By: Alex Berg
This is the fifth piece in a series of articles that will look at each individual position on the Minnesota Timberwolves roster heading into the 2016-17 season. Today we feature the centers.
Even without veteran Nikola Pekovic -- who the team recently announced would miss the entire 2016-17 season (and realistically probably will never play again) -- this season, the Minnesota Timberwolves will be very deep in the middle behind second-year phenom Karl-Anthony Towns. Towns is coming off a unanimous Rookie of the Year award selection and was already starting alongside fellow big man, Gorgui Dieng. Even with the two starters, the Wolves front office committed over $11 million of this season’s payroll to add veterans Cole Aldrich and Jordan Hill in free agency.
Depth Chart Breakdown
Starter: Karl-Anthony Towns
What else can be said about the 20-year-old out of Kentucky that hasn’t already been said? Through just 82 NBA games, Towns looks poised and ready to take the Timberwolves to a level they have not reached in 12 years.
By no means, did Towns start his rookie campaign slowly, but his numbers alone in the 28 games after the All-Star break put him among the league’s best big men. While playing 35.7 minutes per game, he averaged 20.8 points, 11.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.4 blocks per contest. He was about as efficient as possible, as he shot 54.2 percent from the floor, 34.1 percent from long distance and 81.1 percent from the charity stripe on the season.
Some argue whether Towns is best fit as a center or a power forward, but realistically, it does not really matter. He’s versatile enough to stretch the floor as a 4 one possession and come back inside as the 5 on the next; this should allow the Wolves to be flexible with rotations.
Backups: Cole Aldrich and Jordan Hill
Behind KAT lie two experienced big men in Aldrich and Hill. Both were free agent signings this past summer and should add much-needed depth to the Wolves’ second unit. Although Greg Smith played decent in a limited role at the end of last season, both Hill and Aldrich offer a significant upgrade to the Wolves’ frontline depth.
Aldrich, a Minnesota native who is about a month shy of 28-years-old, gives the Wolves a solid inside presence on both ends of the court. Although not known for his offense, Aldrich was more than serviceable in his five starts last season. While filling in for Clippers center DeAndre Jordan, Aldrich averaged 15.8 points and 11.0 rebounds over 29.8 minutes per contest. Defensively, he held a 2.0 defensive win shares -- which would have been fourth on the Wolves behind Towns, Dieng and Ricky Rubio. More impressively, his 5.8 rating in defensive box plus/minus was the best among all NBA players. There is no doubting why he was a target of new head coach and president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau this offseason.
Hill, who just turned 29 this summer, averaged 8.8 points and 6.2 rebounds per game in just 20.7 minutes for the Indiana Pacers last season. It was Hill’s third consecutive season of averaging better than 8.5 points and 6.0 rebounds per game and his fourth career season in which he shot over 50.0 percent from the floor.
Others in the rotation: Gorgui Dieng
While Dieng will start at power forward, he is probably technically a center. As the NBA has drifted away from the “traditional 1-5” lineup, Minnesota has as well. The Wolves will start two centers, but will likely feature lineups without a second traditional “post player.” Dieng, Towns and Hill each offer some flexibility to stretch the defense outside the paint, while Aldrich is really the only true interior player.
The biggest strength here is going to be depth. The Wolves are now legitimately four deep at the center position and still have second-year player Nemanja Bjelica to stretch the floor at the forward position. The depth will help limit Towns’ minutes a little bit, while not hurting the team’s performance too much when he is off the floor.
As it has been said throughout this piece, flexibility will be a huge strength for the frontcourt. Having three guys that are versatile to bounce from out from under the basket to the elbow (and beyond in Towns’ case) will be a difficult matchup for opposing teams.
It’s really a stretch to even find a weakness here, honestly. If we are reaching for one, I guess we can be concerned about how two new faces might fit in and mesh with the two existing players in a completely new system. Again, I’m reaching.
I am going to cheat a little here and use both post positions to break up the minutes. I would expect Towns to get around 35 minutes per night, while Dieng should see around 25. That leaves roughly 36 minutes for Hill, Aldrich and Bjelica. I expect Aldrich to see around half of those minutes while Hill and Bjelica will share the remaining 18 minutes. Although, these will likely change game-to-game depending on matchups and how often the Wolves choose to go “small” with a lineup that features one big man (most likely Towns) with a combination of Rubio, Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins and Shabazz Muhammad.