KAT & the Bigs: Dissecting the Wolves’ Depth Up Front



Original artwork of Eric Neely. Follow on Twitter and Instagram @ericneely. Original photograph for this rendition from David Sherman.

The 2016-17 regular season is almost upon us, and with that it is time to begin some position previews. Among the Wolves’ biggest problems last year was their lack of frontcourt depth, despite their best player starting at center. We look at Tom Thibodeau’s attempt to improve this group. 

On a Timberwolves team attempting to escape itself from the shadow of Kevin Garnett, Tom Thibodeau came to training camp this season with a set of ideals. The first being defense, a staple in Thibs’ reputation since his days of coaching, ironically, Kevin Garnett in Boston. The second is a set of solid big men with strong passing ability.

In Chicago, he had Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol playing at their ceiling. On offense, they were both great passers, and Gasol even became somewhat of a floor spacer. Hitting cutting Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose, finding Mike Dunleavy on the perimieter, or dishing dimes on the high-low with each other, their fit was visually apparent.  Defensively, Noah won a Defensive Player of the Year award, while Gasol produced plus numbers in most defensive categories.

Off the bench, Taj Gibson was a steady force, able to bang and brute his way into consistent 25+ mpg seasons. While only spending one season with Thibs in Chicago, the impact of Nikola Mirotic was felt right away in his rookie season.

Tom Thibodeau’s calling card is, and always will be defense. But he also knows how to structure a good frontline, and get production out of them. And he had depth.

Last year in Minnesota, Sam Mitchell found success in the starting frontline, but struggled to get much from the bench. A pair of free agent signings, and some continued hope for a rookie from last year give Thibs hope coming into this year. Below is a detailed summary of what he’ll be working with.

A Starting Combo that Works

Yes, this combo.

In Minnesota, Thibs gets an easy starting point in Karl-Anthony Towns. If anyone is going to get the Wolves out of KG’s shadow, it’s going to be KAT. At some point, he might be able to do it single handedly.

Dozens have dubbed him “the next big thing”, and for good reason. Only three players in the NBA last year averaged average 18 points, 10 rebounds, and one blocked shot per game, and shot over 33 percent from three-point line: DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, and Karl-Anthony Towns. The exciting part: KAT is the youngest, and already has a better VORP rating (wins above replacement level) than both of them, all while being right in line with (or ahead of) them in terms of stats like PER and true shooting percentage.

Karl-Anthony Towns 20 18.3 10.5 1.7 22.5 8.7 .590
DeMarcus Cousins 25 26.9 11.3 1.4 25.0 5.7 .538
Anthony Davis 23 24.3 10.3 2.0 23.6 7.2 .559

In short: he is a 7-foot freak of nature, able to protect the rim, run the floor, handle the ball, pass at a high level, and score from anywhere. He’s really good at literally everything, and has “best player in the league” potential.

This is about as good a starting point as you’re going to get, and Thibodeau knows that.

After KAT, Gorgui Dieng is the guy that most see as the steadiest fixture in the Wolves’ big man contingent. He and Towns developed a chemistry on both ends of the floor in the second half of last season, garnering the praise of fans, writers, and even Sam Mitchell.

Dieng began starting consistently on January 27. Keeping in mind the iffy nature of the 2-man lineup stat, the Wolves played well when he and KAT were on the floor together. Once Dieng was put into the starting 5 (started January 27), they put up a 114 offensive rating, a 6.2 net rating, and a 59.9 effective field goal percentage. Those were the best 2-man lineup numbers (for whatever that’s worth) of that sort on the team.

One of the better aspects of their game is their shared ability to pass the ball. They’re able to play some inside-in with each other, and can even play with each other on the break when the situation calls for it.


But, as mentioned, both pass well. Very well. Some have even started to make that evident during the preseason. When thinking about the Wolves’ wing situation (as Lucas did quite well here), specifically the athleticism there, the fast breaks should get exciting very quickly. Or half court sets. It won’t matter, no matter who has the ball.


This part of the Wolves likely isn’t changing, and it’s easy to understand why. The two of them have forged a mostly unanimously respected big man tandem that the rest of the league has major trouble dealing with. As the two of them, especially Towns, continues to expand his shooting range, this tandem could get all the more dangerous.

A new role for Bjelica


Last year’s preseason (and even in the Euros a few months before) got everyone ready for a fun season with Nemanja Bjelica. A combination of injuries, defensive confusion, and a hesitation to “JUST SHOOT THE BALL!” gave Belly a less-than-stellar rookie campaign.

He came to the Wolves with a savvy, point-guard like skillset, complete with point forward duties during his impressive European campaign. Under Sam Mitchell, Bjelica never got a chance to showcase those point guard abilities, mostly working as a stretch, catch-and-(not often enough) shoot stretch big. On that front, he did alright, shooting 38.4 percent from deep on 2 attempts per game. But there’s more to his game than what was showcased a year ago.

One thing that Bjelica can do is handle the ball, even though last year’s coaching regime didn’t give him the keys very often. It sounds like, based on quotes alone, that Thibs likes Bjelica, and has even mentioned that he likes the idea of using him as the occasional primary ball handler, leading both pick and rolls, and the fast break, something he’s proven (both in Europe and the NBA) he can do.


It was defensively where he struggled, posting negative numbers across the board, including plus/minus (-0.6) and defensive rating. Despite being a great fit on paper with both Dieng and Towns, he was never able to fully find his fit on either end. Albeit in a small sample size of minutes, Bjelica’s fit next to the pair of starters (especially when compared to the starters together) was not great on either end.

Combo Minutes Together Offensive Rating Defensive Rating TS%
Karl-Anthony Towns/Gorgui Dieng 1128 111.1 107.4 .584
Gorgui Dieng/Nemanja Bjelica 541 101.2 105.8 54.6
Karl-Anthony Towns/Nemanja Bjelica 372 105.4 109.6 54.9

Still, he remains the most proficient shooting big that the Wolves have, and he fills a major need off the bench. A need that the two other bench guys, newly acquired, aren’t able to fill. If Thibs (who has been outspoken over his confidence in Bjelica’s skillset) is able to fully showcase what we saw in Europe (and Eurobasket last summer), the Wolves will be adding a key playmaker to their bench unit. And they need it to happen, badly.

How everything will fit


This year is especially exciting for the big man core, because there are questions as to who will get minutes, and where. In an effort to add to what the Wolves had in KAT, Dieng, and Bjelica last year, they went out and signed veterans Cole Aldrich and Jordan Hill. Real veterans, with experience and a history of helping their teams win games.

Not immediately expected to be part of Thibs’ bigs rotation are Adriean Payne and Nikola Pekovic, and for very different reasons.

Payne was traded a year and a half ago for a lottery-protected first round pick during his rookie year, and things haven’t panned out for him. His athleticism and drive are both there, but the skills and mentality to play basketball at the NBA level have not caught up. He is athletic enough to go get a rebound, but not always smart enough to go get position to get that board. He’s got the springs to throw it down on a pick and roll, but rarely makes the proper decision on what to do when given the ball.

Pek had a wonderful run in Minnesota, but injuries have sidelined him for at least this year. Odds seem high that this is the end of Nikola Pekovic’s time as an NBA player, as his history of injuries has followed him closely the past 3 years. It’s a bummer, but a reality of the situation. Pek was awesome in Minnesota when he was healthy, and it’s important to remember that.

While Thibodeau has made it mostly clear that he won’t be messing with the successful Towns-Dieng tandem in the starting lineup, it remains to be seen how he’ll be using the other three (Aldrich, Hill, Bjelica) in the rotations. One of them is likely going to get less time than they’d like. Depending on how much time KAT gets, it might even be two.

While Hill and Aldrich both deserve (and will almost certainly receive) playing time, it’s unclear to this point who will get priority in the rotations. While Hill can go out to as far as 15 feet, neither is much of a floor spacer, and both fill similar roles on defense.

The most exciting part of this group remains Karl-Anthony Towns, more specifically his versatility. His speed and quickness will allow him to play spurts at power forward, which means he can play minutes next to everyone mentioned. He has all the potential to become the best player that Tom Thibodeau has ever coached, with the possible (but not definite) exception of one guy: Kevin Garnett. That thought is both scary and exciting.

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4 Responsesso far.

  1. Tom says:

    I agree that Thibs has a good mixture of players in the Front court that can play both outside and inside (plus Cole as your rim defender, low post banger). If he can get more out of G and Belly on Defense, he should have a top level group. Sadly, we won’t have KG or Pek, but this part of the team should not hold them back from making the playoffs.

  2. gjk says:

    The PT issue is easier than it seems: Hill sits. He’s not proven that he can help a team win games and is basically a lottery bust who became a journeyman role player for losing teams. He played 15 total minutes in last year’s playoffs for the Pacers.

    It’s disappointing that they’re wasting a spot on Payne instead of cutting him and adding another wing. They knew they couldn’t do anything with Pek until next year, which means it’s crucial to use the roster spots wisely, and it makes no sense to have a bruiser-type PF without positional flexibility when that is the easiest type of player to get in the league.

  3. pyrrol says:

    I agree with gjk on two points: I’m also surprised the new regime has kept Payne. I’m not sure what their reason/plan for the decision is. As a fan, I’m at the point where I’d rather see the roster spot spent a different way. I also think that Cole and Hill are not similar. Hill is better than Cole at offense and Cole is better at defense. But only one is a real plus player at his strength–Cole. He will provide solid defense in the paint for the bench and he plays within himself, knowing his strengths. It’s a long season and Hill is a highly competent guy, so we’ll see him. But it seems clear so far that Thibs favors Cole coming off the bench first and I get why.

    I’m interested what Thibs will get out of Deing. The big man rotation seems pretty set for now. That locks Dieng and Kat as starters. I think Thibs likes Deing, but he does need to improve. It’s an odd lineup. Dieng is a pretty ‘diet’ center, but he’s not really a PF either. On the other hand, this is covered up by the fact that KAT can fill both C and PF roles spectacularly at any given moment. Given the small sample size and laundry list of mitigating factors, the chart that compares different KAT Deing and Bjelica lineups is of very limited use. In other words, other lineups beyond KAT-Deing (generally KAT and ____) might be fruitful and used this season. Anyone looks good playing next to KAT. Dieng will. But I’d like to see him play smoother, more consistent, and better defense. We drafted him for his defense, and while his developed offensive tools have been a pleasant surprise, his defense isn’t as sharp as I think the organization expected. I’m not sure he’s who we should pair next to KAT for years on end.

    Meanwhile, Bjelica is a modern, true PF. I expect a much better season from him. Good enough to get some good overlap time with important starters. There’s no question that he has strengths and weaknesses, but he does have a clear role and position. On his projected bench role, he should fit in great because he’ll have a defensive C alongside him (Cole). That said, while he’s not a gifted defender, he is a smart defender and will not hurt the team on that end as much as some people worry he will. His -.6 defensive rating is nothing to worry about when you consider the players he was surrounded with and the coaching situation last year. Look for that marginal number to improve. I’m expecting Bjelly to really jump out and have a big season, whereas I’m expecting another up and down ‘almost there’ season from Dieng. But given our improved roster and coaching, almost there will look pretty damn good. So, status quo with our front court should work out just fine.

    • biggity2bit says:

      I think Bjelly as a smart defender is a great description. Pek was a better defender than most people gave him credit for, playing within himself. Maybe it’s a Euro big man thing.

      Super excited to have Cole on the team. Great depth.

      I like Gorgui. He’s not perfect, but he competes and what he is good at is just quirky enough that other teams can’t sag off of it, and that opens things for KAT. It’s like Gorgui has mastered a little ‘drunk basketball’ style that isn’t fully refined, but still effective enough. Probably a bad analogy. I think with G you’re always giving up something to the other team a little bit, but you’re also always gaining something too. Because KAT is good at everything, it gives the Wolves a net win with those two (as KAT can capitalize on what G opens for him and cover weaknesses).

      Lastly, I thought Thibs gave a quote a month or two ago about really liking Payne. I remember it because I was surprised. Something about how he’s got a lot to work on, but he’s been working hard and the coaches have some specific things they want to see him improve on.

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