The Minnesota Timberwolves have had one of the most unusual summers in the history of the franchise. During the last offseason before Kevin Love would have become a free agent, the All-Star held the franchise hostage until a deal was made that sent him to the Cleveland Cavaliers. One of the primary reasons why Love bailed on the team is due to the Timberwolves not being able to make the playoffs in any of his six years with the team. One of the more accurate reasons for Love’s displeasure was due to a plethora of injuries through the years. Although the team now wants to capitalize on the upside they received in the Love trade, there is one problem. Despite a blossoming young center in that of Gorgui Dieng, the Minnesota Timberwolves still have a potential injury problem, with the injury-prone Yugoslavian center Nikola Pekovic, with whom the team is essentially stuck.
Coming into the 2014-2015 season, Pekovic will be starting the second of a five-year deal worth $60 million. When he is on the floor, Pekovic can be a dominant big man. Last season, the center averaged 17.4 ppg and 8.7 rpg. As such, he made a solid tandem with Love. The problem is that as good as he is, every season of his NBA career has been marred by injuries, with last season being the worst of them all. During the 2013-2014 season, Pekovic only played in 54 games.
Despite Pekovic playing only two-thirds of the season, former coach Rick Adelman figured out a secret for the Timberwolves — Dieng. Last season was Dieng’s first. Unfortunately for him, with a team full of big men, the center was unable to play most of the season until a spread of 15 games towards the end of the season when Pekovic was out again with injury. With Minnesota’s record tumbling at that point in time, Dieng had his chance and was used as a starter for 15 games. To everyone’s surprise, he surpassed all expectations during that time period. In 36 mpg during those contests, Dieng, who is a native of Senegal, averaged 12.6 rpg, 13.2 rpg and 2.2 bpg. Dieng proved to the team and the league that he should have been used sooner.
Dieng’s prowess was not limited to last season. During the summer, when he played for his home country, he averaged 16 ppg and 11 rpg, which helped bring his country to the round of elimination. With his impressive play between last season with the Timberwolves and this summer’s FIBA World Cup, Dieng is a player who is on the rise. It is uncommon for a big man to put up double-doubles on a regular basis this early in his career, let alone solidifying himself as one of the better big man defenders. Because of this, Dieng deserves to play, particularly with a young, athletic Timberwolves team that includes Ricky Rubio (9.5 ppg, 8.6 apg and 2.3 spg), along with new acquisitions Thaddeus Young (17.9 ppg, 6 rpg, 2.1 spg), top draft pick Andrew Wiggins and last season’s top draft pick Anthony Bennett, who will be given more opportunities this season. Additionally, he will be playing alongside veteran shooters Kevin Martin (19.1 ppg) and Corey Brewer (12.3 ppg).
The problem currently facing Dieng is that he is in competition with Pekovic. While Pekovic is a better offensive player, Dieng may be the better fit for the Timberwolves. In any other situation, it would make sense for Pekovic to be on the trading block to make way for Dieng, along with possibly receiving some quality assets in return. However, with Pekovic’s injury history, it would be close to impossible to trade him. The Yugoslavian is currently making $12 million per season for the next four years. It would be unlikely for any team to make a deal for the center, when he typically is missing at least 20 games per season. Also, while he is an exceptional scorer and competent rebounder, he is not a great defender, especially considering he is one of the bigger players in the NBA. Because of this, Minnesota has little choice but to keep the Yugoslavian.
Due to the inability to move Pekovic, coach Flip Saunders believes he has a strategy that will allow him to utilize the Yugoslavian and the Senegal native. Due to how injury-prone Pekovic is, Saunders has announced that he will try to keep the center’s minutes to under 30 per game this season. Additionally, the coach mentioned that he will start the big man at the mid-20s to begin with, in order to help condition Pekovic. While the center is in top shape, according to Saunders, he has stated that he does not want to burn him out.
With Pekovic probably playing around 25 to 28 minutes this season, it allows Dieng to get quality minutes. While certainly it is not the starter’s minutes that the young center most likely deserves, it will help his development. By Dieng playing more consistently this season for the Timberwolves, it also will allow Saunders to determine whether he wants to split minutes between Dieng and Pekovic more evenly, despite a drastic difference in salary.
The Timberwolves arguably has one of the more intriguing lineups coming into the 2014-2015 season. They may no longer have their franchise player in Love, but they have a solid roster full of potential. Beyond Saunders trying to get the roster to work together by developing a scheme and plan of attack, his most difficult job will be managing his players’ minutes. The most important player for him to manage now, with the Minnesota Timberwolves being stuck with him, is Nikola Pekovic. Not only does Saunders have to be careful that the big man does not get himself injured again, he also needs to ensure that his younger, blooming center, Gorgui Dieng, gets the quality minutes he deserves as well. If Saunders manages to efficiently utilize his two centers, Minnesota very well could prove that they have two of the best big men in the game today.
Commentary By Simon Mounsey