MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Timberwolves’ identity has shifted entirely in recent weeks. Once a sieve, over its past 12 games, Minnesota has sported the best defense in the NBA.
Those 12 games have come with Gorgui Dieng starting at center, and that doesn’t feel like a coincidence.
The Wolves have been undermanned for much of this current stretch, playing without Karl-Anthony Towns for all of it, missing Andrew Wiggins for some of it and having numerous other role players sit a game here or there.
Minnesota has compensated for those absences by scratching and clawing for everything it can get and playing every possession with maximum effort, particularly on the defensive end. Dieng has been a spark plug with the way he has both defended and crashed the glass.
Over the past eight games, Minnesota is giving up 93.6 points per 100 possessions when Dieng is on the floor, and outscoring opponents by 12.2 points per 100 trips. The keys, Dieng said, have been Minnesota’s communication and aggression.
“I think we’re attacking people where they don’t want us to attack them,” Dieng said.
At the center of the defensive evolution has been, well, the center. The best NBA defenses are organized and aligned. Players know where they’re supposed to be and what they’re supposed to do. Everyone knows the coverage — whatever it may be — in any given situation. Communication is the basis for the on-a-string defense teams strive for.
And not many talk like Dieng. It’s a skill he learned early in his career from Kevin Garnett, and has incorporated into his game. That has been true for years. Even back in Tom Thibodeau’s first season on the job in Minnesota, when it looked like no one knew what they were doing on the defensive end of the floor, the coach lauded the communication Dieng was offering up from the back end.
Current Timberwolves head coach Ryan Saunders pointed to DeAndre Jordan as a big who has had tremendous defensive success throughout his career — particularly with the type of “drop” pick-and-roll coverages the Wolves rely on — and the way Jordan constantly calls out plays and coverages. Saunders noted a defender who is engaged and communicates “can make up for a lot of things.” That’s Dieng.
“Gorgui, he is a better presence defensively where he understands that communication is the main key defensively,” Saunders said. “He’s a guy who will call things out continuously. He’ll call coverages, and he does make it easy on the young guys a lot of times.”
Which helps explain Jarrett Culver’s recent development and the team’s overall success on defense.
“Man, I love playing with Gorgui,” Josh Okogie said. “He’s always got your back on defense. He’s great, even if he has to leave his man to cover your back, even if he ends up looking bad, that unselfishness is great. I’d run through a wall for him.”
Dieng’s individual defensive metrics are also impressive. He ranks fourth among centers in ESPN’s Real Defensive Plus-Minus this season, and 14th among all players. But, recently, he’s flashed an extended offensive game. Dieng is taking 4.6 3-pointers a game in this 12-game stretch, and making 40 percent of them.
Saunders admitted he used to force Dieng to roll on every pick and roll, even when Dieng insisted he could pop. Finally, Dieng started to step back and take a few triples from the top of the arc, and hit a lot of them. Now, he is capable of doing either.
“I see when the weak side is empty, I can roll,” Dieng said. “When there is people there, I can pop. And they give me the chance to do both. If you can do both, that will help us offensively.”
Dieng is averaging 13.3 points and 9.3 rebounds over his past 12 games. He has played a role in Minnesota being good enough offensively to pair with its renewed defensive excellence to win games.
“Him and KAT are very similar, but G just blocks more shots,” Robert Covington said. “They’re both shotmakers, but G’s impact on the game has been tremendous for us. He’s stepping into the role that normally KAT will play, but G has responded very well. That’s what you know what the ‘Next Man’ mentality is. G is a living example of it. With the opportunity he’s been given, he’s been playing tremendous, he’s been playing out of the world.”
Which makes Covington happy, because Dieng has always noted he only has so many minutes before Towns is sent back into the game. Finally given a chance to shine, Dieng has.
Which begs the question: with Dieng playing such a large role in this team’s success with Towns out, when the all-star center finally returns, will Dieng’s role again be minimalized?
Playing two bigs at once isn’t really part of Minnesota’s new system, but at some point a team has to play to the strengths of its roster, right?
“It’s not me deciding what I want to do, it’s up to them. If they want to play me with KAT, fine. If they don’t, that’s up to them. It’s a job. I signed up for it,” Dieng said. “it’s not up to me to decide if I’m going to pair up with him or not. KAT is the face of this franchise. It’s not up to me. Whether I’m playing or not, I’m still going to be a good teammate and do the best I can to help this basketball team.”