Wolves’ two-center lineup: The jury is still out


Nikola Pekovic returned from a lengthy absence due to injury just last week. He came off the bench in his first two games back in an effort to manage his minutes and the wear-and-tear being put on his battered left foot and ankle.

That experiment lasted exactly two games, as head coach Flip Saunders no doubt understood the need to have his best players on the court as much as possible. To remedy the issue, Saunders chose Sunday’s game in Atlanta to try a massive, two-center starting lineup: Gorgui Dieng was the starting power forward alongside Pekovic, with Thaddeus Young sliding down to the small forward position along with Andrew Wiggins and Mo Williams at the guards.

Wiggins is a six-foot-eight shooting guard, and Young is naturally a power forward despite his tweener size of six-foot-eight. Now, Saunders is running out two 6′-8″ players and two seven-footers along with Mo Williams.

At first glance, the biggest challenge would appear to be defensively. While Dieng is a very good helpside defender and an adept shot-blocker, he isn’t a great one-on-one defensive player. He struggles with bigger centers that overpower him in the post, and he doesn’t possess the lateral quickness to stay with stretch-fours on the perimeter.

Strangely enough, the pairing was passable in Atlanta and worked even better on defense in Oklahoma City. Serge Ibaka is the quintessential stretch-four (a souped-up, star-version of Gorgui in some ways), and the Wolves pestered him into a 6 of 13 shooting night with zero free throw attempts. He scored just 13 points on the night.

The issues that arose were at times on the glass but primarily on the offensive end of the floor. As far as rebounding goes, one might think that having two seven-footers on the court would improve rebounding in general, but in reality, it seemed to hurt the Wolves at key points in the second half on Monday night.

While they were ultimately only out-rebounded by a 52-50 margin, they gave up 19 boards to Ibaka and were beaten on the boards badly to start the fourth quarter — when the gap between the two teams was shrinking, they gave up ten rebounds to their own four in the early stages of the final frame. Having Dieng pulled away from the rim is generally a bad thing. (Yes, he grabbed 18 rebounds on Monday, but again, Ibaka had 19. Not something that should keep happening.)

On offense, this move is predicated on Dieng’s ability to make mid-range jumpers and generally space the floor just enough for Pekovic to operate in the post. Robbie Hummel would have been a reasonable option to play at the four-spot next to Pekovic, but his injury is forcing the Wolves to opt for a different kind of spacing.

Dieng’s move to the ‘four’ slides Young to the three-spot. According to Basketball-Reference.com, Thad Young has played 95% of his career minutes at the power forward position, and he admitted to the Star Tribune that the move was a bit of a surprise. Having a non-shooter like Young at small forward bogs down the offense from a spacing perspective — he’s shooting just 27.8% from three-point range this season and just 20.9% since returning from a five-game absence in mid-November due to the passing of his mother.

He has the reputation of being a decent mid-range shooter, but his shot chart tells a different story.

Yep, Young is shooting under 34% from between the painted area and the arc. That’s not good, and if the defense recognizes that and keys in on protecting the paint from Pekovic and Dieng, they’ll be able to shutdown the Wolves’ offense.

The benefit to having Young at small forward is his ability to drive (to his left only, of course), slash, and facilitate. He managed to dish out seven assists in Atlanta on Sunday and another three in Oklahoma City the following night. Young knows this too, and mentions it in the above-linked Star Tribune piece discussing the move.

But if defenses close out on Young and double-team the post, the Wolves will be stopped cold. And Saunders has only exacerbated the problem by playing Wiggins out of the post as much as he does. On Monday night, the Thunder continually doubled-down on the Wolves’ rookie to force a turnover or knock the ball out of bounds. Opposing teams can double off of anyone on the floor except for possibly Mo Williams — Young isn’t a threat from deep, and Pekovic and Dieng will too often be occupying the same space near the rim. There’s nobody for Wiggins to safely deliver a pass to out of the post.

While a Young-Dieng-Pekovic trio will certainly muddy-up the game and give the Wolves a fighting chance on most nights, it isn’t going to help create a more synergistic offense. As long as Saunders understands that, the Wolves could steal a few wins against superior teams by playing this way. But it won’t make sense when Ricky Rubio returns, and quite frankly, it’s not very fun to watch.

Saunders isn’t in this thing to play aesthetically-pleasing basketball, of course. (He’s no David Kahn or Kurt Rambis.) But he’s also in it to develop young players, and this Frankenstein’s monster, patchwork of an offense (and roster) isn’t teaching anyone much other than how not to run an offense.

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