Minnesota Timberwolves 2018-19 Season in Review: The Bigs

Written By Charlie Johnson (ZoneCoverage.com)

It was a season of sideshows for the Minnesota Timberwolves — organizational warfare dampened expectations before a coaching change and bouts of the injury bug made mediocrity the backdrop of Karl-Anthony Towns’ second-half surge.

But 82 games were played nonetheless; Towns gave his team a chance every night, Josh Okogie emerged as a piece for the future, Dario Saric and Robert Covington quickly proved their worth and a trio of former-Bulls exceeded expectations. Plenty can be gleaned from the campaign that was, so let’s begin this offseason by evaluating — with a statistical lens — the performance of 15 Wolves from last year’s roster.

First, the bigs:

Karl-Anthony Towns

An assessment of Towns’ fourth professional season should return positive marks on all but one count.

As an offensive threat, he further cemented himself as one of the most versatile scoring big men the NBA has ever seen. As the back-line of his team’s slowly-evolving defense, he took his first noticeable step forward since entering the league in 2015-16; that’s not to say he’s even eclipsed league-average on that end (he ranked 54th of 72 centers by ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus/Minus), but he finally showed onlookers that progression is possible — that the Wolves, if things break right, could soon approach two-way formidability.

There are a lot of fun stats that highlight Towns’ success:

Most seasons with at least 100 3-pointers made and a field-goal percentage greater than or equal to 50 percent, since 1946-47

basketball-reference

Most Win Shares produced since Karl-Anthony Towns was drafted (2015)

basketball-reference

But as alluded to above, there was one area where — night in and night out — Towns couldn’t seem to get out of his own way. The 292 personal fouls he committed were more than any player has amounted since Amar’e Stoudemire in 2007-08. In large part due to that fact, Towns played just 7.7 fourth-quarter minutes; in 2017-18, he averaged 9.6.

Most often, Towns’ offensive fouls are a product of his overly-aggressive play style. Whether he’s hooking his defender when spinning in the post, using his off arm to fend away a contest or setting illegal screens to free up a ball-handler, his infractions are a side-effect of his desire to produce. In time, he’ll realize that he doesn’t need to take those short cuts for his team to prosper on that side of the ball.

But on the defensive end, the way that he responds to what’s become a habitual whistle often leaves me to wonder if he understands what is and isn’t against the rules. Throughout the season, he did a good job to wall-up when an attacker lunged toward him — but over and over, he’d slap toward the ball as that opponent put up a shot. Instead, Towns should keep his arms vertical and accept that a block isn’t the only way to provide effective resistance.

As an offensive group, the Wolves will be a borderline top-10 unit — as they have been since Towns entered the league — for as long as they can rely on his individual dominance. If he demonstrates a more thorough understanding of what constitutes a foul, the heights that he can reach during the duration of his next contract will depend on continued defensive development. Should he become a more fundamental and consistent rim protector, he can help the Wolves take a jump without any other help.

Taj Gibson

If Gibson, an unrestricted free agent, has played his final game with the Wolves, it’s worth celebrating what a successful acquisition he was.

Those, including myself, who doubted that he could live up to a hefty $14 million annual salary are now eating crow.

Six of the most notable free agent signings in franchise history and the number of win shares they produced during their first two seasons with the Wolves:

  • Taj Gibson: 12.3
  • Chauncey Billups: 11.3
  • Fred Hoiberg: 11.3
  • Sam Mitchell: 10.2
  • Tony Campbell: 9
  • Joe Smith: 8.4 

And Gibson may have been an even more influential actor off of the floor. Throughout the 2017-18 season, he was a band-aid in what became a fractured locker room, concealing the divide between Timber-Bulls and Timberwolves. After Butler was traded and Tom Thibodeau was dismissed the following year, Gibson continued to be an exemplary leader by expressing wholehearted support for those with elevated roles on the floor and the bench.

Before 2018-19’s final home game, the 33-year-old was asked whether he’d be open to re-signing with the Wolves: “Without a question,” Gibson responded quickly, “without a question. I enjoy playing for Ryan, I enjoy the city, I enjoy the people here, so it’d be cool to come back.”

Dario Saric

Since transitioning from the Euroleague to the NBA in 2015-16, Saric has been a relatively inconsistent player.

A near-seven-footer praised for his unusual versatility, the Croatian native shot 31 percent from deep on 4.1 attempts per game as a rookie; the very next season, he jumped to 39-percent on 5.1 heaves.

Saric’s first campaign with the Wolves, then, was similarly volatile:

But the stretch forward seemed to find better footing through each passing game, as was evident by both his on-court production and the way that he spoke about the team at large. Still — putting any assessment of his individual abilities aside — the most important aspect of Saric’s fit on this roster revolves around how he meshes with Towns in the frontcourt.

Does his ability to catch and shoot provide sufficient spacing for Towns to operate down low? Can Saric’s playmaking abilities be tapped into when the ball is consistently being funneled to the post? Can the duo be at least formidable on the defensive end?

It’s difficult to confidently answer many of these questions today, but after the pairing shared the court for more than 900 minutes last season, there’s plenty of reason for cautious optimism.

Of the 20 two-man lineups who played more than 600 minutes for the Wolves in 2018-19, Saric and Towns’ plus-2.8 net rating ranked third. On the defensive end, the Wolves held opponents to 108 points per-100 possessions when Saric and Towns shared the floor — far better than the team’s overall mark of 112.2.

Assuming that Saric and the Wolves don’t come to terms on a contract extension before next season, 2019-20 will represent an opportunity for him to verify his long-term fit.

Gorgui Dieng

On a Wolves second-unit that saw plenty of moving parts, Dieng embraced a more meaningful offensive role than he has in the past. For large stretches of the season, his willingness to pull the trigger on late shot-clock jumpers proved pivotal for a bench group that struggled to score.

From a statistical standpoint, Dieng had one of his very best years despite playing fewer minutes per game than he ever has before. Along with his personal-high in points scored per 100 possessions, the big man managed the lowest turnover rate of his career and his best true-shooting percentage since 2015-16. Ultimately, he generated more win shares per 48 minutes than he has during any other season.

Though he’s generally a limited offensive threat, the longest-tenured Wolf has a very dependable mid-ranger.

Gorgui Dieng has connected on greater than 45-percent of at least 2 mid-range attempts per game during each of the last three seasons:
2016/17 (3.2 attempts, 45-percent)
2017/18 (2.1 attempts, 50-percent)
2018/19 (2.1 attempts, 47-percent)

But that shot is rarely an optimal outcome for an offensive set. Frankly, it’s not necessarily a good thing that Dieng was relied on to generate efficient production — his favorite way to score is going out of style. Though he was burdened by being separated from Towns in the rotation, the Wolves’ offense performed abysmally with Dieng on the floor — their 104.4 offensive rating was similar to that of the 29th-ranked Bulls.

In general, the 29-year-old’s value is far more evident, and thus may be more responsibly relied on, in a defensive setting, where the Wolves have consistently performed better when he’s in a game.

In particular matchups or instances when stops are clearly at a premium, is it possible that Dieng can be called on as more of a rim-protecting specialist than he has been in the past? In this regard, he can be utilized with or instead of Towns, an approach that may rejuvenate Dieng’s seemingly wavering confidence by allotting him slightly more playing time.

Anthony Tolliver

Though he never became the rotational cornerstone he was acquired to be, Tolliver demonstrated, once again, that he’s one of the NBA’s most willing and capable floor spacers.

The former Detroit Piston was acquired, in no small part, to help the Wolves shoot (and make) more threes. He did not disappoint; 83 percent of the field goals Tolliver attempted last season came from beyond the arc, the highest ratio in the league among players to appear in at least 60 games.

Anthony Tolliver is one of five NBA players who has made greater than 36-percent of at least 200 three-point attempts every year since 2013-14. Steph Curry, Kyle Korver, Wes Matthews and Klay Thompson are the others.

Tolliver’s talents deserve to be utilized by a successful team — he’s only played three playoff games in the last five years. I would love to see whether his offensive gravity can be capitalized on in a postseason setting, or if his propensity to be beaten off the dribble would make him too much of a liability on the defensive end.