When it comes to credentials, the players who collectively comprise the frontcourt of the Minnesota Timberwolves — the team’s centers and power forwards — are an august contingent.
There is the certain Hall of Famer who revolutionized the defensive mobility of power forwards and has grabbed more defensive rebounds than anyone in NBA history. There is the silken prodigy and top pick in the 2015 NBA draft, already the best all-around player on the team after 44 games of experience.
Four others include the reigning Euroleague MVP; the behemoth who commanded a 5-year, $60-million salary for his brute strength and balletic moves; the player whose willingness and ability to learn makes coach Sam Mitchell “ecstatic”; and the four-year collegian for whom the Wolves were willing to deal a future first-round draft pick.
The reality, however, is less impressive. The synergy of skills that cohere and elevate a team are a fleeting commodity among these six members of the Wolves frontcourt. The reasons for this — especially compared to the aforementioned high points on their respective resumes — are stubby and intractable.
Age has sapped the endurance and shriveled the physical skills of Kevin Garnett to the point where it is all he can do to swallow 26 percent of the team’s minutes out on the court. Karl-Anthony Towns is both a revelation and a boy among men, hindered by the physically immaturity of his 20-year old body when coping with the rigors of the NBA scrum under the basket.
Nemanja Bjelica is flummoxed by the frequency of games and the changes in philosophy, physicality and culture that accompany a switch from Europe to the NBA. Nikola Pekovic has the face of a Bond villain, a torso of pliable granite, pistons for thighs, and lower extremities as fragile as glass, the proverbial feet of clay on his mythical physique.
Gorgui Dieng absorbs advice like a sponge and faithfully endeavors to wring optimal production out on the court, but the ceiling on his skill set is more consonant with rental property than penthouse architecture. And Adreian Payne performs with a haughty inconsistency borne of overestimated self-regard and an alternately delayed or skewed sense of anticipation.
It adds up to a frontcourt that is less than the sum of its frequently compelling pieces.
The temporary blueprint
The challenge for Mitchell and the Wolves braintrust is figuring out how to build something sustainable from a unit that by individual turns is currently too old, too young, too green to the NBA, too injury-prone, too limited and too incompetent.
Mitchell deserves credit for understanding that far and away the top frontcourt priority is the development of Towns, and that the best way to meaningfully accelerate that development is to play Towns alongside Garnett as much as possible. Ninety-three percent of KG’s court time — 508 out of 546 minutes — has been performed in tandem with Towns, with many of the remaining 38 minutes caused by Towns being sidelined due to foul trouble.
Towns and KG is where the best kind of synergy occurs. The precocious tyro executes the favorable situations engineered by the wizened sage, while the sprightly, multi-talented phenom enables the faded superstar to circumscribe his skills down to his core virtues. It’s torch-passing at an exalted level, a goosebump-inducing transaction of profound simplicity.
Per basketball-reference.com, KG and Towns produce a net rating of plus 4.9 points per 100 possessions over their opponents when they are on the court together. Among the 20 most frequently deployed two-player combos, that is the second highest rating, behind only KG and point guard Ricky Rubio, who have delivered plus 6.3 points per 100 possessions in their 454 minutes on the court together.
The value of KG’s complementary excellence, especially on defense, is reflected in the fact that Towns posts a negative net rating in every other frontcourt pairing. In order of frequency, he is -4.1 points in 252 minutes with Dieng, minus 1.3 points in 241 minutes with Bjelica, -15.1 points in 99 minutes with Payne and -21.5 points in 36 minutes with Pekovic.
The abiding dilemma is that the productive KG-Towns pairing is temporary, and already limited. Even with maximum current usage of the duo, it accounts for only 508 of Towns’ 1,289 minutes on the court, a percentage certain to shrink and then disappear, if not next season the year afterward.
In other words, Mitchell and company have made the most positive first step possible in the situational development of Towns by teaming him with KG as much as possible. By how does the franchise pivot into step two to derive the best possible short-term and long-term value from their quickening superstar? What frontcourt duo on the current roster makes the most sense?
The case for Bjelica
Purely by the net-rating numbers, the 27-year old Euro Nemanja Bjelica is the best frontcourt fit for Towns after KG.
The most obvious impediment to this pairing is their collective lack of both bulk and experience on the defensive end. The book on both players is to bang them off their rhythm, bully them out of position, and engage their bodies and their psyches in the crafty physical warfare that is in the grey area between dirty and kosher by NBA standards.
One of the many ways KG is a tonic for Towns is as an enforcer against such behavior. If relatively trivial cheap shots for stealth annoyance is the strategy on the table, Garnett is a five-star general of planning and execution.
But even KG can’t overcome the seemingly inherent bias of referees against rookies, and in that sense both Towns and Bjelly are unquestionably rookies. Towns currently ranks fourth in the NBA with 137 personal fouls and Bjelica fouls at an even greater frequency — 5.2 per 36 minutes.
Of course, due to their unfamiliarity with NBA jousting and their relative absence of mature sinew, Towns and Bjelly draw plenty more whistles than just the borderline calls the refs ignore on veterans. And in my long interview with Mitchell earlier this month, he accepts that reality as part of the process, preferring that Towns in particular begin battling his opponent above the free throw line to deny him position down low.
The good news is even with his competitive disadvantages in muscle maturity and game experience, Towns is handling life in the NBA trenches with remarkable aplomb and facility. The eye test shows him being thrashed by hulking big men from Denver, OKC, the Clippers and Cleveland. But according to the defensive tracking data at nba.com, Towns has been very effective at that end of the court.
Specifically, players guarded by Towns are shooting 45.1 percent, lower than the 47 percent a typical defender would allow against the same array of field goal attempts. The rookie’s effectiveness is especially pronounced at the most vital point of attack for a big man — near the rim. Opponents are shooting 52.5 percent on shots within six feet of the hoop, a whopping 7.4 percent less than the 59.9 percent allowed by a typical defender.
Towns’ field goal percentage allowed remains 5.3 percent lower than the norm on shots from zero to 10 feet away from the hoop, and one percent better than average on shots from 15 feet out. It is only on three-pointers where Towns is producing inferior results relative to typical shooting percentages. Opponents are making 41.1 percent of their treys when guarded by Towns, compared to the average of 33.6 percent. But three-pointers comprise only 10.1 percent of the shots Towns personally defends.
Even the multitude of fouls Towns commits is as much embedded in the Wolves defense as his own peccadillos. Indeed, of the six frontcourt players on the roster, Towns fouls the least frequently per minute played, garnering 3.8 whistles every 36 minutes. By comparison, Pekovic is at 6.1 per 36 minutes, followed by Payne (5.8), Bjelica (5.2), Garnett (4.5) and Dieng (3.9).
Perhaps the greater problem — or least the place where Garnett is most helpful on defense — is in the blizzard of screens and switches and confounding flow that requires rapid-fire decision-making and communication to decipher and respond accordingly.
In that area, Dieng would be a better complement to Towns, as the most KG-like member of the frontcourt in parsing and defending pick and rolls and other schemes.
But in most other aspects of the game, Dieng offers a paler version of Towns’ versatility, creating as much redundancy as synergy between them. As hard and as admirably as he works, the hard truth on Dieng is that he is less a combo center-forward than a ‘tweener, caught in the gap of those two positions. His ability to perform capably in certain matchups at both center and power forward is valuable in a backup capacity, but less advantageous in tandem with Towns, who is a superior “swiss army knife” in the frontcourt.
By contrast, Bjelica is a power forward, specifically a “stretch four” who creates space on offense with his long-range shooting, closer to a small forward than a center in the overall package he presents. Having already performed at a high enough to earn the MVP award in the very competitive Euroleague last season, the 27-year old rookie has a better chance than Dieng or Payne at becoming a viable starter on a championship contender.
Yes, as recently as my last column, I ripped Bjelica for being unselfish to a fault on his shot selection. But like his proclivity for fouling and his maddening knack for traveling (which has been curbed recently), I trust his resilience toward improvement, especially since his belated emergence from the wretched play that lasted for a month following a minor knee injury.
Bjelica spaces the floor and moves the ball, two things that benefit KAT on offense. Granted, it is not a particularly large sample size — Towns has played 252 minutes with Bjelly and 1,037 without him — but Towns’ shooting percentage is significantly higher at the rim (74.4 versus 66.0), from 10-16 feet (54.5 versus 39.5) and from 16 feet out to the three-point line (52.4 versus 45.8) with Bjelly in the frontcourt. The lone decline, from 3-10 feet out, is minor (42.9 versus 45.0).
It is significant that Towns also hasn’t attempted a single three-pointer with Bjelly on the court, which robs the Wolves of a marksman who has nailed 38.9 percent of his shots from deep. Then again, with Towns around to magnetize defenders down in the paint, Bjelly shoots 45.5 percent from behind the arc, compared to 34.8 percent when the rookies are not in tandem.
Playing with Bjelica turns Towns into more of a paint performer. Anyone who saw him turn quality defenders like Anthony Davis and Zaza Pachulia into knots with his incredible footwork the past two games can’t really argue with that. Sure, you can put Towns with Pek and let him roam around at power forward. But he also shoots just 1-for-6 at the rim in his 36 minutes with Pekovic, and 6-for-11 beyond it.
By now everybody realizes that Pek’s next game is never guaranteed. His chronic injury history makes any future contributions a bonus for smart basketball architects. Nor is Payne’s NBA future exceptionally bright.
What cinches the argument for Bjelica is his demonstrated capacity to perform well with the current core of the ball club. Bjelica, Rubio and Towns are a gaudy plus 13.7 points per 100 possessions in 150 minutes together. Add Andrew Wiggins to that trio and you get plus 11.8 point per 100 possessions for in 144 minutes of a four-player combination.
Toss in Tayshaun Prince and that five-player group is plus 19.8 in 61 minutes.
Small ball woes
As a closing aside, it should be acknowledged that the modern NBA game increasingly must account for “small ball” lineups that don’t feature two classical frontcourt performers. The other night in Dallas, the Mavs improvised around the absence of their future Hall of Fame power forward Dirk Nowitzki by going small, especially in crunchtime, to great effect.
Specifically, Dallas coach Rick Carlisle deployed his swingman Chandler Parson in the “power forward” role, a strategy that the current Wolves roster, for all its glut of swingmen, couldn’t effectively counter. Mitchell went with Tayshaun Prince, the most logical choice, but Parsons’ constant movement had the aging Prince playing “red rover” against myriad Maverick picks, hastening a fatigue that accelerated to catastrophic proportion in overtime. Along with the Wolves missing open looks at the other end, it was the key factor in a disheartening defeat.
Put bluntly, it is time for Shabazz Muhammad to step up and demonstrate that he can defend “small fours” in these pint-sized lineups. If he can’t, the Wolves need to go find a rugged, “3-and-D” swingman who will.
Meanwhile, KG is helping groom Towns for greatness. And Wolves fans are waiting for Nemanja Bjelica to step up and fill at least part of the gaping void that occurs when Garnett rests this season, and retires in 2017 or ’18.