KAT & the Bigs: Dissecting the Wolves’ Depth Up Front
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.
— Karl-Anthony Towns (@KarlTowns) October 13, 2016
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.
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.