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Deep Dive: Gorgui Dieng and the Power Forward Position

Do the Wolves need a new Power Forward next season?

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

The Gorgui Dieng History

Gorgui Dieng, G, “Iron G,” is one of the last connections to the bygone Kevin Love era. The Wolves drafted him with the 21st pick, as part of the Trey Burke trade, and Gorgui was part of that underachieving 2013-2014 team that cursed the day that Pythagoras was born.

He stepped into the starting lineup when Nikola Pekovic went down, surpassed all expectations and proved himself a worthy player.

The following season he got to endure the Zach LaVine Point Guard experience and started after Pekovic was injured yet again.

Then the Wolves drafted Karl-Anthony Towns with the 1st overall pick, a touted prospect playing Gorgui’s position. Kevin Garnett started every game until he was unable to play anymore. Once again, Gorgui stepped in.

The Wolves, rewarding Gorgui’s ability and steadfastness in fulfilling whatever role was required of him, gave him a rookie extension for $64 million. It is the largest contract given out by the new regime of Tom Thibodeau and Scott Layden

The contract is split out as follows:

  1. $14,382,022
  2. $15,460,674
  3. $16,539,326
  4. $17,617,978

This extension has been evaluated as high value for the Timberwolves, as it is very plausible that Gorgui would have fetched a higher price in Restricted Free Agency has he rejected the extension and signed an offer sheet with another team. However, this does not come without any detriment, as the Timberwolves have now further invested in a position of strength, the “Big” position, as Gorgui is often truly only nominally a Power Forward. Dieng and Karl-Anthony Towns often vacillate between the two positions depending on match-ups. Gorgui, before Towns was drafted, played the Center position only.

In the last off-season, the Timberwolves heavily invested in the backup Big role, signing both Jordan Hill and Cole Aldrich. The Wolves also still have Nikola Pekovic on the books for at least 2017-2018, however the Wolves are going to be granted an injury exception and clear him off their books for next season. Jordan Hill’s next year of his contract is also unguaranteed. But, as of today, the Wolves have (counting Dieng) 5 Centers on the payroll for close to 35 million.

Of those players, the Wolves do not currently have anyone who is able to reliably (looking at you Nemanja Bjelica) fulfill the role of a “Stretch-4”, which has quite a few meanings these days. Kevin Love used to be a player that many saw as a Stretch-4, as the threat of his three-point shooting was able to create more spacing for an offense.

Now, when we say Stretch-4 we often mean a player who is able to move up a position, from Small Forward to Power Forward. This trend has quickly spread across the league, especially during crunch time, as teams want as much shooting and playmaking on the floor as possible.

Players like Paul George are being often asked to move up a position, as while the Warriors are able to take advantage of Draymond Green being able to move up to Center for their line-up of death, It was just as important for the Warriors that Harrison Barnes, and now Kevin Durant, could move up to Power Forward.

This is a positional advantage that the Wolves cannot currently adjust to, nor force upon other teams, and it does not seem that their own advantage of playing two bigs is going to yield enough of an competitive edge through rebounding to be able to truly rationalize playing two Centers at the same time.

This issue was ever-present throughout the season. If the Wolves are going to play big, they should be able to rebound more effectively than the smaller teams. The Wolves starters’ did rank 4th in offensive rebounding percentage in the league, but were 23rd in defensive rebounding percentage (of course, a defensive rebound requires the opponent not to score, which is not the Wolves forte).

So we know that the Wolves did benefit from going big on offense, at least on the boards, but that advantage did not carry over to defense.

The Wolves also made things more difficult for themselves on offense, as Gorgui Dieng often was mucking up the space that Karl-Anthony Towns would naturally be rolling to in a pick-and-roll. Gorgui is certainly able to spread the floor with his midrange shot, which is quite good at, but he does not have threepoint range, nor is able to offer any playmaking skills off the dribble.

On defense, the pairing is probably more problematic. Neither Towns nor Gorgui has the foot speed to keep up with Stretch-4s all game long, the Wolves were often torched by three-point shooting Bigs, nor are they strong enough to deal with the true offensive-oriented bruising Centers of the league like DeMarcus Cousins or Jusuf Nurkic.

However, the problem with acquiescing to the status quo, accepting that every team needs to have their own “line-up of death”, and following along with the current trends, is that not every team can successfully put out the personnel to match-up. There are just not enough players who are able to move up a position successfully and those that can are incredibly valuable.

If Not Gorgui, Then Who?

Part of the nature of being a dedicated fan of a team is armchair “GMing” and firing up the trade machine. However, we often get trapped into the “grass is always greener” mentality as we watch our own players and become convinced that their warts are insurmountable while only truly seeing the highlight reels of other team’s players.

The Wolves are going to have max nor near cap space yet again this free agency, although this time there will be a much smaller percentage of teams that will be able to do so.

Last summer it seemed prudent that the Wolves would not spend money on long-term contracts to save up for the 2017 free agency, as this would give Thibodeau a year to properly evaluate the talent that we currently have on the team, not to mention that the upcoming free agent class may be better than the previous year. But let’s take a look at what they could do with that space this summer to help alleviate some of the problems that were plaguing the Wolves current starting frontcourt.

The Options

  1. Serve as a dumping ground for tradeable assets and bad contracts to teams like Toronto who many want to move players for assets as they deal with their financial troubles. (DeMarre Carroll reclamation project?)
  2. Have Gorgui become part of the 3-headed monster of KAT, Gorgui, and some yet to be named traditional power forward that could split starting duties with Dieng
  3. Acquire a Small Forward to can switch up a position, with the Small Forward coming off the bench to spell Gorgui when the match up depends on it (like a bigger more athletic Brandon Rush) or move Zach to the bench gunner role and Wiggins to shooting guard. Either way, the Wolves could then can trot out their own lineup of death of Ricky/Dunn, LaVine, Wiggins, Player X, and Towns
  4. Draft the Power Forward of the future (Jonathan Isaac)

Option two might be easier than option one, especially if that small forward comes off the bench. This is essentially why lots of commenters on Canis (not to mention the Nets) were interested in the Blazers’ motley crew of forwards, Maurice Harkless, Al-Fariq Aminu, and Allen Crabbe who can play multiple positions.

The best guys out there are Blake Griffin and Gordon Hayward. It is very unlikely that we will be the “team on the rise” that is able to poach a top free agent. There are just more attractive options out there.

So, for the sake of pragmatism, let’s stop pretending that we are going to magically fix our team by assuming we have a shot at Gordon Hayward. He’s either going to stick with the Jazz or jump to the Celtics. Blake Griffin is not going to turn down some combination of the Clippers, Celtics, and Thunder so he has a chance to play with the young Timberwolves.

Serge Ibaka falls right into the “maybe we want him” category, but he is going to get the max contract as well, and that is right around the range of overpaying him. There are already rumblings of him accepting another massive contract to remain in Toronto.

Otto Porter has emerged as another possible candidate, but the secret is already out about him, and he could have multiple max offers. The Wizards, of course, will have the right to match as he is a restricted free agent. The viable options that this leaves, in no particular order, are:

Power Forwards

  • Paul Millsap
  • Amir Johnson
  • Patrick Patterson
  • Tiago Splitter
  • Luc Ricard Mbah a Moute
  • Taj Gibson
  • Nikola Mirotic (RFA)
  • Kris Humphries
  • Jared Sullinger
  • Jonas Jerebko
  • Mike Scott
  • Pau Gasol
  • Ersan Ilyasova
  • JaMychal Green

Small Forwards

  • P.J. Tucker
  • James Johnson
  • Dante Cunningham
  • Otto Porter (RFA)
  • Andre Roberson
  • Bogdan Bogdonavich (RFA)
  • Joe Ingles (RFA)
  • Danilo Gallinari (Player option)
  • Andre Iguodala
  • Rudy Gay (Player Option)
  • Robert Covington (Team Option)

Let’s see how Gorgui compares to some of the more common names that are thrown out there as possible candidates to take G’s starting spot. Stats are Per 36 minutes and courtesy of Basketball Reference and are from the 2016-2017 season.

Danilo Gallinari (28 years old): 19.3 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists. 0.7 steals, 0.3 blocks. 38.9 three-point percentage, 90.2 free throw percentage, .154 WS/48, 2.9 OBPM, -2.1 DBPM

JaMychal Green (26 years old): 11.8 points, 9.3 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.8 blocks, 37.9 three-point percentage, 80.2 free throw percentage, .131 WS/48, -0.4 OBPM, 1.0 DBPM

Serge Ibaka (27 years old): 17.4 points, 8 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.8 blocks, 39.1 three-point percentage, 85.6 free throw percentage, .101 WS/48, -0.5 OBPM, 0.1 DBPM

Amir Johnson (29 years old): 11.6 points, 8.2 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.2 steals, 1.4 blocks, 40.9 three-point percentage, 67 free throw percentage, .149 WS/48, -0.2 OBPM, 2.4 DBPM

Patrick Patterson 27 years old): 10 points, 6.6 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.4 blocks, 37.2 three-point percentage, 71.7 free throw percentage, .100 WS/48, 0.5 OBPM, 0.4 DBPM

All of these guys look fairly similar. Gallo is the best scorer of the bunch, although he is the only one of the group that is the nominal Stretch-4 that used to be a small forward. Ibaka stands out for his ability to stretch the floor and protect the rim, but his numbers have been dropping throughout his career, so who knows what kind of production his next team will be receiving at the end of his contract. Amir Johnson is probably the most well-rounded of the bunch, at least judging from these stats, but he has been having troubles staying on the court in the playoffs.

Now let’s look at Gorgui.

Gorgui Dieng (27 years old): 11.1 points, 8.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 2.1 steals, 1.3 blocks, 37.2 threepoint percentage, 81.4 free throw percentage, .103 WS/48, -0.5 OBPM, 2.2 DBPM

Again, fairly comparable to the rest of the previous players. Gorgui’s advanced statistics are just as good, he is one of the better rebounders of the group, shoots free throws well, and provides a high number of “do stuff” stats with his blocks and steals. Now, there is a misleading statistic here, which is the three-point percentage. While Gorgui’s three-point percentage is similar to the rest of the group, he shoots 0.6 threes per game. The next lowest is JaMychal Green with 2.5, so Gorgui is certainly not stretching the floor like the rest of the players.

However, Gorgui has always looked extremely good using advanced statistics. He ranks 9th among all power forwards by ESPN’s RPM, and is 4th is Defensive RPM. 538’s CARMELO system ranks him as a “good starter,” and is valued at 102.5 million over a five-year contract, which is certainly more than the 64 million that the Wolves signed him to.

So for a player who some Timberwolves fans are clamoring to be replaced in the starting lineup, Gorgui seems to look pretty good compared to his peers. Let’s look at Gorgui compared to another young up-and-coming Center. Again, stats are per 36 minutes.

Up-and-Coming Center (23 years old): 13.6 points, 9.3 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 1.2 blocks, .130 WS/48, -0.7 OBPM, 1.2 DBPM

Gorgui Dieng (27 years old): 11.1 points, 8.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 2.1 steals, .103 WS/48, -0.5 OBPM, 2.2 DBPM

That up-and-coming Center is Steven Adams, who just signed four-year, 100 million dollar contract.

Now, Adams is getting that contract due to his age, as he will hopefully grow into being worth 25 million dollars a year, but Gorgui is a lot closer to playing like Adams than we realize.

So maybe the Wolves don’t have a Gorgui Dieng problem. Dieng is a great player on a great contract. Maybe Gorgui Dieng has a Karl-Anthony Towns problem.

The Ideal Power-Forward

There are a few things that are working against Gorgui when we think about trying to improve the Timberwolves. For one, he is one of the few obvious changes that the Wolves can make to their starting lineup. Towns and Andrew Wiggins aren’t going anywhere. Zach LaVine seems to locked in at shooting guard and, depending on your news source, the Wolves either have a great point guard on a cost-effective contract or are actively trying to upgrade at the position.

Gorgui also does not play the most aesthetically pleasing game of basketball. He winds up slow on his mid-range jump shot, bobbles passes from Rubio that would be easy dunks, and has a tendency to shuffle his feet on his never-ending series of pump fakes.

But Dieng does the little things that matter. He hustles, plays the pick-and-roll well, and is often simply in the right place on defense. That makes a difference and helps a team win. Not to mention, everyone loves Gorgui, including Tom Thibodeau, and he is a genuinely awesome person who is doing great work in his home country of Senegal. He’s just a good dude.

However, he does not fit into what the modern NBA has moved towards. The NBA seems unsure what the Power Forward position should be. Is it players like Harrison Barnes or someone like JaMychal Green? Or is it the amalgamation of the two, which is the goal of drafting a player with Jonathan Isaac’s profile.

There is probably not a correct answer to this question, but one answer to these questions is that the ideal power forward is probably not Gorgui Dieng. As he does not have the playmaking skills, three-point shooting, and ability to guard the opposing stretch-4s that these other players can bring to the table.

Dieng is just as good, or better, than any player that the Wolves could possibly bring in during free agency. However, as the Wolves have one of the best young players in the league playing Dieng’s natural position of Center, along with the current dearth of quality players on the team, this has forced Dieng to be something that he wasn’t.

Therefore, we should not hold the fact that Dieng is not the long-term Power Forward for the Timberwolves against him. The fates seemed to be aligned against him starting, at least for the Timberwolves, as he is outclassed at his position, does not fit the needs of the current state of the NBA, and is the obvious spot to be upgraded to increase the Wolves’ chances of success.

Gorgui Dieng, like a certain Dude before him, will abide, continuing to do whatever is asked of him. If he moves to the bench, the Wolves will have one of the best backup Centers in the league who will also be able to play spot time at the Power Forward spot. That will be worth every penny of the $64 million that Dieng will earn.