Drafted 21st overall and acquired in a trade by Flip Saunders on Draft Night 2013, Gorgui Dieng is the longest-tenured player on the 2018-19 Minnesota Timberwolves roster. He is also the most likely player on the roster not named Jimmy Butler to be traded in the coming days, according to league sources.
Logic would suggest Dieng knows this which makes his positive disposition through the first week of Minnesota’s training camp all the more endearing.
At media day on Monday, when the first question Dieng was asked had to do with Butler’s trade request, the 7-footer hunched over the podium and giggled, “if you guys have questions about Jimmy’s request to be traded you should contact him or talk to Glen [Taylor]. I think I should be the last person to talk about Jimmy’s trade.”
After his joke, Dieng sank a little more into the potential reality.
“You never know what’s going to happen,” he said with a shrug. “It’s a long season. Trades happen. Anything can happen. Just gotta stay ready in this league.”
Stay ready he has. It’s the Dieng Way to adapt.
During his first two years with the Wolves, Dieng backed up starting center (Nikola Pekovic) — almost exclusively functioning at the five position on both ends of the floor. The following season, his third in the league, the Wolves selected Karl-Anthony Towns, giving him a new and different frontcourt partner. Naturally, Towns took the priority at the center position; as did the recently acquired Kevin Garnett, who was given the starting role at power forward. But Garnett’s knees only lasted half of the season, so Dieng adapted and became the starting power forward for the final three months of the season. It was a mantle Dieng would hold for the entirety of the following season, where he started all 82 games alongside Towns.
It was then, in Dieng’s fifth season, that another time for an adjustment came to fruition when Tom Thibodeau signed Taj Gibson to take over Dieng’s frontcourt spot in the starting lineup. Despite starting all 82 games the season prior, Dieng remained amiable as he almost exclusively functioned as Towns’ backup.
“I wasn’t happy with my performance,” said Dieng of the 16.9 minutes he averaged per game in 2017-18. “I think I could do better. There were a lot of things going on. Sometimes you get caught up in those things.”
Those things were Gibson and a holistically evolving roster, of course. But there was more to it: Dieng, probably the team’s most happy-go-lucky player began to be maligned by pundits and the fanbase. The negative buzz wasn’t so much due to his dip in production but from the magnifying glass his lack of production was put under in what was the first season of a four-year, $64 million contract. That deal now has $50 million left on it to be paid over the next three seasons. It’s not only the worst value deal on the Wolves roster, but it has also become one of the least appetizing in the entire NBA.
The Summer of ’16 Strikes Again
Dieng signed that deal at the very end of the 2016 offseason. It was a summer that saw the likes of Luol Deng and Joakim Noah — entering their 30s — sign four-year, $72 million deals. Thirty-year-old Timofey Mozgov even signed for the same $64 million over four seasons that Dieng did. At the time, signing Dieng looked like fair market value; even a bargain if you factored in his age. However, what has come to light since that time is that the market had become completely distorted due to a $24 million salary cap spike because of a massive television deal. Almost every general manager in the league — including Thibodeau — abused the cap spike the same way a spoiled teenager would his mother’s credit card.
And now, almost every one of those teams has a player they wish they didn’t. Many are still desperately trying to get off those deals. (Look no further than the newest Timberwolf Luol Deng, who just had the remaining two years and $37 million bought out by the Los Angeles Lakers.)
The interesting factor with Dieng’s deal is that his carries on for three more seasons, while the Dengs, Mozgovs and Noahs all expire in two.
Dieng signed what is known as a rookie contract extension that didn’t kick in until the 2017 season. And thus: Dieng is under contract through 2020-21. Other than Dieng, there were seven other players who signed similar rookie extensions. Unfortunately for the Wolves cap sheet, of those eight players, Dieng’s probably holds the worst value of the bunch.
2016 Rookie Contract Extensions
|C.J. McCollum||4 years, $107 million|
|Giannis Antetokounmpo||4 years, $100 million|
|Steven Adams||4 years, $100 million|
|Rudy Gobert||4 years, $94 million|
|Victor Oladipo||4 years, $84 million|
|Gorgui Dieng||4 years, $64 million|
|Dennis Schroder||4 years, $62 million|
|Cody Zeller||4 years, $56 million|
Atlanta, Charlotte, and Minnesota, who invested in the second tier of the rookie crop, were left stuck this summer willing to pay a penance to be rid of their irresponsible spendings. Atlanta acted by swallowing Carmelo Anthony’s awful contract, jettisoning Schroder to Oklahoma City, while Charlotte and Minnesota could not find takers.
But now, an opportunity has come forward in the haze of the Butler situation. Butler’s trade demand re-opens what once looked like a closed road to dumping Dieng. While reporting is all over the map on this Butler deal, one thing is clear: one of the targeted returns for a Butler deal is finding Dieng a new home.
While this is a far less aesthetically pleasing than receiving a Victor Oladipo (like Indiana acquired for Paul George) or a DeMar DeRozan (like San Antonio acquired for Kawhi Leonard), there is a real value here.
For Dieng to have simply been dumped into cap space this summer (a la Dennis Schroder), the Wolves would have likely had to part with the value of multiple first-round picks, one league executive told Zone Coverage. There was so little cap space available for absorption that even a serviceable player like Dieng would carry this heavy of a burden.
But now, caught in the ambiance of potentially securing an elite talent like Butler, the penance attached to Dieng could drop. While the reward of this is not as direct or immediate as the production of an Oladipo or DeRozan, the long-game is enticing.
Without Butler and Dieng, the Wolves would only carry $73.1 million guaranteed on the books for next season (if Jeff Teague picks up his player option) — $36 million below the salary cap, before factoring in cap holds, draft picks and whatever else comes back to Minnesota in a Butler deal. That number swells to $42 million if Towns does not make an All-NBA team this season. This won’t be a max slot= but could suggest that eventually clearing space to bring in another stud — who, perhaps, better fits Towns career arch more than Butler did — could happen.
Juxtapose those numbers with what was a snowball rolling downhill, ready to plow through the luxury tax line and you have something that looks like an opportunity taking form. If Butler hadn’t demanded a trade, he would have then like likely demanded a five-year, $190 million maximum deal next summer. That deal would have paid him $32.7 million next season, ballooning what the Wolves would owe just Butler, Towns, Wiggins, Teague and Dieng to $128.1 million (if we assume Towns grabs his $6 million annual bonus for making an All-NBA team). That $128.1 million number would be $19 million over the cap in the salaries of just five players.
While I understand there are arguments to be made for that expensive path, there is a strong argument to be made that says: Towns and the idea of future cap space are all that really matters.
What exactly any of those deals are that rid the Wolves of Butler and/or Dieng are still relatively unknown — just speculation at this point. What is also unknown is the when of all of this.
The vibe around Timberwolves training camp this week has been bizarre and bordering on awkward. Butler’s buddies are still here talking to the media about pressing on, while one of those buddies (Derrick Rose) has even been running with the Wolves first unit in his stead. But the person likely feeling most awkward is Dieng himself. To pick up his paycheck, he has to come and practice every day. Which, to his credit, he has been doing.
At Thursday’s practice, Dieng wore a Transformers shirt to the media scrum and joked about how he balled out for Senegal in FIBA play this summer, laughing through most of his interview.
It’s a sad reality in the business of basketball that this could have been Dieng’s last media availability as a member of the team who acquired him many years ago. Still, like classic Gorgui, he remains the consummate professional; saying all the right things and meaning them.
“I’ve been here for six years,” said Dieng. “And nobody [in the locker room] ever said ‘Gorgui said this good or bad about this person.’
“Always, I’m very respectful. And I try to do the right things in the locker room. If I don’t put the team together, I’m not going to be the one to separate them. I think I’m a good teammate. I think I sacrifice for my teammates.”