Cole Aldrich was the perfect acquisition.
For a Minnesota Timberwolves franchise undergoing a major front-office transition and loaded with young talent under long-term contracts, it made no sense to over-spend on some of the veteran players available in the free agent market. While other teams were committing more than $60 and $70 Million for the likes of Timofey Mozgov, Luol Deng, and Allen Crabbe, Tom Thibodeau and his general manager Scott Layden (otherwise known here as “Thibs-Layden, LLC”) were judicious with their approach to spending, and nabbed Aldrich — a quality backup center with possible upside for a starting role — for just $22 Million over three seasons. While still modest in today’s NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement dollars, seven million per year is real money; enough of a commitment from front office to player that everybody expected Aldrich to be in the team’s regular rotation.
In his two seasons before joining his hometown club (In case you missed it: Aldrich hails from Bloomington, Minnesota) Cole posted really good advanced stats in somewhat limited minutes. In 2014-15 on the Knicks, in 976 minutes, he had a PER of 18.1 and win shares per 48 minutes of .107. Both of those marks reflect above-average production. For the Clippers in 2015-16, in 800 minutes of action, Aldrich somehow posted All-Star-caliber advanced numbers: PER of 21.3 and WS/48 of .209.
Even if those limited roles helped Aldrich inflate his efficiency a bit, it seemed like he had become a helpful rotation player who would definitely improve the young Timberwolves’ depth. More than anything, Aldrich was supposed to provide some much-needed defense to a young club desperately in need of some interior toughness and rim protection. In 2015-16, Aldrich ranked 4th in the entire NBA in ESPN’s advanced stat called “Defensive Real Plus-Minus.” While there are inevitably glitches in any system that spits out one number to capture basketball performance, the fact that the three names above Cole’s were noted defensive stalwarts Andrew Bogut, Tim Duncan, and Draymond Green provides some legitimacy to the metric. (Kevin Garnett ranked sixth in DRPM that season.)
So the young Timberwolves who were becoming an explosive offensive ballclub toward the end of Sam Mitchell’s lone season at the helm had added a defensive big man. Certainly, Aldrich would play a lot of minutes, even if he didn’t crack the starting lineup. The team’s defense would improve due in part to Cole’s contributions, which would launch them up the standings into contention for a playoff spot.
Well, those things didn’t happen.
Cole played more than Jordan Hill and Adreian Payne, but he didn’t play much. In 62 games, Aldrich logged 531 minutes; good for 8.6 per. Many times, he would check in with the second quarter backups and never be seen again in the third or fourth quarters, when Thibs shortened his rotation and went with smaller, (much) faster lineups.
In his limited time on the floor, Aldrich was generally not helpful. On offense, he was good at moving the ball — it was like a hot potato when it touched his hands, and he would usually fire it back out instead of forcing a shot that he would likely miss. (However, he would occasionally whip up a full, no-shit hook shot that would always miss badly but at least generate unintentional comedy for fans.) Aldrich’s offensive game was known to be limited, but his production dropped significantly from his prior two seasons. Where he scored 12.5 and 14.8 points per 36 minutes in New York and LA in ’14-15 and ’15-16, that figure dropped to just 7.1 points for the Wolves this season. His assists per 36 (1.7) were down from 2.8 and 2.3 in the past two years.
But even if Cole had seen a drop in offensive production, a good defensive season would’ve made his acquisition one that the team felt good about. Unfortunately, he didn’t seem very helpful on defense either. The team’s second unit had better defensive ratings than the starters (with worse offense) but Cole’s D rating of 107.5 was still pretty bad and worse than his fellow benchmates Nemanja Bjelica (103.4) and even Shabazz Muhammad (106.8). Maybe most disappointing was the performance of the Aldrich-Towns lineups. If Cole could provide some defense to Towns lineups that score like crazy, the Wolves would’ve had a nice option to throw at opponents at different parts of games. It would’ve allowed KAT some rest from banging with centers that often outweigh him by 25 or more pounds.
Unfortunately, the Aldrich-KAT lineups had a defensive rating of 111.8. To put that in perspective, the Lakers 110.6 was the worst defense in the entire NBA. One could argue that this was a small sample size error and that Thibs was wrong to only pair Cole & KAT for 138 minutes. For a comparison, KAT played over 2,600 minutes with Wiggins this season. It is certainly possible that greater sample size with more time to learn each other’s tendencies as teammates would’ve brought out better defense from this bigger frontcourt tandem. But from what we’ve seen so far — and presumably what Thibs has seen in practice to guide his rotation decisions — Aldrich is not the helpful defensive big man that we had hoped to see.
To finish on a more positive note, Aldrich was an excellent rebounder all season. His defensive rebounding technique is really solid — he goes after everything with two hands, fearless about catching a stray elbow or any other contact. While his 10.7 rebounds per 36 minutes was second on the team to KAT’s 12.0, I think he was arguably the team’s best. He doesn’t steal teammate’s rebounds the way Towns sometimes does, and Aldrich had the team’s best rebound percentage (52.2 when he was on the floor) aside from the barely-used Lance Stephenson. Cole knows how to rebound.
One of the reasons that many reasonable people thought the Wolves would gun for a playoff spot in 2017 was the veteran depth that was added to their promising core in the offseason. Cole Aldrich was supposed to be the biggest addition — and not just literally, but figuratively. He regressed from his prior two years and — assuming he sticks around and is not traded — Wolves fans can only hope that he comes back stronger in 2017-18.