Originally acquired with Shabazz Muhammad through a 2013 draft night trade, Gorgui Dieng has since become the longest tenured player on the Timberwolves’ roster. Over his five seasons in Minnesota, he has embraced a subtly charismatic personality to become a favorite among both teammates and fans.
A consistent and effective player over a difficult period in Wolves history, Dieng appeared in 164 consecutive games from the beginning of 2015 through the end of 2017, starting in all 82 games of the latter season. He signed a four-year, $64 million contract in the summer of 2016—one that seemed reasonable at the time given the market—which would pay him from 2017-18 through 2020-2021. But as the first year of that contract hits the books this season, Dieng’s play has taken a turn for the worse.
When the Wolves signed Taj Gibson this past summer, there was some debate as to whether he or Dieng would start alongside Karl-Anthony Towns; Gibson’s play has more than vindicated Tom Thibodeau’s faith in the former Bull. His reliability has paired well with the rise of Nemanja Bjelica—a big-man appropriately suited for today’s NBA—and that duo has effectively duplicated Dieng’s role in a deep group of front-court players. Having long been a glue guy on an evolving Wolves team, he’s now fighting for minutes behind superior options on the defensive (Gibson) and offensive (Bjelica) ends.
“It’s not easy,” Dieng remarked when asked about his role with the reserves. “I thought when I got on the bench, I probably was going to play more. It’s not something I can control, but it’s not easy.” When he’s on the court, a lack of confidence is obvious and it’s impacting his productivity.
On offense, Dieng has proven that he can be a reliable peripheral option. Aside from his rookie year in which he shot 49.8% from the field, he’s never finished a season below 50%. He had improved as a scorer each year of his career, and in 2016-17 he hit a new high playing alongside the ascending Zach LaVine. But this season he sits at 47.4% shooting, a result of career lows from both inside the restricted area (57.8%) and the rest of the paint (36.4%). More recently, that’s been compounded by a decline in his normally reliable mid-range jump-shot, and thus his offensive rating sits at the bottom of Wolves rotation players.
On the other end, the 6’11, 245 pound center seems to have lost a step from his days as an adequate defensive anchor. Dieng has always struggled to contain the league’s progressively versatile big men on the perimeter; but this season, his help defense has faltered and his block rate has plummeted to a career low 2.6%.
Units with Dieng on the floor are allowing 117.5 points per 100 possessions, while the team permits just 111.4 when he’s on the bench. This comes in stark contrast to last year, when the Wolves defense succumbed just 110.1 points per 100 possessions with Dieng on the court and 118.1 when he was off the floor. Some of such a drastic drop in on/off statistics can be attributed to his departure from the starting lineup. But just two years ago, under head coach Sam Mitchell, Dieng came off of the bench for a majority of his 82 appearances, and when he played the defense allowed 3.1 fewer points per 100 possessions.
While we do know that at his best he’s a reliable and productive player, it’s unlikely that Dieng will ever live up to his lofty new contract. And as the Wolves flirt with the luxury tax penalty in pursuit of sustained success, his 14% of the current salary cap begins to look like more of an albatross.
The Wolves front office, like many around the league, is in search of reliable wing-depth; not centers. Plus, with Towns presumably locked up for the long-term, Gibson signed through next season, Bjelica emerging and Justin Patton waiting his turn, Dieng’s future in Thibodeau’s system is far less certain than his contract might suggest. He’s averaging 17.2 minutes per game so far this season, a number that has been steadily declining. In February he played 15.7 minutes a night, and he’s been awarded just 15.0 so far in March.
“Everyone has to do their job,” Thibodeau said of Dieng after a win in New Orleans that was one of the big man’s best performances of the season. “Everyone has their role, just go out there and do your job. That’s what you’ve got to do.”
It was reported before last month’s trade deadline that the Wolves are somewhat motivated to move Dieng:
Text from an Eastern Conference GM: "Annual reminder: Lots of lies going down right now." Also said Dieng is the guy they'd move, but nobody will take his contract. Outside of maybe Shabazz, not sure I see the #Twolves doing anything trade-wise. #AllEyesNorth— Darren Wolfson (@DWolfsonKSTP) February 7, 2018
But because of his contract, they’ll have to be willing to give something up in order to make that happen.
Their most enticing trade chip is the Thunder’s 2018 first round pick, which they obtained from the Utah Jazz in exchange for Ricky Rubio. Per Wolfson, they had the opportunity to relinquish that pick with Cole Aldrich to be able to afford C.J Miles before the season, but were ultimately unwilling to do so. It’s clear that Thibodeau values the pick, and he should; players on team-friendly, rookie-scale contracts have the potential to be just as valuable as cap flexibility. But if Dieng continues to struggle, Thibodeau and General Manager Scott Layden may be forced to consider all of their options.