If you want to know how hard it is to make the playoffs in the Western Conference, ask the Minnesota Timberwolves. They're outscoring opponents by an average of 3.2 points per game this season, and yet, they're destined for bad lottery odds and a summer of frustration.
An obvious silver lining pops out from that situation -- Minnesota's clearly better than its record -- but better luck may not be all the team needs to become a contender.
Luckily, the team may have an answer to its problems: rookie big man Gorgui Dieng. The first-round pick out of Louisville who won Western Conference Rookie of the Month for March, Dieng might be just what Minnesota needs to take that next step.
Now, to be fair to Nikola Pekovic, the Timberwolves already have a starting center, and a damn good one. There aren't many guys who can score around the basket like Pek -- Dieng doesn't possess that kind of skillset. But the 2013 first-round pick can be a serious two-way player, and that may be exactly what Minnesota needs in the middle.
Again, this isn't to hammer Pekovic or his pairing with Love. When those two are both on the court, Minnesota outscores opponents by 8.2 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com, which is entering beatdown territory. But the Timberwolves also have a win-loss record that doesn't remotely match their point differential, largely due to struggles in close games.
That may not be entirely a coincidence, either. No team is worse at guarding near the rim than Minnesota this season -- the team allows opponents to shoot 63.5 percent inside five feet.
Poor transition defense contributes to that number, but neither Pekovic or Love is known as a quality rim protector. At the end of close games, it's hard to finish strong when teams can score at will near the basket. That's a big part of why the team originally decided to draft Dieng with the 21st overall pick in the 2013 draft, and it's why his breakout has become such an important part of the team's future.
We've seen where this roster is flawed. With Dieng, we might be looking at the guy who could fix it.
Over at ESPN, David Thorpe broke down the Louisville product's game recently, and helped sum up why the Timberwolves need this so badly:
Perimeter players drive recklessly into the paint against the Wolves, knowing there is no one at the rim to block or bother their finishes. With Dieng in the game, that is not the case. Once he learns the overall NBA game and, more pressingly, what opposing centers like to do, it is possible to imagine Dieng helping the Wolves become a top-six defensive team for an entire season (a significant improvement considering how crucial each win can be in the loaded West).
Even with the sub-par work around the rim this season, the Timberwolves allow just 103.7 points per 100 possessions, good for 13th in the league. That makes Thorpe's analysis sound pretty reasonable -- if Dieng can get Minnesota's rim protection to be even middle-of-the-pack, the Timberwolves likely have one of the better defenses in the league.
Drive & Kick
And really, it's hard to see the team making significant improvement anywhere else. Rubio could learn how to shoot, and that would surely give the offense a boost, but the Timberwolves are already one of the highest-scoring teams in the league. Defense is where improvement needs to be made, and other than adjustments to the transition game, there's no more obvious place for the team to do it.
Dieng is the key to that, and over the past dozen games, he's proven he's capable. If the Timberwolves keep this group together next season, with Dieng coming off the bench, better luck in close games might not be the only thing leading to more wins. One of the league's best sixth men would probably have something to do with it.