Free agency begins tomorrow, and the Timberwolves will be looking to add a big man. While NBA positions are less rigid than they used to be, I think there’s a reasonable chance that the Wolves will try to acquire a “true center.” I have two basic reasons for expecting this:
- I believe Tom Thibodeau wants to start winning right away; not in a year or three.
- Last season, the Wolves were absolutely destroyed on the interior whenever the 7’1″ Kevin Garnett was unable to play. Which was most of the time.
Karl-Anthony Towns has a big future ahead of him (Captain Obvious) and most of that future will probably involve him playing the center position. The sorts of matchup nightmares that he will present at that position are probably the biggest reason Thibodeau took this job in the first place.
But last year, he was not able to defend very well as a five, and — again, if they are trying to win right away — the Wolves will probably sign a full-sized big man to at least insure themselves against certain types of matchups when KAT would be better off at the four spot.
In case you forgot one of the primary negative themes of last season, I’ll run a few quick numbers by you:
- 107.1. This was the Wolves defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions). It ranked fourth worst in the league.
- 108.8. This was their D-rating without Garnett. This was just a hair better than the Lakers, who were the league’s worst defensive club.
- 96.4. Their D-rating WITH Garnett playing. Instead of playing league-worst level defense, with a talented seven footer out there, the Wolves defended slightly better than the historically-great San Antonio Spurs.
There might be a tendency among KAT Apologists (of which there should be many by now, the dude is amazing!) to try to pin the problems that they had without Garnett on Gorgui Dieng, the Wolves other main frontcourt player. I could say that the “eye test” didn’t bear that out, but that’s less persuasive in late June, when nobody has been able to watch a Timberwolves game in quite some time. Instead, we can just compare how the team defended with Gorgui on the floor versus KAT on the floor.
KAT’s defensive rating was 108.1. As the numbers above make clear, this is awful, meaning the Wolves defended at essentially a league-worst level whenever Towns was on the floor. Gorgui’s defensive rating was 105.8, which is actually a somewhat significant difference. For example, the Mavericks and 76ers were about 2.4 points apart in D-rating, with Dallas ranked 16th in defense and Philly ranked 25th; a jump from middle of the NBA down closer to the bottom.
To make extra clear how Gorgui was not “the problem,” on defense last year, take note that he only got to play 31 minutes with Kevin Garnett, constituting about 1 percent of his total playing time. KAT? He played 518 minutes with KG, which was 20 percent of his total. Ricky Rubio was the other “impact” defender the Wolves had. He played 2,062 minutes next to Towns, which was about 78 percent of KAT’s total. Ricky played just 1,252 with Gorgui, which was 56 percent of Dieng’s total minutes.
One possible rebuttal to the notion that KAT is better off (in the short term) as a four, is that the opposing center has to defend KAT too, and that the Wolves should invite teams to try to post up, because it’s an outdated way of playing NBA basketball. Any time an opponent tries to post up, that’s one less spread pick-and-roll that could lead to a layup or a corner three-pointer.
There are a couple of basic problems with this line of reasoning, at this point in time. First is that it is physically taxing for KAT to bang inside against larger opponents. He might pick up cheap fouls, and it might affect his offense, due to fatigue. But more importantly, the Wolves can’t get any defensive rebounds when they are giving up so much size and strength at the five spot. When Towns played last year, the Wolves had a defensive rebounding percentage of 73.9. That is the worst marker of anyone on their entire team, aside from the little-used, and over-the-hill Andre Miller. A d-reb percent of 73.9 would rank 4th worst in the league. When KG played? That number soared to 78.3, which would rank 5th BEST in the league.
What we’re left with are three basic options:
- Sign a true center, in case you need him sometimes.
- Roll the dice on KAT having gotten significantly stronger and better in the off-season.
- Treat next year as more development, with KAT learning the 5 spot on the fly.
Since I don’t think Option 3 is in Thibs’s DNA, that leaves either 1 or 2. At some point in the future, KAT’s going to be a killer 5 man, and he’ll defend the paint just fine. But if his 2,627 rookie minutes were any indication, that time is probably not yet upon us, and Thibs will be shopping for a center this weekend.