By Royce Webb
A little touch of Magic
Three years from now, who will be the best player in the notorious Joe Johnson trade? Will it be Johnson, who will have developed his fine talents in the obscurity of Atlanta? Will it be one of the two first-round draft picks -- lottery picks, no doubt -- the Suns received from the Hawks? Or will it be Boris Diaw, the player the Hawks handed the Suns to seal the deal?
The surprising answer is becoming clearer during every Suns game. As Diaw, the drive-and-dish specialist with the Mensa-level basketball I.Q., continues to grow in confidence, he is showing a very rare set of skills that have us searching for the right comparison.
Or, to put it another way: Maybe it's just me, but if I'm running the worst team in basketball, I don't give away an athletic, 23-year-old, 6-8 guy who can do a reasonable impersonation of Magic Johnson.
Is Boris Diaw really another Magic? Of course not. Not yet, anyway.
For one thing, there is no one else like Magic Johnson. For another, Magic had the ball in his hands all the time, as the point guard for one of the greatest teams ever. And, perhaps most significant, Diaw's personality is passive and Kareem-style cool, whereas Magic was an effervescent leader who had the same effect on the staid Lakers of the late '70s that Steve Nash did on the Suns in 2004-05.
But, then again, how many guys can even be in the sentence with Magic?
In Atlanta, Diaw had a big problem. He could get into the lane at will, but he wouldn't or couldn't finish at the basket -- he preferred to look for a teammate on almost every drive. He had, as John Hollinger noted, an "inability to score," largely because he was "almost comically unselfish."
The Hawks, as dumb teams do, focused on what he couldn't do. The Suns, as smart teams do, saw what he could do.
So, in a genius move that probably only Phoenix coach Mike D'Antoni would try, they took the point guard and made him a center. (This is where the Magic comparisons start to make a little more sense, if you recall Magic playing the post in the 1980 Finals or during his 1996 comeback.)
Diaw's got some work to do to reach his peak. His shot is flat, which costs him a potential weapon in the Suns' run-and-gun offense.
Also, he needs to finish stronger. He can drive past almost anyone, with his long, smooth strides. (It's not his first step that gets you, it's his third, when he turns the corner and swoops in for a layup or draws the help defender and makes the dish.) But he tends to still look to pass or flip the ball up instead of dunking it when he approaches the rim.
Sunday night, the Suns started to see signs that he's getting it, and fast. He tried a power slam on a drive in the first quarter, drawing a foul. In the second quarter, he followed a Suns miss with an Amare-like one-hand rebound jam, and in the third, he rolled to the basket for a convincing two-hand throwdown. If that's what Diaw's finishes of the future look like, watch out.
Because otherwise he's got the total game. He guards power forwards and centers routinely, shutting down the 'Sheeds and Yaos of the world. He grabs boards and starts the break (though, unlike Magic, he doesn't often lead the break, given that the Suns have Nash). And he has eyes on all sides of his head and the imagination and passing touch to match.
On Sunday, in his return to Phoenix, Joe Johnson played a very respectable game (23 points on 9-for-16 shooting, with an assist and two rebounds), especially considering the boos from the stands and the utter lack of help on the floor from the hapless Hawks. It certainly wasn't his fault the Hawks were blown out, trailing by 36 on the way to a 112-94 loss.
But it was Diaw's nifty play and the efficiency of his stat line -- 5-for-6 FGs, 4-for-5 FTs, nine assists, four boards, four blocks -- that bring us back to the original question: Which team got the best player in the trade?
Hawks guard Joe Johnson, left, says hello to former teammate Steve Nash before Sunday's night's game in Phoenix. After he was booed and his team was blown out, Johnson said he'd make the same choice to leave.
It's amazing how we allow ourselves to be persuaded by someone else's opinion. Even though I've seen Pau Gasol play many times and know how good he really is, I, like many others, joined the ranks and thought about how slow, soft and unaggressive he seemed.
Could I have been more wrong? Gasol may not be fleet of foot, but he's quick enough to drive around many defenders and flush it. He may not be known for his aggressiveness, but he won't hesitate to put an elbow in your chest if necessary. Maybe it's just the beard.
Even though Gasol is in his fifth season he finally looks comfortable with his teammates. Credit GM Jerry West with getting rid of some guys (Jason Williams, Stromile Swift, James Posey and Bonzi Wells) that didn't mesh with Pau, and bringing in guys who relish playing with him (Eddie Jones,Bobby Jackson and Damon Stoudamire).
According to Grizzlies coach Mike Fratello, what really helped Gasol this past offseason was his decision not to play for Spain's national team. He instead worked on improving his strength and fine-tuned the many aspects of his game. He came into camp rested, stronger and ready to play. All that work has paid dividends. As of this past weekend he was averaging 18.6 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 4.2 apg (career high), 2.35 bpg. He has become the leader of this team.
Gasol no longer tries to force the action. He trusts that his teammates will help him along. Against Houston last week the Rockets choose to double-team Gasol when he received the ball in the post.
Yes, he had a season-low nine points, but he continually found open teammates to tally eight assists and help the Grizzlies to a 90-75 win. He then took out his frustrations on the Mavericks in Dallas the next night. Gasol finished that game with 36 points, 15 rebounds and 5 assists to lead the Grizzlies to an impressive 112-95 victory.
Not only is Pau proving the experts wrong, but this Memphis team is doing the same. Opposing teams might want to wish for a little help this Christmas when playing the Grizzlies. This is not the same team as in seasons past.
-- Will Perdue
Van Gundy: 'I Blew It'
"Facing a winning situation, Stan Van Gundy stuck with the zone, leading to Earl Boykins' 3-pointer that lifted the Nuggets to the 101-99 victory. The loss broke the Heat's three-game winning streak and dropped it to 2-1 on its five-game road trip. 'Quite simply, I blew it ... the zone got us back in it but there is no way we should have been in a zone on the final play. It was stupid,' Van Gundy said." -- South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Dirk Needs To Play More In The Post
Nets Struggle With Identity Crisis
Shaquille O'Neal watched the Lakers-Bobcats on Sunday at the Staples Center. The Heat center, whose team is in LA to face the Clippers on Monday, said he expects to practice on Tuesday. He has missed 15 games with a sprained right ankle.
Quote of the Night
-- Andrew Ayres
Potential is a dangerous word in the NBA. It gets players drafted and general managers fired.
This year's No. 1 pick, Andrew Bogut, has plenty of potential. What he also has going for him is that he's not starting his career on a bad team. The Milwaukee Bucks might be the most improved team in the league.
Through Saturday they were leading the league in rebounding (46 per game), offensive rebounding (14.79) and 3-point field goal percentage (.424). The 9-6 Bucks have made changes through the draft (Bogut), with trades (Jamaal Magloire) and with improving health (T.J. Ford).
Being the No. 1 pick means you're supposed to be an impact player. Fortunately for the Bucks, coach Terry Stotts is just asking Bogut to have an impact as a role player.
As of Saturday his numbers were good (8.0 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 2 apg and 50 percent FGs). What's been most impressive, according to the Bucks' coaches, is his ability to learn on the fly and adjust during the game. I saw a good example of that Saturday when he faced the league's second-leading rebounder, Dwight Howard.
On the Magic's first possession they missed a jumper that Howard put back with a two-handed slam. On that play Bogut tried to block out Howard the conventional way, putting a body (his back) on him. With Howard's quickness and leaping ability that's easier said than done. The next time down the floor, when the shot went up, Bogut whirled, face-guarded Howard, stuck a forarm in his chest and pushed him away from the basket. This allowed a teammate to get the rebound. Lesson learned.
Too bad more No. 1 picks have not had this luxury of being eased into the NBA. Don't get me wrong, Bogut still has expectations to fulfill this season. But when his career is over we could be looking back and saying this kid lived up to his potential. All because of a little patience.
-- Will Perdue
Saturday's game with the Grizzlies marked the 1,526th home game in the Rockets' 39 seasons in the NBA (two seasons in San Diego followed by 37 in Houston). But it was the first time in any of those games that they had trailed by more than 20 points at the end of the first quarter. Memphis went on to win, 90-75.
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Biggest surprise (player)
Coach of the Year: Mike Montgomery, Warriors. We're still trying to get a handle on checking out the NBA standings each day and seeing Golden State and the Clippers vying for first place in the Pacific. No. 2: Flip Saunders, Pistons. No. 3: Avery Johnson, Mavericks.