Much to his dismay, Gorgui Dieng’s name seems to always be in people’s mouths when they’re discussing the Jimmy Butler trade rumors surrounding the Minnesota Timberwolves.
While the four-year, $64 million contract he signed in late October two years ago was standard at the time, it has started to look like an albatross now that Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns have had their rookie deals extended and Dieng has started coming off the bench.
Dieng started all 82 games in 2016-17, Tom Thibodeau’s first year as head coach and team president, signed the contract midway through the season and did not start in any of the 79 games he played in last season. His minutes played per game dropped nearly in half, from 32.4 two years ago to 16.9 last season, and his production took a similar plunge — from 10 points per game to 5.9.
“Coming off the bench is hard,” Dieng admitted after Saturday’s practice.
The 2016-17 season wasn’t much of an anomaly, either. Dieng had averaged around ten points per game in the two seasons before that, and started in 49 and 39 games, respectively, the two seasons before that. Drafted with the 21st overall pick in 2013 — seven picks behind Shabazz Muhammad — following his junior season at Louisville, Dieng looked like a steal and was awarded with a big contract during his age-26 season.
It’s less the case that Dieng’s production has dropped in his prime years because he’s regressed as a player, and more that the circumstances have changed around him. He was always going to be a bit redundant in the frontcourt, since Towns is naturally a 5, but the two co-existed just fine until last year.
But Thibodeau went out and got Gibson, one of many ex-Bulls he’s imported, and made him the starter. Not only that, but Zach LaVine, who had natural chemistry with Dieng, was part of the now infamous deal that brought another Thibodeau protege, Jimmy Butler, to the Twin Cities. Dieng developed some chemistry with Jamal Crawford, whose skillset is similar to LaVine’s, but Thibodeau played the starters notoriously big minutes last year and the second unit never really developed any real chemistry.
Thibodeau bolstered his bench in the offseason by bringing in Anthony Tolliver — a 3-point shooter who knows Thibodeau’s defense — and put Derrick Rose in Crawford’s role as the sixth man. Not only that, but Tyus Jones has another year under his belt and there’s a handful of interesting players who could be part of the mix as the season goes along — rookies Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop, as well as Euro-league import James Nunnally.
Even Butler has been part of that mix when Thibodeau staggers the starters.
The roster turnover seems to have benefitted Dieng, who is averaging 8.7 points through the first six games and generally looks more comfortable on the court.
“We got veterans, I play with veterans,” said Dieng. “Tyus is not young no more, he’s (in his fourth year). Derrick has been league MVP, been through a lot of stuff.”
Rose, at 30, knows he’s no longer the franchise player, and seems happy to be the sixth man and a mentor to the younger players. Tolliver is 33 and has a well-defined 3-and-D game. Jones has a grasp on Thibodeau’s defense and is content to distribute the ball to initiate the offense and hit corner 3s when he’s open.
“If you keep the game simple, and play team basketball, you won’t have any problems,” says Dieng. “But if you’re trying to seek left or right, or you’re trying to be on your own agenda, you end up (being less productive).”
The second unit is also playing with considerably more pace this season, which has benefitted Dieng’s game.
“The game has changed. The way we play has changed, and Derrick and Tyus, they are a big part of that,” says Dieng, who has found similar chemistry with Rose as he did with Crawford and LaVine on past teams. “Them two, they really are pushing the ball and make sure we play fast, because we have a short leash.
“The starters can be out there figure it out and play, but once you hit the ground, you gotta go. You have to play fast, and when you play fast, it’s important to score, it’s important to rebound, it’s important to change the games. So that’s why you play with the two guards, Tyus and Derrick, they really help the second unit.”
By developing chemistry with the other members of the second unit, Dieng is better able to do his job defensively as well. Because he is the player closest to the basket, with the ability to see the whole court in front of him, he is the most active communicator on defense — a role he has relished for most of his career.
“I’m in the back, I see most of the plays, so I’ve gotta call it and sometimes we play it right, sometimes we don’t — that’s part of the game,” he said. “But I do the best I can to direct them, because playing the guard position is very tough in this league.”
But while the roster changes and faster style of play have benefitted Dieng, things might look much different for him as the season goes along. Butler could be traded at any minute, and Dieng could be packed with him in a trade in order to offload his salary. Dieng insists the trade rumors are not affecting him or his game, but Friday’s result against the Milwaukee Bucks seemed to suggest otherwise.
“I can only answer for myself, not for other guys. But, me personally, I don’t care,” he said. “If they trade Jimmy, then they’re trading him. If they keep him here, then they keep him here.
“It’s not my decision, it’s not something that I have a voice (in). Most important is just what’s important for the team, and what I can do to help this basketball team. I’m always asking myself: If I go home when (do) I feel comfortable with what I’m done in practice or a game, and if I had fun.”
The trade very much could affect Dieng, especially if he’s a part of it, but for right now he’s comfortable with the other players he’s playing with, and it’s showing up in his production on the court.