The season is finally starting, and the Minnesota Timberwolves have games that count for the first time in nine months. There is so much to be excited about, including an entirely new roster, the return of our superstar center, and the development of the first overall pick. The combination of these should be more than enough to have me jubilant over the start of the season (and I mostly am, I promise), but I can’t help but worry about the Timberwolves’ center rotation.
I know backup center talk isn’t what you expected to start the season off with, but I promise it’s more important than it appears on the surface.
For the past six and a half seasons, the Timberwolves have been relatively spoiled with the center rotation. Karl-Anthony Towns is the most dynamic offensive center in the league’s history, but Gorgui Dieng was more important to this team’s rotation than we may have realized.
During his time in Minnesota, I was not much of a Dieng supporter, mostly due to his contract. I still believe it was a good contract to move, but Dieng was an important player to the Timberwolves’ rotation if we put the contract aside.
Over the past few seasons, Towns’ talent and importance to this team are undeniable. However, his consistent availability has been an issue. Whether it is foul trouble or injuries, Towns has had stretches where he isn’t on the court.
This isn’t meant as an indictment on Towns, but more to highlight the importance of having depth behind him. Unfortunately, the Timberwolves don’t have that depth after moving on from Dieng. Dieng was far from a perfect player. He was an inconsistent interior finisher and somehow found a way to travel on every shot fake. Dieng was, however, an excellent backup center for Towns because of his defensive acumen.
When Dieng was on the floor for the Timberwolves last season, the team had a defensive rating of 102.6, which would have ranked second in the league, compared to a rating of 112.1 (22nd) when he was off the court. Dieng’s defensive field goal percentage of 44.9 was also better than that of Jarrett Allen, Jaren Jackson Jr, and Myles Turner, per NBA Stats.
Additionally, Dieng was one of the most effective big men at forcing turnovers, according to Cleaning the Glass. His block percentage of 2.8 ranked in the 82nd percentile, and his steal percentage of 2 ranked in the 93rd percentile. Dieng was also tremendous at limiting second chances with his defensive rebounding percentage of 21.8 on the opponent’s field goal attempts.
So, what are the Timberwolves’ options when it comes to filling the hole left by Dieng? As the roster stands (and as we’ve seen so far in both the preseason and the home opener), Ed Davis and Naz Reid are the only options. I like these players in a vacuum and think that they each bring something to this team. However, neither is coming close to the production of Dieng.
Since we’re more familiar with him, let’s start with looking at Reid. Surprisingly, Reid’s defensive numbers, while not good, aren’t as bad as I initially thought. The team’s defensive rating last season with him on the floor was 107.6 compared to 111.7 when he was off. I believe this success can be attributed to the opposing players on the floor when Reid was, but it is still encouraging.
Like Dieng, Reid was also competent at forcing turnovers with a steal percentage of 1.6, ranking in the 86th percentile. Reid’s block percentage of 2 ranked in the 62nd percentile.
What killed the Timberwolves, though, was Reid’s lack of defensive rebounding. With a defensive rebounding percentage of 16.5 (39th percentile), teams frequently got second chances when Reid was on the floor.
We only saw Reid for one preseason game, but he looked pretty good. The team had a defensive rating of 96.4, and Reid recorded 14 points, seven rebounds, three assists, two blocks, and a steal. It’s only one preseason game, but Reid looked in better shape, and it was at least an encouraging sign that we will see improvement out of him this season.
Surprisingly, the most significant difference between Reid and Dieng comes on the offensive end. I think of Reid as an offense-first big man, but his shooting percentages were some of the worst among big men. Reid’s effective field goal percentage (49.1%) ranked in the 12th percentile, his at-rim percentage (60%) ranked in the 18th percentile, and his mid-range percentage (21%) ranked in the 4th percentile. The only saving grace was Reid’s 35 percent from three, which ranked in the 58th percentile.
Last season Reid’s impact fluctuated. His pick-and-roll defense was less than satisfactory, and his eagerness to get shots up was often the wrong decision. The silver lining, though, is that Reid was an undrafted free agent (wrongfully so) and had next to no expectations entering the year. Despite that, Reid has found a way into the rotation and is a promising young piece.
If Reid wants to take over the role left by Dieng, he must improve his pick-and-roll defense. This improvement alone will bolster the Timberwolves’ defense and make them a more well-rounded team. While his interior finishing needs to improve, I am generally ok with his eagerness to shoot. It forces the defense to go out to the perimeter with him and creates more space for the offense.
While Reid is a source of youth and potential, Ed Davis is hopefully a source of stability. The 10-year veteran has been widely referred to as one of the best teammates in the league. At the very least, Davis should be an excellent leader and teammate. That alone isn’t good enough, though, for a franchise in desperate search of wins.
As an offensive option, Davis is little to no threat to the opposition. Last season, Davis had an effective field goal percentage of 48.8, which ranked in the 12th percentile, and he averaged only 1.8 points per game. The hope is that last season was the anomaly since Davis only played 10.8 minutes per game in 28 games.
In Davis’s previous nine seasons, he played at least 61 games all but once. In those eight seasons of at least 61 games played, Davis ranked higher than the 70th percentile in eFG% seven times. The Timberwolves will not be relying on Davis for any offensive production, but I do expect his finishing to somewhat return to his previous averages.
Like his offense, Davis saw a sharp decline in his defensive production last season for the Jazz, where he had a defensive rating of 110.4. While this is not what you want from a defensive center, the Jazz’s bench was not good last season, and whenever a team replaces an all-time great defensive center like Rudy Gobert with a backup, there will be a drastic swing in production.
However, Davis did record a defensive rating of 102.2 two seasons ago with Brooklyn and 103.9 the year before that in Portland in David Vanterpool’s system.
Davis’s preseason results have not quelled concerns or bolstered my optimism for his return to previous productivity. His net rating of -42.9 in his two preseason games would be historically awful for a regular rotation player.
Thankfully, it is just two preseason games. The Timberwolves also did a tremendous amount of lineup experimentation and chemistry building in those two games. I’m not wholly convinced that it will work out, but I at least have an excuse: it’s just the preseason.
I would never have thought that I would long for the Gorgui Dieng minutes, but now that he is gone, his absence is felt. This team will go where Karl-Anthony Towns ultimately takes them but having a competent replacement has been vital.
Naz Reid’s future development and upside are enticing, and Ed Davis’s experience and leadership are more than welcomed on this team. At the end of the day, though, I am not convinced either of them will help this team stay afloat when Towns isn’t on the floor.