2013-14 Season, Suggestion Box

Suggestion Box: The Wolves need to keep things weird with two dragons


The emergence of Gorgui Dieng has been a fascinating development to a weird season that never fails to drop my jaw.

Through the first 41 games of the season (he got hurt in Game 42), Nikola Pekovic was a godsend. He was worth the five years, $60 million the Minnesota Timberwolves, Flip Saunders, and Glen Taylor committed to him this past offseason. They navigated his restricted free agency beautifully, remaining patient and never succumbing to the pressure of rumors about the market or other suitors. The Wolves got him for exactly what their initial offer was to him, which is pretty stunning for a mid-market team like this one.

Pek earned that contract for much of this season, exuding his brute strength and deft touch around the basket and at the free throw line. His defense was better than reported but not as good or effective as last season. He seemed to be often lamented for not being a rim protector, even though he wasn’t one last season when he was a really solid pick-and-roll defender. Perhaps it was the absence of Bill Bayno on the Wolves’ coaching staff, which kept Pek from keeping that form on the defensive end. Or maybe last season’s effort and production on defense was an outlier to what he is supposed to be.

Regardless, Pek was still giving the Wolves something very few centers have given their teams this season, and for $12 million per season, that’s pretty good value. Then the forgotten first round pick of the Wolves stepped in during a recent string of missed games for Pek. Dieng with his unreliable hands that don’t actually make any mistakes (it’s the only way I know how to describe what he’s doing out there) started churning out double-doubles and the Wolves started defending much better with him on the court. He wasn’t having the impact Pek was having in the month of March, but he was playing when Pek couldn’t and it got a lot of people wondering why we even had Pekovic anymore. This is where the idea of “two dragons” comes in for me.

There’s a scene in “Starsky and Hutch” the movie (which is criminally underrated by the way) in which Owen Wilson (Hutch) and Ben Stiller (Starsky) are trying to extract information at a prison. They’re talking to Will Ferrell’s character and in order to get the information they need, Owen Wilson has to pretend to be a dragon. Then in order to get really important information, they both do.

This is how I feel about the conversation of getting rid of Pek because of what Gorgui has been able to do in a very small sample of games. It’s not that I doubt Gorgui, necessarily. I fully believed in him as a steal when they selected him with the 21st pick following the Trey Burke deal (are we still upset about this trade or have we accepted the Wolves made out pretty damn well on a move?), and I love what he’s doing with the opportunity to showcase his talents in the minutes he’s had on the floor.

People want to talk about him getting double-doubles, but those are just arbitrary markers in which we decide somebody has had a special game based on society liking round numbers. What’s important is he’s getting those numbers because he’s playing well, not just because he’s accumulating counting stats at the end of a dead season. And with Pek having trouble staying on the floor, the natural inclination has been to move Pek for help in another area of the lineup and roll with Gorgui as the designated starting center for all 82 games.

This is something I’m not a fan of doing — at least not yet, not for a few seasons.

Pek is a better player than Dieng and it’s really not all that close. Dieng is looked at as a better complement to Kevin Love, therefore it would be wise for them to cut bait on the recently re-signed Pekovic and go with their much cheaper, defensive-minded center. I’d argue that Dieng is actually a much better complement to Pekovic than he is to Love, mostly because he allows for two things.

1) Pekovic staying healthy: Pek has trouble staying on the court, which is something a lot of guys his size have had in their careers. With him, it’s not a broken foot like Zyndrunas Ilgauskas, Brook Lopez, and Yao Ming have battled throughout their careers. Pek’s bones apparently don’t break, but his muscles, tendons, joints, and ligaments do end up having trouble. Immediately people will go to the games missed as a cite for why Pek isn’t a viable option on this team throughout the duration of his contract, but that’s an odd linear way of thinking about it, in my opinion.

I’m a believer in working with a guy that size and making him as limber as possible. At the same time, finding a way to limit his minutes while maximizing his effectiveness is the key to keeping him coming back to the court game after game. There are people inside the organization who believe limiting Pek’s minutes to around 26-28 minutes per game. If you can do that consistently, you can cut down on the wear-and-tear, which has limited his time on the court. Some people will freak out about a center making $12 million per season being limited to under 30 minutes per game like that, which leads me to…

2) The Two-Dragon Center Attack: I don’t think we can look at just what one center gives the team in their minutes on the court, even if those minutes are limited. We’ve got to look at it now as the center rotation and the full 48 minutes on the court. The Wolves wouldn’t just be throwing Pek there for 28 minutes at $12 million per season. Next year, Pek is making $12.1 million and Gorgui is making roughly $1.4 million. That potentially gives you 48 minutes of awesome center at $13.5 million. That means for 26-28 minutes, you’ve got Pek bruising and helping carry the scoring load, especially early in the game.

For the other 20-22 minutes, you have Gorgui defending the rim and moving the ball out of the high post. I think this is the ideal way to go for the Wolves for 2014-15 and 2015-16. By then, Gorgui will be developed enough to be a full-time starting center in the NBA, which he is not right now. He’ll also be heading into his contract extension period and the Wolves will have a great idea of how to use Pek’s contract in a deal in accordance with the extension they can agree to with Dieng.

Moving Pek’s deal just to open up space for Gorgui seems shortsighted to me. We got something new and cool that we like and haven’t really had before. And now we want to throw out the old toy, even though the old toy could be integral to us having a good playtime. The combination of Pek and Dieng can only be matched by Dwight Howard and Omer Asik, and the Rockets are trying to trade away Asik because he doesn’t want to be a backup. For now, Dieng being a game-changing center is perfect for his game and for the Wolves.

Big man depth is one of the hardest things to acquire and keep in the NBA. It’s something this organization has failed to do for its entire existence. Now that the Wolves have big man depth, throwing it away because the new guy is something the Wolves need more of doesn’t seem like the best decision to make. A big man rotation of Kevin Love, Pek, and Dieng can’t be matched in the NBA. Throw Dante Cunningham into the mix if they re-sign him or a solid backup PF to replace him and you’ve got the best four-man big rotation in the league. You can follow that up by drafting intelligently for wing players and the backcourt, which is very doable.

Let’s not do the typical thing of discarding one asset because we have another. Let’s build assets, hoard them like an old person hoarding old newspapers around the house. Let’s live in a sea of quality big men and make them so abundant we’re clearing a walkway from the couch to the kitchen. There’s no reason to choose one over the other. We should choose both of them and wait for Gorgui to develop behind/alongside Pek and then move Pek when he has two years left on his deal.

I want to see something that involves both of these big guys. It’s going to get weird. I want to see two dragons.

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19 thoughts on “Suggestion Box: The Wolves need to keep things weird with two dragons

  1. Great post Zach, I completely agree. Pek is still an extremely valuable asset to this team. Between his post presence and his ability on the offensive glass, he provides a lot of room for the rest of the team’s offense to function. I too have fallen in love with Gorgui’s play of late, and honestly am excited to see what Shabazz can bring to the table with more playing time. However, we retained players like Pekovic and Budinger for a reason and should not be so quick to throw them out the window. Although I wanted success in the present, I cannot help but think about how exciting the future could be for this young team.

  2. This is so right. The only disappointing aspect of their center rotation has been that 2 of them have been injured at the same time far too often this season. Even then, the move is trading Ronny (nooooooo!!!), not Pek. I think they could replace Dante with Hummel/Luc and a second-round banger PF (Patric Young? Johnny O’Bryant?) if the other player could play small-ball center in emergencies.

    It was pretty clear last year that the one backup position where the Wolves needed a starting-caliber player was center. They now have one, and I don’t see why they can’t use whatever flexibility they have to address other needs. Get a 2-way wing in the draft, use the MLE to get a backup PG, try to move the expirings and maybe Budinger for something useful, find some useful players with their 3 second-round picks, and then re-visit if they need to trade one of their centers to make the playoffs.

  3. As a dedicated fan all season, I couldn’t agree more with this post. Pek was/is a good value at center. Gorgui has been a great value with a different skill set and a lot of room for improvement. Bad to Mediocre offensive wing production and a solid backup PG have been and will remain a much bigger concern.

  4. We’re going to need a coach that will play Dieng over a healthy Ronny next year. Don’t forget that it took 2 injuries before Adelman gave Dieng his shot when he literally had no other choice. Also, as long as said coach is willing to close out games with Dieng then there won’t be a problem keeping them both. The Love/Pek duo just can’t close games on either end of the floor. I’d like to see Pek get most of his minutes with the second unit to give them some interior fire power on offense. Let him help build a lead in the first and help the second unit hold it most of the rest of the way for Love and Dieng to close it out.

  5. “You can follow that up by drafting intelligently for wing players and the backcourt, which is very doable”,just like when the Wolves drafted…..actually I don’t think that’s ever happened before.

  6. Sorry JD I have to side with Zach here and say we drafted pretty damn well last year. Shabazz and Dieng are looking like the kind of players it’s too bad we haven’t been drafting over the past decade minus Love, Rubio and Pek.

  7. We drafted Rubio, who was almost a slam dunk, but then we chose Jonny Flynn over Steph Curry. The last good wing/backcourt pick before Rubio was maybe Wally World? And before Wally World it was Pooh Richardson in the supplemental draft? I was just saying the Timberwolves have and abysmal history drafting wing and backcourt players specifically.

  8. That’s what scares me in every draft. Our draft history. And we didn’t really draft Love either. We drafted Mayo and then traded for Love. So Mayo kinda falls into the failed back court draft picks as well. All we can really do is hope that Flip makes a better decision than his predecessors in that area.

    Zach, very good article as usual. Dieng has played very well since he was forced into the starting lineup by injuries to Pek and Ronny. He still has a lot to learn though.

  9. @JD

    Flip Saunders has had 1 draft with Minnesota, so far it is looking pretty good. Kahn is gone, Flynn over Curry was a horrible choice, but Saunders didn’t do it. From where I am setting The Wolves current Management has done very well in their only draft.

  10. This reminds me of a funny story. My dad and I had seen WIll Avery get destroyed by Khalid Al Amin when Oak Hill Academy played Minneapolis North at the Target Center. We saw the same thing happen when UCONN beat Duke in the championship game two years later. We were watching the NBA draft and right before the Timberwolves picked I said “who is the worse possible player we can pick” which he replied “oh god no, not Will Avery”, followed immediately by “the Timberwolves select Will Avery”.

    I hope everyone is right that we can get competent contributors at those positions through the draft. I’m just not gonna hold my breath.

  11. Just throwing this out there. Shabazz is leading all NBA rookies in scoring per 48 minutes. He’s been looking a lot better lately as well.

  12. I couldn’t agree more on the take. As a Wolves fan since their inception I have not seen the Wolves really have a true GOOD 5 since Pek was developed. Nesterovic looked like he could do something but he only appeared to be at Pek’s level like once every 5-7 games and don’t even get me started on the failed Center experiments….off the top of my head here’s a sad, sad list: Stanley Roberts, Loren Woods, Mark Blount, Dean Garrett, Marc Jackson, Luc Longley, Darko, Oliver Miller, Olowokandi, Felton Spencer & a few others. Looking at that list, one might re-think just giving away a good (or even competent) Center that, keep in mind, re-signed to play in Minnesota.

    I, among friends, have also compared the Pek/Dieng pairing to Howard/Asik. As long as Dieng is quiet and okay with the backup role, why all the “trade Pek” talk? As mentioned in the article I also feel having both players benefits the Wolves in a big way. I see having one 5 being better at offense and having the other one better at defense as a HUGE positive. The only thing I may disagree with from the article is having Dieng start and have Pek use his strength and scoring ability to absolutely demolish the other team’s second unit. I realize scoring may suffer a bit in the first quarter but I’m looking as the end of the first frame and halfway through the second as a scoring fest from Pek on most nights. I also realize Pek’s salary comes into play in the decision to start but I would love to have next season’s first half play out with Dieng at starting Center to see what could happen…assuming of course that he can learn a Dream Shake move or two in the offseason to mix things up on offense a bit.

  13. I can see both sides of the argument but I think trading Pek while Dieng is still on a rookie contract would be silly unless coming back was the stud SF we desperately need. But even then Zach is spot on when he says the sample size is too small. But we can all see the improvement Dieng made over the course of this season, so it’s reasonable to assume he will continue to improve.

    I could go either way on it. but we know our starting lineup now needs a 3 really bad. and if that means not have 2 5’s I get it.

  14. I seriously hope they don’t consider moving Pek. What a luxury to have two (!) competent (!) bigs on the roster. The notion of being to play Pek only 30 minutes or so per night could, like Zach mentioned, go a long way toward preserving his health. The same could apply to Dieng if he’s running at around 20-25 minutes per game (if he’s OK with that role for a few years). It might also be interesting to have a tall ball option where they could be on the floor together every once in a while.

    Besides, Pek is a fan favorite. How would you replace his size, strength, demeanor, and tattoos?

  15. I’m not going to evaluate Flip on anything but last summer’s draft. Anything else is just feeding into the idea that different people yield the same results, which requires more connections to be true than what exist in this situation. Flip has nothing to do with Jack McCloskey or David Kahn; his role with McHale from 95-01 could be questioned, but he didn’t have his GM title after that. It’s okay to be skeptical, but that can lead too often to being negative and then not changing an opinion when proven wrong.

  16. Failed center experiments list continued: Stojko Vrankovic and Paul a Grant. Two of my all time faves. It is always fun to reminisce on old thyme T-Wolves drafts! I feel much more comfortable with Flip at the draft helm than I ever did with Sheer Kahn or McHale’s Navy. If we keep our 1st round pick I’m excited to see who we take.

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