The question needs to be asked: At what time and in what universe has DeSagana Diop ever been a better basketball player than Jason Collins? A better teammate? In better shape? A better mentor for Anthony Bennett? As we all know, Diop was signed to a non-guaranteed contract which was essentially an invitation to training camp. As we all know, nobody has invited Collins to training camp. Let’s just not get into that other issue, but let’s deal with what we know: Collins and Diop are more or less the same player. Neither can sink a jump shot to save his life. Both make their living on interior defense and rebounding. Collins is older, but probably in better shape because he hasn’t weighed 350 pounds for most of the last decade, and age is not really relevant since we’re not talking about a five-year deal. Collins has been respected everywhere he has played as a mentor to younger players and as someone who set an example for work habits and attitude. Diop…hasn’t.
In a vacuum, free from whatever other considerations you might want to inject, this should be a decision about who can help the team. Who can guard Dwight Howard for five minutes if everyone else is in foul trouble or hurt? Who is less likely to get burned on the pick and roll that is a staple of about 28 out of 30 NBA offenses? Who can go out and take a charge or throw a timely elbow if Kyrie is getting slammed into the basket support every time he goes in the lane? To some extent, who you would prefer to have on your team probably depends on who you are playing. Against a classic, low-post scorer or rebounder, Collins is a classic defender who gets good position and holds it, making the offensive player step out and shoot from farther away than he prefers to. Diop is more of a shot-blocker, coming off his man to stop a penetrator or challenge any jump shots within eight feet of the rim. As it turns out, the Cavs share a division with two teams who are expected to emphasize low-post scoring. Roy Hibbert of the Pacers and Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe of the Pistons all have the ability to get a foothold in the low post and maneuver their way to an easy shot. Joakim Noah of the Bulls is more athletic, getting his points by running the floor and taking short jump shots.
Overall, though, with Al Jefferson, Jared Sullinger, Paul Millsap, Jonas Valanciunas and possibly Greg Oden also playing in the Eastern Conference this year, the Cavs will face enough low-post scorers that Collins’ style of play would come in handy. Even if you add it up and decide that the talent level is a wash, the reality is that whoever signs is at best the fifth or sixth big man and will spend at least 44 minutes per game waving a towel. In that situation your choice comes down to who works harder in practice, who will best contribute to team chemistry, who understands the game well enough to sit for a month and then come off the bench and play team defense without costing you a game. Without buying into all the hype that has attempted to turn Collins into a saint since he came out, the fact is that he has had a reputation as a solid citizen and good teammate throughout his career that happened to piss off Dwight Howard every time they faced each other. Surely that is worth something. Diop has managed to play an entire decade in the NBA without making a discernable impact of any kind. If he hadn’t been originally drafted by the Cavs and had a distinctive name, nobody would know who he is.
So why Diop? There has been speculation that teams don’t want to be the first to sign Collins, because at some point they would inevitably become the team that cuts Collins, and they are afraid of the backlash that would cause. There has also been speculation that signing him in the preseason would cause hoards of media to descend on training camp, when coaches want no distractions. Personally, both of these reasons are lame. The Cavs have lost 166 games the past three years; anything that draws some attention to Cleveland is a good thing, and this will be news until the next time somebody to get busted for DUI or sued for child support, which in the NBA won’t take long. And as far as backlash, Collins is 34-years old. There may be some activists who try to use him to make a point if he gets released, but most experts know that he is a 12th man at this point, and 12th men are by definition hanging on to a roster spot by their fingernails.
At the end of the day, karma favors the bold. The general manager or coach who says, “I’m doing what helps my team, screw the consequences” comes out ahead of the guy who frets about things he can’t control. Given a choice between avoiding distractions for a couple of weeks and being remembered 20 years from now as someone who did something courageous; the choice seems easy.