INBOX: Preseason Observations & Whether to Extend Gorgui
Andy G: The Wolves are playing actual basketball games. Preseason basketball games, only available on webstreams and secret Jumbotron cameras, but still: actual basketball games. They’ve played three times now, winning two (against Miami and Denver) and losing one (against Charlotte). They play again tonight. I’ve seen most of the action, and the stats are available on nba.com.
Some basic takeaways:
The defense looks more energetic, and this is especially true for Rubio – sort of a crazy thing to say, given how hard he *already* played on D. I also sense more energy and movement from LaVine, as an off-the-ball defender. It’s too early to tell if it’s “intelligent” movement, or if he’s just trying to play harder. Something to keep an eye on.
On offense, I’ve been a little bit surprised at how much they’re posting up. A lot of sets begin with Rubio passing to the wing and cutting away, while somebody sets a cross screen down low for either Wiggins or KAT to post up. It’s just an initial look, and sometimes they kick it out and then run screen and roll, but it isn’t necessarily what I expected to see. The nice part of it – so far – is it’s leading to tons of free throws. From the post, Wiggins and KAT are drawing fouls. Through three games, the Wolves are shooting 31.3 free throws per game. For Kahntext, Houston led the NBA last year with 29.4 per game, probably in part because of Hack-a-Dwight, and also because of Harden’s foul-drawing priority. Wiggins has become a master at getting to the line. The Wolves will find themselves in the early bonus if they open quarters with a few post-ups, and maybe that’s part of Thibs’ grand strategy here. Who knows. Teams get frustrated when they get whistled for early fouls. Wig is averaging a crazy 9.3 FTAs in 27.3 minutes per these preseason games. KAT is averaging 5.3 FTAs per 24.6 minutes, compared to his rookie season’s 3.4 per 32.0. SMALL SAMPLE SIZE ALERT, but that’s a significant uptick.
There’s plenty of other stuff happening in these games. What’s caught your eye?
Patrick J: “What caught your eye?” is the appropriate way to ask this question, because only three games into the PRE-SEASON (Allen Iverson voice – “we’re talking about the PRE-SEASON! Not the regular season. The PRE-SEASON.”), we’re in sample-size hell and can only really draw some initial casual observations about things that might be worth keeping an eye on as the pre-season wraps up and the team gets ready for the regular season.
So. What has caught my eye thus far in the preseason? Rubio, Rubio, Rubio. Ricky is playing defense like a bat out of hell. Eye test here, but I can’t recall ever having seen him play with more energy than he has so far this preseason.
Like you said above (and others on AWAW and elsewhere have observed), it’s kind of uncanny to discover that he apparently has another gear on defense that we didn’t know existed. I came into the preseason expecting Tom Thibodeau’s mythical defensive coaching prowess to help guys who needed help the most. (Eds. Note: We’re looking at you, Shabazz Muhammad and Zach LaVine.) Basic logic suggests that the returns to better coaching of a player who’s already pretty great at something should be less than for players who have a lot more room for improvement. But Rubio’s energy and fit in Thibs’ defensive scheme strikes me as one of the most pleasant surprises of the preseason so far. Assuming he can stay healthy–jinx!–he should be a monster this season.
Other casual observations:
- Zach Lavine: To me, LaVine looks like he’s matured into a real NBA player. What I mean by that requires a bit of explanation: I’ve always been a Zach LaVine fan, but I’ve always feared that he might struggle to develop the all-around game and mental awareness to get meaningful (read: starter) minutes and be a real contributor to a good team. In his first two years, he got a ton of minutes that I’d categorize as “on the job training.” Granted it’s early, and he he still has plenty of things to work on, but Zach LaVine now looks like belongs out there on merit. (Eds. Note: And he looks like he knows it, too. Confidence has never been one of LaVine’s problems.)
- Watching games: You alluded to this above, but it’s weird not to be able to watch certain preseason games because they’re just not available. Zach Harper has done heroic work in finding jumbotron video of non televised games. Yes, League Pass can lead us to think about this issue not unlike a spoiled child would, but ffs – a league whose new tv deal was struck with such fanfare should be able to find a way to televise all of its games. I have to think the demand is there. Where’s the supply?
- Andrew Wiggins: Wiggins will be a solid player, but his play has seemed a bit uneven. He has struggled more than I expected when matched up against players like Nic Batum and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, whom I consider to be in Wiggins’ peer group. Fortunately, he’s still among the best in the biz at getting to the line, but I’m hoping that as more games are played, we’ll see that he’s expanded his game significantly beyond what we already knew he could do. Still, Wiggins is currently second on the team in preseason scoring, and has best +/- on the team. So to be as clear as possible (POTUS voice): my criticism of Wiggins is pretty meaningless at this point, as these are just preliminary observations. By no means is the sky falling. Still, here’s hoping we eventually see the same kind of boost from Wiggins we’ve seen thus far from Rubio.
- Defense: #SampleSizeAlert (again), but even though we’re just a few games in, after having watched the Wolves play historically bad defense in recent years, it feels good to have reason for hope again. The Wolves are currently holding opponents to the seventh fewest points in the League. #Thibs
Andy G: In his recent “30 Crazy Predictions,” post for ESPN, Zach Lowe said that he was “leaning yes,” on whether the Wolves and Gorgui Dieng would agree to a Kahntract extension before the October 31 deadline. Thibs apparently likes Dieng. (Eds note: for those unfamiliar with the NBA rules on this issue, Gorgui is in the final year of his original “rookie scale” deal. Before this final year, the team has the right to sign him to an extension beyond next season. If they don’t come to any agreement, then he almost certainly will become a “restricted” free agent next summer, allowing other teams to tender an offer sheet. You might recall the Wolves famously doing this with Portland’s Nicolas Batum, when David Kahn was still in charge. The Blazers matched that deal, as was their right — hence the “restricted” nature of the free agency — so Batum remained a Blazer. Gorgui will probably go through a similar courting #process next summer if the Wolves don’t extend his deal this October.) I sense a wide variety of opinions on Dieng’s value to this team and how much money he should be paid in his next deal.
Before throwing out estimates, it’s worth clarifying the actual range for Gorgui’s next deal. As a player with 4 years experience, his salary can go up to 25 percent of the cap. (Eds note, it almost feels like citing Wikipedia for NBA bloggers, but for anything Collective Bargaining Agreement Minutiae, just assume we get it from Larry Coon’s NBA Salary Cap FAQ. In this instance, Number 16 on his list.) For 2017-18, the cap has been projected at $102 Million, so a “max” for Dieng would be about 4 years $102 Million. It’s probably better to focus on the “25 percent” part more than the “$102 Million” part, because this money represents something of a New Normal in the NBA, and can be distracting from the question of player value, for guys like Dieng who are something below star status.
To state something pretty obvious, the main considerations the Wolves face are creating cap space for potential free agent signings (don’t laugh, with Thibs and KAT the Wolves might actually be a half-decent destination in upcoming years) and managing their salary to ensure they can afford to keep this young core together.
Let’s start with free agents. Next year’s crop is loaded. No, LeBron James and Steph Curry aren’t walkin’ through that door. But some other good player who is better than Gorgui Dieng might be, if the Wolves have room to (over)pay him. Just skimming the list there on that link, I see Taj Gibson, Andrew Bogut, Danilo Gallinari, Andre Iguodala, Blake Griffin (!), JJ Redick, Jrue Holiday, Serge Ibaka, Gordon Hayward, and George Hill, to name a few guys who could plausibly be expected to sign with a different team than the one they currently play for. The basic point is that 2017 will be a good time to have #CapSpace.
Will the Timberwolves have cap space? Yes, but the question is how much. Here’s what their salary situation will look like next summer, assuming they exercise their team option on Jordan Hill, they don’t re-sign Brandon Rush, and — for the moment — keeping potential restricted free agents Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad out of the equation. Remember the cap will be about $102 Million. Numbers from HoopsHype.
In this scenario the Wolves have 11 players and about $67 Million in salaries, leaving about $35 Million in cap space. Max salaries for veterans with 7-9 years experience are 30 percent of the cap, or about $31 Million per year. So if the Wolves found themselves in an unlikely scenario where a max-worthy player decided to make Minnesota home for the next four years, they could not afford to add any salaries of significance, such as a Dieng extension. However, in the less unlikely scenario where a good-but-not-worth-the-max player wants to sign with the Wolves, there could be room for both that player and Gorgui. If he signs for, say, 4 years and $44 Million, that $11 Million would push them up to about $78 Million, and leave about $24 Million in cap space. That won’t get you Blake Griffin, but it should get you a damn good veteran player.
For 2017 free agency, we also need to consider Pekovic, because the team might be able to remove his salary from their cap number if his career is over due to injury. (And it probably is.) After January 31, 2017, the Wolves can waive Pekovic and — following a waiting period — apply to have his salary excluded from their cap number due to career-ending injury. (See #63 on Coon’s page.) If Pek comes off and Gorgui goes on, the net effect might be about zero, leaving the Wolves at the same $67 Million, with $35 Million in cap space.
But even if the Wolves decide that they will have room for both Dieng and a pricey free agent, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea to sign both to long-term Kahntracts. Starting in 2018-19, Wiggins and LaVine will eat up close to (or exactly) 50 percent of the cap, and KAT will tack on another 25 percent in 2019-20. If, hypothetically, the Wolves are able to sign a bigtime free agent in ‘17 with some of the cap space outlined above, they could face a situation where — for a season or two — they’ve got $100 Million or so tied up in just 4 players. In that scenario, they would not want overpaid Gorgui Dieng hamstringing their ability to surf the “bargain bin” for veteran free agents to fill out the roster.
Anyway, that’s a lot of words.
Basically, I view Gorgui has a starter on a bad-to-mediocre team, and a solid third big man on a good team. If he was a little bit bigger, he’d be a good starting center. If he was a little bit more athletic, he’d be a good starting power forward. A “solid third big man” is not a 25-percent-of-the-cap proposition. Not even 20 percent. Maybe about half that. Big men, even off the bench, have value — especially big men who are durable and play defense. If the Wolves can extend Dieng for something like 4 years, $45 Million, I think that would be smart. If it’s more like 4 years, $60 Million, I think that’s right on the line of questionable. If it’s 4 years, $80 Million, I think that’s a mistake they will come to regret.
Patrick J: Honestly, I don’t have a strong opinion on the Gorgui salary issue. Here’s my lukewarm take: frankly, I just don’t think Gorgui is a starting 4 or 5 on a contending team, and the 4 spot is currently our biggest weakness (at least in the starting lineup). That said, Tim Faklis recently highlighted the synergy that Gorgui and Karl Towns developed last season after Gorgui moved into the starting lineup. As banal as it seems–we’re all rightly giddy about the prospects of #ThibodeauTowns2016–the Gorgui issue is something diehards will be keeping a close eye on this season.
Anywho, the Wolves have another preseason tilt tonight against Miami at the (wait for it) KFC YUM! CENTER. Maybe there’ll be a stream, maybe there won’t, but just say it with me one more time:
KFC Yum! Center.
‘Til next time.