Imagine a world in which Karl-Anthony Towns is not a 7-foot center, but instead a 6’8” wing player—think Paul George. In that world, has Gorgui Dieng become as marginalized as he is? Do we view his contract as quite the albatross we do now? The answer to both questions is probably no, and it reminds us that players are subject to the vicissitudes of chance and circumstance, and that only part of the calculus of their success is their own talent and abilities.
In 2016-17, Dieng started all 82 games, and played a career high 32.4 minutes per. The team was 4.3 points per 100 possessions better when he was on the court than off, and in fact despite finishing 31-51, the Wolves were a slight net-positive when he was on the court. He finished, amazingly, with the 8th highest RPM among centers in the NBA. All of this happened after a summer—Tom Thibodeau’s first in charge—in which Dieng signed a lucrative contract extension for four years and $64 million.
That contract kicked in for the 2017-18 season, just when his career started heading in the wrong direction. The Wolves signed Taj Gibson in the summer of 2017, an old Thibs favorite, who was installed at the power forward position. It was at the time a dubious use of funds, since the Wolves already had Dieng, and while Gibson’s stint in Minnesota was a success, it left Dieng on the outside looking in, where he remains.
Dieng’s minutes got slashed nearly in half, to 16.9 per game in 2017-18, and then down again to 13.6 last year, a number that was propped up due to a late season injury to Gibson that forced him back into the rotation.
This was, to some extent, unfair to Dieng and his talent. Among the centers in the NBA who played more minutes per game than Dieng last season were: Mason Plumlee and Ivica Zubac. Alex Len and Jahlil Okafor. Robin Lopez and Aron Baynes.
None of these guys are necessarily better than Dieng, who has contributed pretty consistent rate stats no matter what his role. Even last season his true shooting, rebound, assist, usage, and steal percentages were higher than his career averages while he set a career low in turnover percentage. His game has not fallen off a cliff, only his minutes have.
Part of the argument is that the game has passed him by. To an extent this is true, the slower center who doesn’t shoot threes is not in favor in a game that is becoming increasingly perimeter oriented. But look at the list above—there is still some room for such players, at least a little more room than Dieng got last season.
The bigger problem for Dieng is he is on a team that has an All-NBA quality center. Although they played together with reasonable success as recently as 2016-17, it’s difficult to play two true bigs at the same time in today’s NBA, especially when neither of them are particularly adept at switching onto smaller players. Still, it could conceivably have worked had the Wolves invested the money they spent on Gibson in their real need at the time which was better wing play.
Alas, the road not traveled. Dieng has clearly been frustrated with his role over the past two years, and would no doubt like a fresh start elsewhere. There is also no doubt the Wolves would love to give him one. The problem is there is no market for a player of his type making the money he’s making—he’s owed $33.5 million over the next two seasons and there are comparable players available on the market for the minimum or close to it.
So for now, he’s a Timberwolf, but things are unlikely to get better for him in terms of playing time. The Wolves signed two younger, more athletic bigs in Jordan Bell and Noah Vonleh to inexpensive one year deals on the promise of opportunity, and have spent the summer talking about playing more small-ball. So unless there is a significant injury problem, Dieng is unlikely to see the floor much this season.
Which in some senses is too bad: He’s not without ability to make positive contributions, he’s by all accounts a real professional who has stayed ready and done his best whenever he’s gotten chances, and is one of the truly great, philanthropic people in sports.
Unfortunately, he’s also an albatross on the salary cap that Gersson Rosas is so desperate to clear, and has been shuffled to the end of line for playing time. I don’t expect we’ll see much of Dieng on the court this season, but that doesn’t mean he has nothing to offer.