The Minnesota Timberwolves’ defense has improved in recent weeks. Could part of the solution be playing Gorgui Dieng and Karl-Anthony Towns together?
The Minnesota Timberwolves are at a crossroads.
Ever since Karl-Anthony Towns sprained his knee against the Clippers three weeks ago, the Timberwolves defense has climbed up the rankings in defensive rating.
With Gorgui Dieng starting at center, the Timberwolves have been No. 3 in the NBA in defensive rating over the past eight games. With Towns at starting center, the Timberwolves were No. 25 in defensive rating over a 19-game sample size since Towns returned from his two-game suspension back at the end of October
With such clear statistics that match the eye test, it’s becoming harder to justify Towns taking Dieng’s job at center. Instead, Towns and Dieng should start alongside one another.
Houston’s front office, including new Wolves president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas, figured out that James Harden is best defending bigger forwards and not shooting guards, and now Rosas is learning a similar story with Towns.
Towns simply doesn’t play with the physicality or awareness it takes to defend the pick-and-roll consistently or to protect the paint, but with the emergence of Dieng on defense and his improved shooting from beyond the arc, it’s time to consider changing the system to a two bigs lineup.
Additionally, to this point, the Wolves have been No. 23 in the league defensive rebounding percentage, and adding another big would also help in that area. While playing two bigs might be a problem when it comes to pace of play and transition defense, given how Towns and Dieng shoot the 3-ball it actually not as much of an issue. As long as one big is above the break, the Wolves should be able to get back in time to protect the paint.
Within the current scheme, if Towns or Dieng are close to the basket and the opposite team secures the ball, too often the wings and guards have to defend a big in transition which is a mismatch.
On Wednesday in Milwaukee, Dieng did a solid job defending Giannis Antetokounmpo in the half-court, but as soon as Giannis got a chance to take the ball full court with Gorgui trailing behind him there wasn’t much the wings could do to stop him without fouling. Having another big at the top of key could really limit those fast bigs like Giannis or Anthony Davis in transition.
Offensively, this team is desperate for shooters and Gorgui Dieng is shooting 36.8 percent from 3-point range over the last 10 games. With Dieng, KAT, and Robert Covington spotting up at the 3 point line, anyone driving to the basket will have multiple solid shooters to pass the ball. Another option is posting up someone like Andrew Wiggins or Jarrett Culver on a smaller guard and having them pass to the bigs for a 3-point attempt when help comes.
An additional benefit in having another big on offense is creating off-ball movement where Covington or Josh Okogie can create separation by running off a screen and create an open shot from three, cut to the basket, or drive to the basket without having to blow by their initial defender. This would really help any of the wings who don’t have as much control of their dribble or the capability of creating their own shot which is basically everybody except Wiggins.
Defensively, Dieng has done a great job contesting shots in drop coverage and should continue to do that but by adding Towns to the lineup, Saunders will have more flexibility to play aggressively.
In the current scheme, Dieng typically drops back in the pick-and-roll, allowing the ball-handler to dribble into the paint. But with Towns behind Gorgui defending the corner three, Dieng could play the ball-handler more aggressively by showing a switch or doubling the ball handler which would force the ball out of their hand and make the other team score with their role players and not their stars.
The Wolves should be able to accomplish this adjustment in certain matchups, against any volume scorer whose strength is creating their own shot in the pick-and-roll. Doubling the ball-handler may allow the rolling big to be open, but with KAT able to slide into the paint and have the size to wall-up it would force the big to pass or force a tough contested shot.
RoCo is 6-foot-7 and 210 pounds and is too small to contest a rolling big in this scheme. Teams may still try to attack Towns in the pick-and-roll, but since Towns would primarily be defending power forwards, teams would have to use the smaller big to set screens, reducing the effectiveness of the screen and allow the on-ball defenders an easier time fighting through the screen. That would allow Towns to play the screen more and not worry about the ball-handler as much.
Or, Towns could simply switch onto the ball-handler to deny anyone to penetrate the paint and force teams to only beat them in isolation and force more of the undesirable contested mid-range shots.
Another reason to switch to the two-big lineup is the number of big men on the team that deserve playing time.
Noah Vonleh, Jordan Bell, and emerging undrafted rookie Naz Reid should be playing more. And with Culver and Wiggins initiating the offense, the Wolves could still play three wings in the lineup along with two bigs. Finally, Robert Covington can go back to his more natural position and defend on the perimeter.
Certainly, the small-ball lineup will still versus some teams, but featuring it consistently regardless of matchup has hurt this team with rebounding, transition defense, and, most of all, in the standings.
Recently, I wrote about trading KAT to capitalize on sky-high trade value and improve the team defensively, but realistically, Rosas needs to figure out any way possible to make this team good defensively with KAT on the floor before giving up on him. And right now, the two-big lineup sure looks like it makes a lot of sense.