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.