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Gorgui Dieng, Big Man, Is Master of the Little Things

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A look back at the “little things” Gorgui Dieng added to his game this past season and how he is, possibly, a crucial piece to the future in Minnesota.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Do you remember David Eckstein? Yeah, Eckstein, the 5’6” shortstop who looked more like his team’s secondary mascot—The Rally Monkey—than an All-Star-caliber baseball player. You may remember Eckstein from the early 2000’s Anaheim Angels that knocked off the Minnesota Twins in the 2002 American League Championship Series on their way to winning the pennant.

The scrappy infielder was the embodiment of the guy who did the little things or the proverbial dirty work. There was no shortage of media-driven platitudes used to reference Eckstein’s intangible value; “Makes a Little Go a Long Way,” “A Small Wonder,” and of course “The ‘Ecks’ Factor.” This was no gimmick, Eckstein was treated as a star player for the way he played enough so to be crowned the World Series MVP in 2006.

Yes, Gorgui Dieng looks different than Eckstein but sometimes I wonder if we don’t appreciate the little things he does on the basketball court in the same manner baseball fans respected Eckstein’s work on the baseball diamond. I think this is in part due to the fact that being a “gritty” player in baseball is much more noticeable. A guy that is diving all over the place in baseball literally gets dirty, as in covered in dirt.

To notice the little things in basketball, in lieu of dirt, highlighting play that doesn’t stack up in the box score is key. With Dieng, this is imperative because his contributions often don’t catch the eye.

Highlighting the “Little Things”

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Denver Nuggets Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Ability to Shoot Mid-range Jumpers

With the Wolves primary scoring option (Karl-Anthony Towns) operating from all areas of the court—threes, drives, and post ups—it is important for Dieng to be “out of the way.” An ideal scenario for Towns’ frontcourt partner would probably be to have them be a three-point threat. A fair knock on Dieng is that he does not do that, attempting only 43 total threes this season. However, he does the next best thing in stretching the floor through his ability to convert mid-range jumpers.

Teams rightfully respect Dieng from the mid-range.

The value of the mid-range jumper is up for debate, but if it is hit at effective rate there is a positive opportunity cost. This season, Dieng made 44 percent of the 277 shots he attempted from 10 feet to just inside the three-point arc. For some context, the best mid-range big of this era, Dirk Nowitzki, has shot 47 percent from that range for his career.

In this day and age, if a player does not shoot threes they are labeled as a non-shooter. But the reality is that there is a gray area here. Being treated as a threat from the mid-range gives some added value if not from the shot itself then from the gravity it places on the defense.

Big men who catch the ball in the mid-range and receive no attention from the defense are zero-gravity bigs, Deandre Jordan is probably the most demonstrable example. Here, you can see Jordan catching the ball at 15 feet and his defender (Robin Lopez) not even reacting to the Jordan catch.

If Lopez (or any big) has to guard a big man who is a threat to shoot, the fabric of the entire defense changes. Bigs who can shoot are a threat even if they do not have the ball, Al Horford is a high-end example. Through Horford’s gravity, Isaiah Thomas is able to play one-on-one with no big man defender clogging the lane.

While Dieng may not have gravity all the way to the three-point line he does similarly pull his rim-protecting defender away from the lane. When Dieng is at his best, he is not only out of the way himself but simultaneously pulling away his defender.

Through an undeniable growth in the quantity of bigs who can shoot threes, there has become a perception that the Kristaps Porzingis, Marc Gasol, and Anthony Davis’s of the league are the norm. This is not true, those type of bigs are still the exception, not the expectation. The quantity of zero-gravity bigs is still plentiful.

This season, there were 31 bigs (Forwards/Centers defined by basketballreference.com) who played 1550+ minutes and 13 of the 31 don’t shoot at all. They not only ignore the three but largely disregard the mid-range as well.

Big Men Who Don’t Shoot

Player Minutes Played Made Midrange Jumpers in 2016-17 2017-18 Salary
Player Minutes Played Made Midrange Jumpers in 2016-17 2017-18 Salary
Rudy Gobert 2744 0 $21.2 Million
Deandre Jordan 2570 0 $22.6 Million
Hassan Whiteside 2513 33 $23.8 Million
Andre Drummond 2409 0 $23.8 Million
Steven Adams 2389 0 $22.5 Million
Tristan Thompson 2336 2 $16.4 Million
Dwight Howard 2199 5 $23.5 Million
Mason Plumlee 2148 16 Free Agent
Greg Monroe 1823 29 $17.9 Million
Bismack Biyombo 1793 0 $17.0 Million
Cody Zeller 1725 11 $12.6 Million
Alex Len 1560 22 Free Agent
Clint Capela 1551 0 $2.3 Million

*Midrange defined as shots from 15 to 19 feet, per nba.com/stats.

And then there is Dieng. The Wolves second big man made 82 jumpers from 15-19 feet this season. At the least that production can be counted on from Dieng going forward, all at a price-point lower than the majority of his peers.

Gorgui Dieng Midrange

Player Minutes Played Made Midrange Jumpers in 2016-17 2017-18 Salary
Player Minutes Played Made Midrange Jumpers in 2016-17 2017-18 Salary
Gorgui Dieng 2653 82 $14.1 Million

Creating Offense For Teammates

With the gravity Dieng’s mid-range jumper creates, more space is available surrounding him. Without any off-the-dribble isolation game, Dieng takes advantage of this space, instead, as a passer. A wing catch for Dieng can be a jump shot but more often he is patient and looks for an opportunity to further probe the defense. While his assist percentage (the percentage of teammate field goals assisted when on the floor) fell this season, he began to indirectly create more scoring options for his teammates.

One player particularly helped was Zach LaVine. The Wolves found a way, through Dieng, to better feature LaVine using dribble hand-off action. A Dieng dribble in the direction of LaVine would quickly turn into a hand off that also served as a screen.

LaVine has long struggled with decision making in the pick and roll, this action effectively subtracted this shortcoming while still highlighting LaVine’s speed and shooting ability.

The dribble-handoff action is born out of the same premise of the classic inbound play where the inbounder passes the ball to the big man only to immediately receive the pass back for a quick jump shot. Like such:

When this concept is brought into the flow of the general offense it can happen at almost any angle of the perimeter. An action the Wolves—and Dieng specifically—would target at the end of the shot clock.

LaVine is a player with palpable confidence when he is rolling, but when things are not breaking his way his anxiety is similarly noticeable. He may be permanently scarred from a rookie season that unsuccessfully featured him as a point guard. A year full of unsuccessful pick and rolls and ensuing turnovers appears to have had a residual effect. But when playing with Dieng, some of that anxious energy seems to be alleviated. Running a pick and roll even became palatable so long as he knew he had a dribble-handoff with Dieng to fall back on.

The LaVine and Dieng dribble-handoff was even able to get Dieng going offensively. Often times Dieng would slip the handoff for what would be the equivalent of rolling to the hoop in a traditional pick and roll. And when the defense completely threw two defenders at LaVine, Dieng would be wide open for his patented mid-range shot.

Going forward, it will be interesting to see how this pairing is used as there is clearly a mutually beneficial relationship between the two. The idea of Dieng and LaVine spear-heading a second unit was brought up by Britt Robson of Minn Post at Tom Thibodeau’s end of season press conference.

While Thibodeau did not explicitly say that Dieng will move to the bench, he implied it could happen when he said, “I think even if one starts and the other one doesn’t still getting them together at different times [will happen].”

And that brings us to another positive intangible for Dieng.

Role Flexibility

In Dieng’s four years in the league, he has proven to be flexible in terms of his roles with the Wolves. Starter or reserve, paired with a center or a smaller player, Dieng has carved a place for himself in various lineups. In his second season, Dieng was asked to start the majority of the games he played only to move back to the bench when Kevin Garnett was brought on board. Garnett then retired and Dieng again became a starter, this time as a power forward.

Dieng has been just as flexible with coming off the bench (or starting) as he has been flexible in which position he plays.

2016-17: Dieng shared the floor with Towns 81.4 percent of the time. Thus; he was a power forward.

2015-16: 50.6 percent of his minutes were with Towns while the second half of his minutes were in tandem with Nemanja Bjelica and Adreian Payne. Thus; half power forward and half center.

2014-15 and 2013-14: The season before that, Dieng played almost exclusively as a center, with his two main front court partners being Thaddeus Young and Anthony Bennett. The same can be said of his rookie year, sharing the floor with Kevin Love and Dante Cunningham.

Dieng has shown an ability to play with all types of front court partners, but more so shown a willingness to take whatever role is available. This helps the Wolves in maximizing the talent on the floor around him.

Durability

Along with Towns and Corey Brewer, Dieng is the only player in the NBA to have played 164 out of 164 games over the past two seasons. Among big men, Dieng was actually fourth in the league in total minutes played this season only trailing Towns, Rudy Gobert, and Anthony Davis.

Being able to rely on any good player to simply play is an advantage that not every team gets to enjoy. As illustrated before, the other front court players on the Wolves roster during Dieng’s career have been particularly dismal, save Towns, Love, and Nikola Pekovic. If Dieng were to have ever missed substantial time that would have meant more time for Adreian Payne, Cole Aldrich, Anthony Bennett, Justin Hamilton, Jeff Adrien, Ronny Turiaf, Arinze Onuaku, or even Miroslav Raduljica. None of which are remotely close to starting-caliber big men.

For the young players that surround Dieng on the roster, having one piece remain the same is a tangible benefit.

Statistically a “G”

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Golden State Warriors Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

For Dieng, there are even littler things woven into the little things he does. Dieng is the best screen-setter on the team, the best help defender, the quickest to give up his body for a charge, and he even led the team in kicked balls.

The compilation of these “little things” don’t make a demonstrable dent in the simple counting stats of the box score. But Dieng’s positive impact is shown statistically by the numbers that account for overall team effectiveness. In the “advanced” statistical categories, Dieng’s name is almost always at the top of the list for the Wolves. Most notably in defensive rating, offensive rating, DBPM, OBPM, VORP, and Win Shares.

Defensive Rating (team points allowed per 100 possessions while on the floor): Second on the team, behind Kris Dunn.

Offensive Rating (team points scored per 100 possessions while on the floor): Third on the team, behind Towns and Rubio.

Defensive Box Plus/Minus (A box score estimate of points contributed, through defense, above a league average player): Led team

Overall Box Score Plus/Minus (A box score estimate of overall points contributed above a league average player): Second on the team, behind Towns.

Value Over Replacement Player (A box score estimate of overall value brought above a league average player): Second on the team, behind Towns.

Total Win Shares (An estimate of total wins contributed by a player): Third on the team, behind Towns and Rubio.

To be fair, advanced stats are an imperfect science. Dieng’s win shares are boosted by playing heavy minutes and his offense comes in as an overall negative in almost every measurement. If any offense were to heavily rely on Dieng to score, they would certainly falter. And a defense that places Dieng as the anchor will struggle, as evidenced by this past season.

Just as it is crucial to highlight Dieng’s positive contributions, his shortcomings also need to be considered. But overall, his positives pretty clearly outweigh the shortcomings.

Is that not the definition of a role player? A player who positively impacts certain areas of the floor while leaving some things to be desired elsewhere.

With a point guard in Rubio who plays best with the ball in his hands and three young players who are going to “use” a lot of possessions is a fifth starter who is a low-usage role player not a good fit?

Effectively Supporting the Towns-Wiggins-LaVine Core

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The young core isn’t going anywhere. Through the rules of the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, the Wolves have the rights to retain all three of their young stars long term. Neither Wiggins nor LaVine or Towns can simply walk away.

There is no need to fret over those three. The questions lie in the pieces that surround “the core.” Point guard, power forward, and additional pieces not yet on the roster—draft picks and free agents—is where the ambiguity lies.

Rubio is the current point guard and he is under contract at a very cost effective $14.5 million, per season, deal for the next two seasons. Dieng, the current power forward, just signed a four-year extension that kicks in next season. That deal is also cost-effective, as referenced in the above table.

The Wolves will still do their due diligence in pursuing free agents, and much speculation has focused on finding a “real” starting caliber power forward to replace Dieng in the starting lineup. The biggest names that fit the Wolves roster will be Paul Millsap, Blake Griffin, and Serge Ibaka.

If Millsap, an 11-year NBA veteran, is to sign with the Wolves his contract will be worth approximately $153.5 million over four years, starting at $35.7 million. The way max contracts are set up these days includes exponential annual pay raises. Years three and four of the Millsap contract would be worth $39 and $41 million, respectively. That is a fair price in today’s NBA if Millsap were 27 years old. The reality is that Millsap will be 34 and 35 years old in those final two years. Because of this, there is a fair anti-Millsap argument to be made.

Griffin would receive the same contract. While four years Millsap’s junior, Griffin’s injury history is extensive. Paying Griffin $40 million four years from now could be similarly devastating. Ibaka is the same age as Griffin (allegedly) and could probably be had for under the max, which would be nice but would still have a similar stuffing effect on the books.

The problem with signing any of these three is that the team will have locked into that core for the foreseeable future. So what about a cheaper option?

A step or two down from those bigger name free agent power forwards is Patrick Patterson and JaMychal Green. These names bring something exciting that Dieng does not; three-point shooting and an ability to switch onto guards defensively.

That is great, but in the aggregate, I’m not sure either player is an overall better player than Dieng. Simply adding something different is not necessarily adding something better. Important to note with signing Patterson or Green that keeping Dieng on the roster as well would mean over $30 million dollars per season dedicated to the power forward position. Patterson and Green are at best fifth starters who came off the bench in the playoffs for the Raptors and Grizzlies respectively. Neither has star potential and therefore would likely only raise the ceiling marginally.

The Wolves are in an extremely sticky situation because the time to decide on a path is now. This off-season they will have significant cap space, a financial flexibility that will disappear next year once Wiggins and LaVine’s extensions kick in.

If we could fast-forward to the primes of Towns, Wiggins, and LaVine then the obvious play would be to go all-in and sign the best free agents. But this is not the case, the Wolves won 31 games this season. Even if it is Millsap—the best available free agent, in my opinion—how good are the Wolves in the next two years? A playoff team certainly, but not a true contender.

Gorgui Dieng: Power Forward of the Future?

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Another route that needs to be considered is one that considers a long take. The Wolves could just stay with the status quo and, again, roll with the same starting lineup they used last season, featuring Dieng at power forward.

With a lottery pick in this year’s draft, the Wolves are likely to draft a power forward (Jonathan Isaac, OG Anunoby) or a guard (Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, De’Aaron Fox, Dennis Smith Jr.). One of those players will be the best player available while simultaneously being a positive fit for the Wolves roster.

Rookies more often than not require patience, a reality Minnesota learned with Wiggins, LaVine, and Dunn. Any player they select will, again, be a kid and therefore take time.

In that mean time, there would be more Rubio and Dieng. Which is not definitively a bad thing. In this scenario, the Wolves could wait for a different free agent and/or lie in the weeds of trade talks. One way or the other patiently waiting to jump at a player who better fits the age curve of the Towns-Wiggins-LaVine core.

If Millsap, Griffin, or Ibaka will sign in Minnesota, regardless of the price, the franchise will likely move on it even if the fit is not perfect. But, more likely than not, all three are long shots to sign.

Much like Gorgui Dieng the player, the idea of Dieng as the power forward of the immediate future seems forgotten by many. Unlike David Eckstein with the Angels, Dieng may never be an “X-factor” in a championship run. His future with the Wolves is uncertain, in part because of their commitment to Towns. But that should not rule out the idea that he can be a useful factor in the next steps of the Wolves immediate future.