Minnesota Timberwolves: On the messy frontcourt rotation

HOUSTON, TX - APRIL 18: Gorge Dieng. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TX - APRIL 18: Gorge Dieng. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images) /

The Minnesota Timberwolves‘ frontcourt will look slightly different in the 2018-19 season. How will Tom Thibodeau manage the rotation?

Tom Thibodeau’s first season as Timberwolves head coach was the 2016-17 campaign, and Gorgui Dieng‘s fourth season in the NBA.

After having played almost entirely center over the first two years of his career and splitting time almost evenly between the four and the five in his third season, Dieng started all 82 games at the power forward spot in 2016-17.

Dieng showed remarkable consistency, averaging nearly identical numbers to his 2015-16 season and adding a corner 3-point shot to his arsenal. He was still only put up 10 points and 7.9 rebounds per game in the season immediately following his signing of a four-year, $64 million contract extension.

The 2017-18 campaign was Dieng’s first year on the new contract. It also happened to be Taj Gibson‘s first year in Minnesota, which meant that Dieng went from starting 82 games in 2016-17 to exactly zero in 2017-18. For the first season of his five-year career, Dieng came off the bench for every single contest.

At first glance, Dieng appears to be the perfect third big. He is a natural center and a solid rim-protector, and is more than capable when it comes to defending the pick-and-roll for a 7-footer in today’s game.

He can play minutes at power forward and knock down open jumpers when asked, even ranking among the NBA’s best as a mid-range shooter while hitting on 44 percent of his 2-point jumpers from beyond 16 feet over the past three seasons. Dieng did take a step back from 3-point range last year; after making 37.2 percent from deep two years ago, he made only 31.1 percent in 2017-18 and saw his percentage from the corners plummet from 45.2 percent to 29.8 percent.

But in his first year as a full-time backup, Dieng averaged only 16.9 minutes per game. He was just ninth on the team in total minutes, and saw his per-game averages drop to 5.9 points and 4.6 rebounds.

Dieng’s minutes shrunk considerably because of Gibson’s addition, of course. Not only was Taj the starter, but he was one of Thibodeau’s old Bulls players, so there was certainly a level of comfort to playing him alongside fellow new acquisition and former Bull, Jimmy Butler.

But there was also Nemanja Bjelica, who outpaced Dieng in minutes and played 87 percent of his minutes at the power forward spot, according to Basketball-Reference. That meant that Dieng played 72 percent of his own minutes at center, backing up Karl-Anthony Towns, who was seventh in the league in total minutes played and averaged 35.6 minutes per game.

Once again, Dieng was largely effective when he was allowed on the court, and while Bjelica added a long-range shooting threat that Dieng simply couldn’t provide, there were plenty of games in which more Dieng and less of Gibson — or even an exhausted Towns — may have been the right call.

As we head towards the fall of 2018, Bjelica is gone, having joined the Sacramento Kings after reneging on a deal with Philadelphia. The Timberwolves replaced him with journeyman sharpshooter Anthony Tolliver and rookie second-round draft pick Keita Bates-Diop — both players who should be capable of filling in at both wing spots and showing a bit more versatility than Bjelica.

But even still, adding two wings who are both better served to play the four means that Dieng will almost exclusively be Towns’ backup at center, further limiting his minutes. Unless Thibodeau gets creative with his rotations, it’s hard to see Dieng logging more than the 16.9 minutes per game he averaged last year.

And that’s okay, all things considered. He was still a solid all-around player who suffered a shooting drought late in the season, shooting just 38.8 percent from the field in February and 42.5 percent from Feb. 1 through the end of the regular season.

In a perfect world, Dieng’s role would be something between “third big mostly relegated to backup center behind an All-Star” and “miscast starting power forward”. Is he overpaid? Sure, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be a valuable contributor when he’s on the court.

Unfortunately, his contract will make it difficult for the Timberowlves to trade him to what might be more of an ideal situation moving forward. For Dieng’s sake, let’s hope that the Wolves are able to find a home that can provide a more consistent role as he heads into the middle years of both his prime and his contract.

It remains to be seen what the minutes breakdown between Tolliver, Bates-Diop, and Dieng will be, and whether or not Thibodeau will allow himself to be imaginative. If he doesn’t get creative, expect to see a lot of Tolliver, virtually none of Bates-Diop, and even less of Dieng than we did a year ago.

Next. Top NBA player comparisons for rookie Keita Bates-Diop. dark

At any rate, Thibodeau has options — a better situation to be in than the alternative.