In 2016, Gorgui Dieng was at the exact right place at the exact right time. The NBA salary cap had exploded from $70 million to $94 million in a single-year leap, and players everywhere were suddenly inking lucrative deals. The Wolves big man happened to be due for an extension at the time, and the two sides hammered one out right before the deadline to do so in October 2016. The terms: 4 years, $62.8 million.
The NBA.com analysis of the deal at the time included this paragraph: In a market where big men were getting enormous deals — Oklahoma City’s Steven Adams and Utah’s Rudy Gobert each signed four-year extensions worth at least $100 million on Monday — Dieng comes at a relative bargain.
Dieng earned his money, and he knew what to do with it. The “human being” part of the headline comes from his work in his native Senegal, as outlined in a story by Chris Hine. The key quote for me was this:
“A successful man is not somebody who just has money and lives his life,” Dieng said. “If you’re successful, you have an effect on your community, your country or wherever you live. That’s the way I look at things. … Do the right things to help people that need help.”
Back to basketball: When Dieng signed his deal, he was coming off a season in which he played all 82 games and had gained traction as a strong post defender and functional offensive piece. In 2016-17, after he signed the extension but before it kicked in, he played and started all 82 games in Tom Thibodeau’s first year as head coach, averaging 10 points and 8 rebounds in 32.4 minutes per game.
And then in the 2017 offseason, less than a year after Dieng signed his contract, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Thibodeau created an odd and expensive redundancy by inking fellow big man Taj Gibson — a solid player, but one with a skill set at least comparable to Dieng’s as a more traditional big man instead of a floor-stretcher — to a two-year, $28 million deal.
Gibson performed well as the starter, Dieng’s minutes were cut in half and suddenly his four-year contract started to look like an albatross. It only got worse this season when the Wolves acquired Dario Saric — the power forward of the future, further cutting into Dieng’s minutes. There was a 15-game stretch in the second half of this year when Dieng either didn’t play at all or had single-digit minutes in all but one game.
Here’s the thing, though: Even as his minutes have been chopped now to 12.9 per game, Dieng has essentially remained the same player he always was. There’s an element of “for better or worse” in that, since Dieng is limited offensively and still lacks a certain fluidity on the court.
But his numbers ell the story: He’s averaging 16.3 points per 36 minutes this season, the most of his career. His 11.1 rebounds per 36 minutes are his most since his rookie season, and he remains an excellent free throw shooter (82.6 percent). Basketball Reference has him at an offensive rating of 116 and a defensive rating of 108 this season (though NBA.com, which clearly uses a different method to arrive at that metric, has him at 105.1 and 106.9, respectively). The year before he got his extension, those numbers on BB Reference were 113 and 106.
Win shares per 48 minutes? Player efficiency rating? Dieng is third on the team among current players in both stats this season.
I’ll stop there. The point is this: Dieng has two years left on his contract after this year, and the Wolves — on the hook for two max contracts with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins — need to extract some sort of value out of Dieng going forward.
That figures to occur naturally with Gibson’s deal expiring. With Gibson sidelined by a calf injury these last six games, Dieng has averaged 10.3 points in just 16 minutes on 61 percent shooting.
It’s been 2.5 years since he inked that big contract — again, one that he earned and was considered a bargain by some at the time, and money he has put to good use.
The main reason he hasn’t produced as much over the first half of the contract is simple lack of opportunity.
If you want to be frustrated, direct it at the decision to sign Gibson after Dieng. Gibson was a good addition in terms of quality, but the redundancy was not Dieng’s fault.