How the Timberwolves Thrived Without Karl-Anthony Towns

The Minnesota Timberwolves entered their Saturday evening game in Washington with a massive hole to fill. On a per-36 minutes basis — which corrects for Karl-Anthony Towns, um, “missing” the second half of the Philadelphia game — the deleted Towns chasm to be filled in was 31.7 points, 13.4 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 2.9 steals and 2.0 blocks.

Caulking up that void could only be done with a team effort, and that’s exactly what the Wolves brought to their 131-109 road victory over the Wizards. The rest of the Wolves brought it. It was a bit of an ‘in your face!’  to those who had been asserting the notion that there was a massive talent gap between Towns and the rest of the roster. (Hand raised!)

Those dudes deserve acknowledgment tonight; so let’s hit on how ‘the other guys’ combined to make up for KAT and more.

return of G: Gorgui Dieng starts

In a bit of a surprise development, Ryan Saunders started Gorgui Dieng in KAT’s place. Because Saunders had been exclusively running out one-guard, three-wings and one-big lineups in all non-garbage time minutes this year, Dieng had only played six total minutes this season before starting and leading all Wolves bigs in minutes (24) against Washington.

Particularly in the first half (when the game was still in the balance), Dieng was balling; he had 15 points on 6-of-7 shooting, four boards and three big-time blocks in just 15 minutes of run. In many ways, he was the same old G — actively prowling the paint on defense and peppering the Washington zone with mid-range Js — but he also stretched out his range beyond the arc.

Entering the game, Dieng had taken 2747 total shots in his career, with only 52 of those attempts being 3-pointers from above-the-break. This element of Dieng’s shot mix was always so perplexing; he has always been well above-average on the same angle shot from just inside the arc. So why not just step back a few feet? It was a big development to see him not only take two from above-the-break on Saturday but to also see him knock both down.

In more ways, though, Dieng was his old self. Well, his really old self; like, back when he was in his starting days. In 2016-17, when Dieng started all 82 games, he had excellent hand-off chemistry with Zach LaVine. Particularly when Towns would be out of the game, those two would pepper opponents with a two-man game predicated on Dieng’s screen setting and LaVine quick and smooth perimeter jumper.

To see this brought back into the mix with Andrew Wiggins on Saturday night was a little nugget that inspires hope. Not only does it illustrate Dieng still serving a purpose despite being a somewhat antiquated archetype of a big man in today’s NBA, but it also has Wiggins working like a modern NBA wing. You can almost see the gears in Wiggins’ brain processing the analytics of the shot selection on this play:

Point Wiggins doing everything

Speaking of Andrew Wiggins, he brought offensive assertiveness right away with 10 first quarter points on Saturday. The scoring void needed to be filled, and Wiggins obliged. It’s been encouraging to see him actively seek movements downhill in pick-and-rolls all season, but Wiggins’ passing in those actions prior to Saturday had left something to be desired. And that’s because, well, he hadn’t been passing; Wiggins had four total assists in four games entering the Washington game. (Side note: I went back and watched the four assists, and it’s really more like two.)

To his credit, though, Wiggins was found dropping off in ball-screen action early and often to Dieng.

The chemistry Wiggins has historically had with Dieng provides another little drop of logic into the, now, maybe overflowing cup of Gorgui Dieng Should Play. Back in 2016-17, Dieng didn’t just work well with LaVine; he and Wiggins thrived as much as any Wolves two-man pairing. In the 2399 minutes Wiggins shared the floor with Dieng that season, the Wolves outscored opponents by 1.2 points per 100 possessions. That was Wiggins’ best net-rating with any teammate he shared the floor with for over 600 minutes that season. Turn the clock back another year and Wiggins’ best pairing was also with Dieng in the 1499 minutes those two played together that season.

Now Wiggins and Dieng have been a dismal pairing the past two seasons, and that’s worth noting. But that also is at least in part due to those two only playing together sporadically. If Wiggins finding success is as critical as Saunders and company have been saying, and if they are ever going to play two bigs at the same time, then Dieng deserves consideration on the grounds of his effectiveness with Wiggins.

With or without Dieng, Wiggins does seem to be finding some comfort with the new shot selection prodding he’s receiving from Saunders. The effectiveness does still need to improve, though; his true-shooting percentage is still only 51.4 percent through five games. For context, that’s only a brief boost above his almost unprecedentedly bad 49.3 percent true-shooting last year. Kevin Knox was the only shooter in the league last season to play over 2000 minutes with worse shooting efficiency. There has to be more than a brief boost up from the NBA’s Mendoza Line that is Kevin Knox. Working in the pick-and-roll and in better lineup combinations — both of which he did on Saturday — is a step in the right direction.

Aggressive Jeff Teague

Aggressive Jeff Teague is a thing. Teague’s adjectival nature was originally coined by Britt Robson of The Athletic, who has often pointed out Teague’s dangerous bouts of atonement. Teague stepping up when one of the Wolves’ primary scoring options go down is a thing, too.

There is perhaps no better example of Teague shouldering a far larger load than when Jimmy Butler went down right before the end of the 2017-18 season. Back then, the Wolves were in danger of falling out of the playoff picture altogether sans their best player. In the 17 games Butler missed that spring, Teague scored 20-or-more points six times and had seven-or-more assists ten times while leading the Wolves in net-rating over the stretch.

Without Towns on Saturday, Teague shouldered the load in a similar fashion — quieting down the doubters who had been using the “Washed-Up” adjective in front of Teague’s name. The Wolves outscored the Wizards by 32 points when Teague was on the floor dropping 15 points and 13 assists on Saturday.

Teague’s assertion was on display from the tip. On the first possession of the game, Teague fired a 3 from the top-of-the-key (without hesitation!). On the second possession, he hit a diving-to-the-rim Treveon Graham for an assist. And on the third possession, Teague angrily stomped his feet in Gorgui Dieng’s direction, who was floating around the lane in no-man’s land. It was Teague’s way of not-so-gently reminding KAT’s replacement that this ain’t 2016 anymore — the Wolves, now, start their possessions with all five players out on the perimeter.

Without Towns to quarterback the offense, Teague took back the reigns. He pushed the tempo and took advantage of Washington’s swiss cheese defense by delivering fast and decisive passes around the perimeter.

The Wolves proved to receive a good bit of fortune in having Teague avoid suspension for the role he played as a “peacekeeper” in Towns’ scuffle with Joel Embiid. The 31-year-old is almost certainly not the point guard of the future for the Wolves, but he is the point guard now, and that is an important role in this new pace-infused offensive scheme. Aggressive Jeff Teague remains a critical character in this chapter of the Timberwolves story.

Ryan Saunders Coaching Adjustments

The 33-year-old head coach is racking up a nice little stack of “good coaching” anecdotes this year. Saunders’ seemingly out-of-nowhere decision to make Treveon Graham the fifth starter on opening night arguably made the difference in that game’s result. Graham has been provided a nice little boomlet to a Wolves defense that ranks eighth in defensive efficiency through five games. Starting Dieng in KAT’s stead was another move that looks smart. And then there is the overall effectiveness of the entirely reconfigured perimeter-based offense.

But as far as in-game adjustments go, Saunders’ rigidity had been uninspiring through the first four games. If it weren’t for Wiggins going nuclear in the home opener against Miami, the story of the Heat beating the Wolves without Jimmy Butler would have been adjustments Erik Spoelstra made that Saunders didn’t adjust to. Spo effectively changed the way his team was defending Towns mid-stream, and he also went away from having his offense run pick-and-rolls, opting force the Wolves to chase Miami shooters in off-ball actions.

But against Washington on Saturday, Saunders made some in-game adjustments of his own. All the Wizards had going in the first half were side pick-and-rolls with Bradley Beal. Plays like this one:

This is Beal knowing that the Wolves are dropping Dieng back towards the rim on ball-screens and responding by popping jumpers within the open space the defensive scheme provides. That is the goal of dropping the big: Forcing the ball-handler to take on-the-move midrange jumpers. But sometimes, when the ball-handler is a scorer of Beal’s caliber, as a defense you can’t afford to just give up that look.

So, in an adjustment, Saunders began having Dieng come out to hedge on Beal-led ball-screen actions. Occasionally, this also put the Wolves in a tough spot, with Dieng switched onto Beal in isolation — but that proved more profitable for Saunders than the free pull-ups they were gifting in the first half. In the second half, Dieng got out on the perimeter and played with active hands that led to multiple steals.

The Wolves are now 4-1. The majority of that is Towns, but we shouldn’t sleep on the other pieces that have made up the rest of the Wolves pie. Gorgui Dieng is a pro and deserves credit for staying ready. Andrew Wiggins really has taken to the shot selection shift. Jeff Teague has shown he still has gas in the tank. And Ryan Saunders deserves credit for weaving this tapestry together. The Wolves have now won as many games without KAT as Golden State, New Orleans and Sacramento have won all year.

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