list, note that I left off a few people whose problems seem more related to injuries than ineffectiveness – Peja Stojakovic, Tim Duncan, Quentin Richardson, Jamaal Tinsley and Jason Collins, for instance, don't appear on the list below.
And of course, you'll notice the members of the All-Train Wreck come in packages. For instance:
Larry Hughes and Antonio Daniels. Washington thought it had a replacement for the departed Hughes when it signed Daniels, but he's been arguably the most disappointing player in the entire league. The steady scoring off the bench that Daniels provided in Seattle instead turned into a stream of bricks this year. He's shooting a career-worst 37.5 percent from the floor, and his once passable 3-point shot is now hitting at ghastly 17.0 percent clip. In nearly the same minutes, his scoring average dropped from 11.2 to 6.9.
Here's the punch line -- it turns out the Wizards were screwed either way. Using their full midlevel exception on an unproductive Daniels was bad, but dropping $60 million to keep Hughes might have been worse. After a breakout 2004-05, Hughes struggled to mesh with LeBron James in Cleveland's backcourt. He somehow found a way to take nearly five fewer shots a game but still make more turnovers, and his league-leading steal total of a year ago has been cut nearly in half. Making matters worse, Hughes suffered his annual 20-game injury and is back on the injured -- 'scuse me, inactive -- list.
PER: "All-Train Wreck" Team
PLAYER 2004-05 PER 2005-06 PER DIFFERENCE
Antonio Daniels 18.08 10.86 7.22
Desmond Mason 14.72 7.55 7.17
Larry Hughes 21.63 14.56 7.07
Damon Jones 15.57 9.17 6.40
Donyell Marshall 19.92 14.13 5.79
Devin Brown 14.57 10.72 3.85
Michael Finley 14.34 10.50 3.84
Brent Barry 14.01 11.00 3.01
Jamaal Magloire 12.80 11.76 1.04
Desmond Mason and Jamaal Magloire. Is it possible for both teams to get the worst of a deal? Both Mason and Magloire have become significantly worse in their new homes, leaving execs in Milwaukee and Oklahoma City scrambling to hit the Ctrl-Z buttons.
Let's start with Mason, my choice for the worst offensive player in the league who still gets plays run for him. He's hitting a career-worst 37.8 percent with his weird, hands-way-out-in-front-of-the-body shooting motion, and finding time to commit nearly two turnovers a game on the side. He suddenly forgot how to pass, too, registering 0.9 assists per game.
As for the Bucks, Magloire was supposed to rebound from an injury-plagued 2004-05 campaign and solidify the Bucks' soft interior. Guess not. Milwaukee remains a poor defensive team even with the Big Cat, and his numbers have never approached those of his All-Star season in 2003-04. It's hard to know what's more puzzling -- how a guy who shot better than 70 percent from the line three years in a row can be mired at 54.3 percent this year, or how a guy who never gets the ball can still make 2.4 turnovers per game.
Michael Finley, Brent Barry and Devin Brown. San Antonio's wingmen (current and former) aren't looking nearly as mighty as they did a year ago. En route to the Spurs' championship, Barry and Brown played important roles off the bench with their shooting and ball handling. That hasn't been the case this year. Barry's normally reliable shot has deserted him -- for a guy who might be the best standstill shooter of the past decade, 34.7 percent on 3-pointers is unacceptable.
Meanwhile, Brown left as a free agent for Utah but forgot to take his game with him. The 6-foot-5 swingman is shooting a career-low 39.8 percent and has nearly doubled his turnovers from a year ago in similar minutes. It's been so bad that he was passed over for a start this week in favor of Milt Palacio.
Then again, his replacement hasn't done any better. Michael Finley was supposed to energize San Antonio's second unit with his offensive skills, but instead has looked very old. He's averaging a modest 9.4 points despite plenty of minutes (27.4 a game) and, like many players on this list, is shooting a career low at 38.3 percent.
Damon Jones and Donyell Marshall. It's kind of amazing to see the Cavs at 27-18 when you look at what a disaster their free agents have been. I mentioned Hughes above, but after the Cavs nabbed him, they turned their attention to Jones and Marshall, both of whom have been tremendous disappointments.
Jones, the self-proclaimed best shooter in the world, has disguised that fact exceptionally well this year. He's hitting only 36.9 percent overall and 35.7 percent on his trademark 3-point shots, both of which are huge declines from his breakout year in Miami in 2004-05. He's also annoying fans with his bragging and strutting, stuff that plays much better with the locals when the shots are falling. Since he's a sieve on defense and doesn't create shots for others, he needs to start finding the range.
At least Marshall has still been an effective player, but he's not nearly the weapon he was a year ago in Toronto. Marshall shot over 40 percent on 3-pointers for three straight seasons, but the trip across the border has devalued him to a mere 31.9 percent in Cleveland. With LeBron James providing him with plenty of open looks from his favored spot in the corner, that figure needs to improve.