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Cole Aldrich: The Forgotten Giant

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Looking back at Cole Aldrich’s first season with the Minnesota Timberwolves

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

Cole Aldrich

28 years old. Center

Contract Status: First year of a three-year 21.9 million. The last year partially is guaranteed.

Per-Game Stats: 1.7 pts, 2.5 rebounds, 0.4 blocks, 0.4 steals, 0.4 assists. 8.6 minutes per game.

The contract that Cole Aldrich signed with the Minnesota Timberwolves heading into this season is, thus far, the largest that the new regime of Tom Thibodeau and Scott Layden have handed out in free agency. Aldrich, a Minnesota native, was fresh off a strong year with the Los Angeles Clippers, where he played just over 13 minutes a game shoring up their big rotation. Aldrich was seen a steal, as he was a fairly skilled big who could soak up minutes, play good defense, and generally just be a large human to anchor the Timberwolves bench.

This seemed to be a dire need for the Timberwolves, as in the previous season there was basically no one to help out Gorgui Dieng and Karl-Anthony Towns after Kevin Garnett’s legs gave out and Nikola Pekovic was unable to make a comeback. Adreian Payne was his usual self, although he got significantly more playing time back then, Nemanja Bjelica was also maddeningly inconsistent per usual, and the Wolves best bet was when they signed Greg Smith to play 18 games.

Not to mention, Towns and Dieng had a habit of getting outmatched by the larger Centers in the league. Towns was just too young to handle the strength of players like DeAndre Jordan and DeMarcus Cousins and Dieng just doesn’t have the frame to be able to do so either, which is reflected in Dieng’s lone sore spot on defense, one-on-one post defense.

Enter Cole Aldrich. Professional Giant Human and NBA journeyman returning to his home state.

The Good Stuff

First of all, let’s address the elephant in the room. Cole Aldrich did not get a lot of playing time this year, probably much less than he expected when he signed on board with the Wolves. I’ll get to that in the next section.

In the time that Aldrich did play, his basic box score numbers don’t reflect a stunning success, but the advanced stats still support the idea that Aldrich was still a useful player.

  • WS/48: .116
  • BPM: 0.6 (which is fine for a Center, as their OBPM is usually awful)
  • On/Off: -0.2 (fine for the Wolves)
  • RPM: 0.01 (ranked 33rd among all Centers)

Note: I did not include VORP as that is a stat that accounts for playing time using BPM, so that is not useful for a player who had very limited minutes

If we look at Aldrich’s per 100 possession numbers, we can see that his scoring takes the biggest hit, which simply is due to the amount of opportunity that Aldrich was given when he was on the court. The previous two years, his usage was right around 18 percent, this year it was 9 percent.

Of the 62 games that Cole Aldrich played in this year, he only played more than 10 minutes in 18 of them. His best game came on December 2nd, against the New York Knicks, where Aldrich had a double-double. He scored 10 points, pulled down 12 rebounds, and chipped in 3 blocks, 3 steals, and 2 assists. He played 27 minutes that game.

Aldrich proved, over the course of the year, that he had a knack for being in the right place at the right time, typically registering several tipped ball stats, blocks, and steals. His advanced stat number for steal percentage, 2.4, was 7th best for all Centers. His block percentage of 3.7 is 34th.

Karl-Anthony Towns is ranked after 40 among all Centers in both those categories, but Towns has quite a few other responsibilities.

So it seems like, at least taking a look at the numbers over the course of the year, that Aldrich provided what was asked for him. He could anchor the bench, did some stuff on defense, and provided solid contributions in limited minutes.

So why didn’t he play more?

What’s Went Wrong

There seemed to be three different narratives, that all may be correct or partially correct for why Aldrich did not receive more playing time for the Timberwolves this year.

  1. Tom Thibodeau barely played his bench and once he decided he had his lineup, nothing was going to change it
  2. Players like Aldrich are being increasingly run off the court in the three point era
  3. Aldrich was unable to succeed at the one task he was brought in for, defending other large humans

The Thibodeau Argument

The Tom Thibodeau part is well documented. We have covered this numerous times here at Canis Hoopus and the first year of Thibs’ regime in Minnesota has done nothing to alleviate concerns that he overplays his main guys. Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns ended up number one and number two in minutes played in the NBA. Gorgui Dieng was 20th. Before he was injured, Zach LaVine was playing 37.2 minutes per game, which would have been tied with Andrew Wiggins for third highest in the league.

If Aldrich’s main two competitors for playing time are number two and number 20 in the NBA for minutes played, that leaves little time for the backup big.

Now, we find ourselves in a sort of chicken and the egg type of argument here. Was the bench so bad because they never got playing time? Or did they never get playing time because they were so bad? It’s hard to know.

Regardless, we know at the very least that Thibs was one of the main reasons that Aldrich got little run this year. Even when the bench did come out, for a large part of the season Kris Dunn was running the show. Wolves fans know first-hand how hard it is for players to get going when they have an ineffective point guard who is not ready to manage an offense. Kevin Martin probably will never forget the day when he eventually grew so tired of waiting on a good pass from Zach LaVine, who was forced to play point guard, that he snapped and decided, “screw it, if I am getting the ball, I’m shooting it.”

The Changing League Argument

Centers who cannot leave the paint and offer little rim protection or footspeed are getting paced out the NBA. Former 2x NBA All-Star, All NBA-Defense 2nd Team Center Roy Hibbert was traded twice last February, the final trade sending him from Milwaukee to Denver in exchange for a heavily protected 2nd round pick, which is the equivalent of a cash dump.

The league has changed and players like Cole Aldrich are not valuable unless they can either shoot threes, rim run, block shots, or switch out on the pick-and-rolls. The other option is to dominate on offense via scoring and offensive rebounding. Aldrich does none of those things.

Now, every team does not have a roster construction that immediately seeks to switch to small-ball and run opposing Centers off the floor, but a lot of teams are smart enough to recognize when teams like the Wolves go big, but lack the personnel to capitalize on it.

That was part of the problem for Aldrich, as he is either going to be out there with Gorgui, which means there is little offensive talent to punish a team going small, with KAT, which means that they will be too slow to catch any small-ball four, or Bjelica, which means there is too little playmaking or offensive skills.

The situation that the Wolves left themselves in, which is no fault of Aldrich, is they did not have the players that can really keep up with a team that goes small, nor did their bigs have the necessary size and talent to be able to force a team to go big. When the Thunder go big with Steven Adams and Enes Kanter, the opposing team has two choices. They can 1) accept the fact that the Thunder are about to get every rebound and score a bunch of baskets around the rim and the opposing team will try to outscore them on the other end or 2) bring in their own Bigs to fight the rebounding battle inside.

When the Wolves go big, they do not force the other team into making a decision. Nor can they adjust adequately when the other team forces it upon them.

The Bad Defense Argument

This is the part that is more so on Aldrich, as when the teams that do have an offensively talented Center who is too big for KAT or Dieng to handle, Aldrich was not able to offer any resistance either. Players like Jusuf Nurkic and Enes Kanter just absolutely demolished the Wolves. While Aldrich is probably strong enough to face them in the post, these players have a bevy of post moves and fast enough foot speed to be able to get around him.

Aldrich is not the only player in the league to have this problem. There is a reason those guys are getting paid and Aldrich’s seven million dollar contract looks to be a tad too much right now. Theoretically, one could see from the perspective of Tom Thibodeau, Aldrich really had one job, which was to stop opposing offensive Centers, and he did not succeed at that task, which is why wasn’t playing. Otherwise, what advantage does he bring to the court?

What’s Next

Aldrich will most likely be on the Minnesota Timberwolves next year, barring any trades. His contract is fairly decent and if he cannot crack the rotation yet again, his final year in 2018-2019 is not fully guaranteed.

It’s hard to write a review of Aldrich that does not come across overly negative, but I believe that is more so just due to the exercise of trying to figure out why he did not get as much playing time as many of us thought he would recieve. However, it is important to remember that Wolves fans were also clamoring for more Brandon Rush, but when Rush was forced into the starting lineup after LaVine’s injury, that did not end well for anyone.

However, Rush also gives another useful lesson. Before the All-Star break, he played in 23 games of 57 possible games, 12 of those coming in January and February, averaging 18 minutes a game. After the All-Star Break, he played in 24 games of 25 possible games and averaged 25.6 minutes per game.

There is probably a happy medium between those two extremes and it is up to Thibs to try to manage that. While Aldrich did not have a successful year by any measure, a significant component of that is due to his lack of playing time and fit with the Timberwolves roster construction. He certainly can execute better on the defensive end with the specific task he was likely signed for, but he can also give more to this team than was asked in this past year. I’m sure Dieng and Towns would appreciate a few more minutes of rest here and there.