Why did the Timberwolves sign Jordan Hill?

Feb 28, 2016; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indiana Pacers center Jordan Hill (27) is guarded by Portland Trail Blazers forward Ed Davis (17) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Portland defeated Indiana 111-102. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 28, 2016; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indiana Pacers center Jordan Hill (27) is guarded by Portland Trail Blazers forward Ed Davis (17) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Portland defeated Indiana 111-102. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports /

In a move that many saw as unnecessary, the Timberwolves signed big man Jordan Hill to a two-year deal to shore up their front court.

Indeed, the Timberwolves entered the 2016 off-season with a glaring hole at power forward, and though Jordan Hill can play the position, he doesn’t actually fill that need.

Minnesota’s issue is not a lack of big men. Gorgui Dieng, Kevin Garnett, Nemanja Bjelica, and Adreian Payne can all play at the four-spot. The problem with this collection of players is that none of them are combo forwards that can also take time at small forward. In that regard, Hill doesn’t bring anything new to the table.

Tayshaun Prince played 1,462 minutes for the Wolves last season, and 84 percent of those minutes were at small forward, per Basketball-Reference.com. Andrew Wiggins can handle some of that load by playing the position full-time. This is ideal, as it allows Zach LaVine to become a full-time shooting guard, opening up a few more minutes for Kris Dunn at the point while putting every player at their natural position.

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However, this shift won’t entirely fill the gap left by Prince’s departure. What the Wolves really needed to add this off-season was a player that can fill in at both forward positions, and ideally take over as a starting power forward in the long term. Though the team can afford to wait until next off-season to truly solidify the roster, Hill’s abilities don’t seem to fill a role of need for the Timberwolves.

The signing doesn’t make much immediate sense, if any. However, the contract is good for two years. It is in that second year that things begin to add up.

After the 2016-17 season, Minnesota could realistically lose about 3,000 minutes-worth of big men. Dieng will be a restricted free agent, and there is a good chance he garners an offer for more than the Timberwolves will want to pay him.

Garnett will, in all likelihood, retire. Nikola Pekovic may not be far behind, as his once-promising career has been completely derailed by injuries. If he hopes to salvage a future for himself in the league, it will likely not be in Minnesota. Some sort of a contract buyout seems to be in his destiny.

There is a good chance that there will be a major drop-off in available big men after this season. Having Hill on board gives the team an insurance policy, particularly for the possibility of losing Dieng.

Hill is not a suitable replacement for Dieng in terms of quality or value. He is older and less productive, but their games are similar enough that Hill can fill in without forcing Tom Thibodeau to reconstruct the game plan. This also comes into play if Dieng is injured, or even when he’s taking a few minutes on the bench.

Take a look at where these players are taking their shots.

Shot Frequency By Distance
0 to 33 to 1010 to 1616 to 3P3P
Jordan Hill33.2%28.1%14.8%23.7%0.0%
Gorgui Dieng38.7%19.7%15.7%22.3%4.0%

Dieng takes a few more of his shots inside while Hill takes more of his shots in the 3-to-10 foot range, but these differences are minor. The same trend holds up when looking at their inefficiencies, with one important difference.

FG% By Distance
0 to 33 to 1010 to 1616 to 3P3P
Jordan Hill65.9%47.4%50.6%33.8%0.0%
Gorgui Dieng71.0%39.5%46.2%43.4%30.0%

Though both players take a similar portion of their shots from mid-range, Dieng is considerably more effective on these attempts. These aren’t the shots most coaches prefer, but sometimes they have to be taken. When those times come around, Dieng is the preferable player.

Dieng’s real value is his defense, which is why it is surprising that, on paper, the comparisons with Hill continue to hold up on this end. Take a look at how their opponents shoot against them from various distances (per NBA.com’s defensive player tracking statistics).

Opponent Shooting
OverallLess than 6Less than 10Greater than 15
Jordan Hill1.9%-2.4%-1.2%1.9%
Gorgui Dieng3.1%2.5%3.0%0.0%

Remember, a negative number is a good thing in this table, as it means that opponents are shooting a lower percentage than usual. As you can see, Hill rates as the better interior defender while Dieng is the better outside defender. When looking at rim protection stats (made available by Nylon Calculus), this trend holds up.

 Rim Protection
FG% AllowedContest %Points Saved/36Rim Att On/Off
Jordan Hill53.10%32.10%-0.090.2
Gorgui Dieng52.30%30.90%-0.49-0.1

These numbers paint Hill as the slightly better defender. Does this mean he is actually more valuable on that end? No, not quite. There is a lot more to defense than one-on-one match-ups, and a lot of extraneous factors go into whether or not a shot goes in.

Luckily, ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus attempts to quantify this difference by estimating how many points a player saves his team while on the court. Dieng rates as a 2.54, while Hill rates as a 1.03. This falls into line with the common perception of these players. (For the record, Dieng also rates as a considerably better offensive player in ESPN’s Offensive Real Plus-Minus statistic.)

To sum it up, Dieng is certainly the more valuable player. However, their styles are similar enough that Hill can come in and fill in for Dieng at a passable level should that become necessary. His game does not stretch as far out as Dieng’s does, but he can get the job done close to the basket.

So while the Hill signing does not solve Minnesota’s minutes dilemma at small forward, there is still a purpose to it. The real mission will be to retain Dieng while also adding a quality forward for the future next off-season, but sometimes plans go awry.

Next: What Should The Timberwolves Do At Power Forward?

Insurance is not glamorous, but it is wise. And for the Timberwolves, this signing was all about insurance.