Who woulda thought this is where we’d be? But boom: With free agency less than a week away, the Minnesota Timberwolves really need a big man. A year ago, the Wolves had ten players that played over 1,000 minutes. Of those ten, half of them were clear-cut, traditional big men. Now, following Thursday night’s draft night trade of Dario Saric, and with unrestricted free agents Taj Gibson and Anthony Tolliver seemingly unlikely to return, Karl-Anthony Towns and Gorgui Dieng are the only two bigs left under contract for the 2019-20 season.
Because of this, the position that was once a relative afterthought for this offseason has become an area of the roster that needs to be addressed. So let’s look at the options replacements.
But first, context is important; the ripple effect of that draft night trade is a big part of the calculus. With showing their presumed starting power forward the door for the opportunity to move up five slots — to select Jarrett Culver (not a big man) — the surface-level ripple is that Robert Covington will slide up into the starting power forward slot and that Culver (or Josh Okogie) will fill Covington’s void on the wing.
This is to say that the Wolves may have a need in the frontcourt, but not necessarily for a starting-caliber player. Gersson Rosas can go need-based bargain hunting in the big man market place.
With limited financial resources, Rosas using the entirety of his biggest financial tool on a big man would probably be financially irresponsible. When he goes shopping for the Wolves this summer, that tool is the mid-level exception — a $9.2 million free agency gift card for above the salary cap teams (like Minnesota). Because of this, Rosas may be wise to skip over some of the more expensive free agent bigs on the market — like Al-Farouq Aminu or Dewayne Dedmon — and to set his sights on a backup that would only use a portion of the gift card.
At that price tag, bigs are typically incomplete players and thus split into one of three subsets: bruisers, floor-spacers, or a poor man’s combination of strength and stretch (combo bigs). For the sake of this column, we’ll look at one big that could feasibly be attained from each of the archetypes.
Investing any sort of resource in a bruiser would be an indictment of Gorgui Dieng’s defensive game. But that shouldn’t be ruled out. Dieng didn’t exactly spin together an impressive 2018-19, and because of that Rosas may be aggressive in moving on from him. Or, Rosas may just sign what he perceives to be a better bruiser, inherently making Dieng something that approaches obsolescence. Someone like Robin Lopez.
If the Wolves were to sign Lopez, they would be signing the player that Dieng is supposed to be. Lopez is a mountain of a man that lacks physical mobility but makes up for it with a commitment to spatial awareness on both sides of the floor.
When thinking about the Wolves next season through the lens of the frontcourt, three key concerns come to mind:
A player like Lopez — or Dieng, if he puts it together — could help mitigate all three concerns.
Yes, the brief memory of Covington’s defensive performances last season is full of happy reveries. But his playing the four, however much or little that may be, will add an occasional black mark on his report card. Teams who play two physical back-to-the-basket bigs will look to go at Covington. Lopez could mitigate this blow by taking the greater threat of the opponent’s two big sets — when he shares the floor with Covington. Additionally, he could serve as a secondary post help defender when Covington is being targeted — as he does here, helping the frail Lauri Markkanen, who Jaren Jackson Jr. is trying to bang in the post.
With the size to span the width of the lane, Lopez has the physical prowess to both stay within range of his man — Jonas Valanciunas in the above clip — while also contesting the strongside big’s shot.
This help range is even more impactful in pick-and-roll defense. What Lopez loses with his inability to get out and switch out onto a smaller ball-handler in ball-screen action, he makes up for in being one of the better “drop scheme” bigs in the league. Lopez understands that a big’s duties — when dropping in coverage — change against a pick-and-roll numerous times in a matter of seconds. The below clip is an excellent three-fold read of: 1. the drop, 2. reconnection to his man, and 3. a shot contest.
(A swaggy cele’ too.)
Outside of coverage executions, the Wolves need to improve their defensive rebounding next season. Over the past four seasons (the KAT era), the Wolves have ranked 25th in defensive rebound rate three times, and hit a new low at 27th last year. Over the past seven seasons, Lopez has never been on a team that has been worse than 17th in defensive rebound rate, including helping the Chicago Bulls to the best rate in the league in 2017-18.
In one of the weirdest juxtapositions, the Wolves stinking at defensive rebounding has been mirrored on the other end of the floor with an excellent offensive rebounding rate.
Lopez probably won’t be able to make the younger Wolves care about defensive rebounding — Andrew … — but his presence would help shore up the defensive side of the glass. Getting the rest of the roster to put forth the effort to secure the un-sexy rebounds is a coaching staff job. On the defensive side of the ball, that falls on the Wolves newly hired defensive coordinator, David Vanterpool. Lopez has a connection there too. In 2013-14 and 2014-15, Lopez played for the Portland Trailblazers — and thus for Vanterpool. Those two seasons Portland ranked 11th and 5th in defensive rebounding rate, in large part due to the 578 defensive rebounds Lopez grabbed, but also because Lopez is big that is committed to the art of the box-out.
In today’s NBA, most teams only actively send one player at the offensive glass. Lopez loves blowing that guy up.
Much like being able to teach the importance of defensive rebound, Lopez wouldn’t be able to convince Towns to stop fouling as much as he does. Instead, Lopez’s value in that capacity would be found in giving the Wolves a solid option when Towns inevitably does find his way into foul trouble — as he did so many times this past season.
No matter who the Wolves trade for or sign, it’s going to be a killer of the offense whenever Towns gets in foul trouble. Lopez’s presence would stymie that blow by improving the defense during those KAT-less minutes. The classic let’s try and break even when KAT sits algorithm.
Particularly if Gibson is not brought back, foul trouble or not, someone is going to need to be a second big body to throw at the Andre Drummonds and Nikola Jokics of the league. Lopez is a great option there, too.
Minding all those good things said about his defense, there is a reason Lopez can likely be had this summer for a relatively small sum of money: he is the antithesis of the modern NBA big man on offense. Lopez did shoot 31 times from beyond-the-arc last season — more than the previous ten years of his career combined — but he only converted seven of those attempts, good for 22.6 percent. Really, Lopez’s offensive value is mostly limited to being a screen setter and decent distributor from the mid-post.
As far as “shooting” goes, all Lopez really has in his bag is a weird extend-o arm hook shot. According to Second Spectrum’s tracking data, 270 of Lopez’s 535 field goal attempts were hook shots last season. He made 55.6 percent of those flings. Pretty good, but again, this isn’t exactly “modern” offense:
When the idea of “the modern game” is bantered about, many directly send their minds to the Houston Rockets. But around the league, there are other, less jarring — James Harden-less — teams that have similarly tapped into the value of the pick-and-roll and the utilization of the 3-point game. The Los Angeles Clippers and their dangerous Lou Williams-Montrezl Harrell pick-and-roll action are a great example.
What is often forgotten with the Clips is that the Williams-Harrell ball-screen action had so much success last year because they were surrounded by players who were conscientious of space while also being competent in their own shooting ability. Once acquired by Los Angeles, JaMychal Green fit that mold perfectly. Almost more impressive than the 41.3 percent he shot from beyond-the-arc for the Clippers was the diversity of ways he got off those shots. To rattle through a few…
Green’s floor-spacing around the pick-and-roll
There was the traditional utility of Green in simply spotting him in the corner — on the fringes of the Williams-Harrell attack.
But as his Green’s comfort grew, and Doc Rivers’ confidence in Green did the same, Green became an active cog in the pick-and-roll himself. In Green and Harrell lineups, the Clippers now had a big who could be the rim roller, but they could also opt to leave Harrell in the dunker spot and use Green as a popping screener. (Notice how Harrell stays put and directs Green to set the screen in the below clip.)
Rivers even got to the point of feeling comfortable with having Green on the floor as the center, without Harrell.
Green in double-drag action
A personal favorite of the way the Clips used Green in the pick-and-roll was in the times when they tied him to Harrell in a double screening action called “the double drag.”
When the double drag was poppin’, it was extremely difficult for defenses to account for all three of Williams, Harrell and Green. Williams was getting into space. Harrell was rolling. Green was flaring into space.
Green creating his own space
The added value, and perhaps the greatest surprise Green brought to floor-spacing in Los Angeles was his ability to find his shot in actions that did not include a pick-and-roll. Green’s combination of strength and competent handle proved to be enough to create 3-point opportunities off-the-bounce. It was 3s like this that made it clear that Green was really feelin’ himself from deep in LA.
More clinically, Green showcased the ability to cut defenses up on the margins. A frequent source of his 3-point bombings came in sneaky retreats away from the dunker spot and into the corner. Again, it is extremely difficult for a defense to account for when the ball-handler is barrelling towards the rim.
It will be interesting to see what affect Green’s 24-game boomlet with the Clips — that extended into the playoffs — has on his market value. The Wolves will be priced in or out of the Green market dependent on what teams think of his defense.
At 6’9″ with a 7’2.25″ wingspan, Green has the physical profile of what should be a good defender in today’s NBA. His statistical profile, however, would suggest otherwise. Of the 94 power forwards ranked in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus last season, Green only rated better than the sieve-ish rookie Marvin Bagley III on the defensive side of the statistic. This spells a trend for Green who has ranked well-below league-average as a defender in four of his five seasons in the league.
There are always holes to be poked in defensive metrics. But no matter how you spin it, this isn’t a good sign. The two main pokings I’ll present, though, are simple: 1. Green’s worst years came when he was dealing with injuries, and 2. He played for the Grizzlies — who have broadly stunk at everything the past few years.
In my opinion, if Green’s defensive profile deters the rest of the league from taking a shot on him, I think the Wolves would do well to prioritize assessing his physical measurables, and to believe in bonafide floor-spacer that is only 29 years old.
When the (financially desperate) Oklahoma City Thunder signed Markieff Morris last season — after Morris had been bought out and thus become a free agent — their hope was that a new opportunity would allow the player that had clearly become the lesser of the two Morris brothers would showcase what once made him attractive back in his Phoenix days: The ability to switch across all five positions defensively while showcasing chops in the post, shooting 3s and making plays for teammates on the offensive end.
That didn’t happen. Morris flopped massively with the Thunder. He couldn’t find a synergy in bench lineups where he played the four alongside Nerlens Noel, and when they ran Morris at the five in small-ball lineups with Jerami Grant, that didn’t render the desired results either. But still, even now, Morris possesses the indistinct silhouette of being a modern frontcourt jack-of-all-trades. And it is his injury-riddled season full of dismal production that could make him attainable on a make-good deal for yet another team with limited financial resources — like Minnesota.
Because it’s more fun to think about upside than the likelihood of continued atrophy, looking at what Morris does well last season is worth exploring.
While still a member of the Washington Wizards, two months before suffering a neck injury that sidelined him for six weeks, Morris had his best game of the season against the Portland Trailblazers. Dwight Howard was out that night and after four minutes of play, the Wiz’s backup center, Ian Mahinmi, left the game with back spasms. In their place, Morris took over at the five and thrived.
With a small-ball five-man grouping of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Kelly Oubre, Otto Porter and Morris, Washington exposed Jusuf Nurkic’s prioritization of Wall and Beal by popping Morris on the perimeter time and again. It was screening actions over and over that led Morris to can six 3-pointers on the way to a victory that saw Morris lead his team in scoring (28 points).
Much like his brother, Markieff plays the game with extreme confidence that makes those types of performances possible. That weapon, however, when placed in the hands of second-tier talent is a double-edged sword — as Wolves fans are well aware of with the dynamic yet volatile production of Andrew Wiggins and Derrick Rose.
Much like Wiggins and Rose, the poison of Morris’ confidence comes from an overextended belief in his mid-range game. When walled up by a stout big man defender — like Mason Plumlee in the clip below — Morris is wont to forgo bully-ball for awkward mid-post jumpers.
This play is a classic example of an unwillingness to relent biting you in the butt. Initially, Morris has the 6’3″, 175 pound Monte Morris on his backside — an obvious post-up opportunity. But by the time he has caught the ball, Plumlee has switched with Morris, greatly deteriorating the expected value of the shot, but not Morris’ desire to take it.
It’s these type of shots and never having been a consistent shooter from deep that have historically made Morris a microwave scorer who often comes out overdone. In his eight-year career, Morris has only posted a positive offensive box plus-minus once (2013-14) — uncoincidentally the only season of his career he posted an effective field goal percentage over 50 percent.
But that’s what you get when you’re bargain bin shopping: the hope that a new role on a new team taps back into the better times.
The hope with Morris is that he can rebound — literally and metaphorically — back into the defensive player he once was. While his offensive game never screamed efficiency, Morris’ ability to defend multiple positions, amongst other things, had made him a statistical positive on defense every season of his career prior to last year’s derailment.
For one reason or the other (maybe injury), last season Morris appeared to stop caring much about pursuing defensive rebounds or locking-in when switched onto smaller, quicker players. The clips of the offensive rebounds Morris gave up last year are unsavory.
So were the clips of his pick-and-roll defense…
I think the optimistic spin on Morris, and the hope for a re-correction to his old ways, is born out of the hot-hand principle. Morris just really strikes me as one of those guys who gives more effort when things are going well. That six 3-pointer game against Portland is a good example. Nurkic still feasted on the thinner Washington frontcourt that night, but much less so on Morris, who defended Nurkic with a different sort of engagement.
Pursuing a combo big, like Morris, that can both stretch the floor and present themselves as a defensive barricade is a riskier chase than simply going after a bruiser (like Lopez) or a floor-spacer (like Green). The more you ask a player who is being paid the rate of the role player to do the greater the odds of the signing going belly-up become. Every team in the league is looking for a discount version of Al-Farouq Aminu or Dewayne Dedmon.
Because of this, for Gersson Rosas, the pursuit of finding a backup big to replace Dario Saric is both about assessing needs and a risk-benefit proposition. One way or the other, when the offseason comes to a close the Wolves have to either sign a bruiser, a floor-space or combo big. Amongst other boxes that need checking, addressing the frontcourt became a need in Minnesota after draft night.