Oftentimes conversations surrounding the NBA restart in Orlando come to the same point, regardless of the team or fan base in question - how will they work the rotation now that teams are “in theory” healthier than they have been in some time? This isn’t exactly true for everyone, of course - the Wizards (no Bradley Beal or Davis Bertans), Brooklyn Nets (lots of players), Utah Jazz (Bojan Bogdanovic), and San Antonio Spurs (LaMarcus Aldridge) are all dealing with various forms of injury concerns. Yet others - especially those in the thick of the Western Conference playoff picture - are in better places on that front than they have been in some time.
For the Sacramento Kings? Marvin Bagley III (in all his apparently positionless glory) is making a return. The Portland Trail Blazers lose Trevor Ariza, but gain big men Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins. The New Orleans Pelicans have found their health on the perimeter more than anything, but they have the monster known as Zion Williamson lurking whose greatest strength is being a beast in the paint.
The Memphis Grizzlies, meanwhile, are welcoming back players as well. Yet considering comments from Coach Jenkins about keeping things as consistent as possible heading in to the seeding games, it seems unlikely that names like Grayson Allen, Yuta Watanabe, and Jontay Porter grace the rotation. Squads chasing the Grizzlies for the eight seed are gaining size and strength, and - spoiler alert - the endgame remains the Los Angeles Lakers, who are among the biggest teams in the NBA. L.A. has three players that are 6’10” or taller and have also played at least 1,000 minutes for the team this season - Javale McGee, Dwight Howard, and superstar Anthony Davis.
Memphis has two such players in Jonas Valanciunas and Jaren Jackson Jr...but while Brandon Clarke meets the minutes criteria, he is undersized (6’8” with a 6’8.5” wingspan) to take on the likes of the Lakers, or even Bagley (6’11”, 7’1” wingspan), Nurkic (7’ with a 7’2” wingspan), or Collins (7’ with a 7’1” wingspan) for a prolonged period of time. Clarke’s athleticism and pick and roll ability provides mismatches of his own, but especially when it comes to rebounding the Grizzlies would lose far too much to run Clarke or any other player (like the 6’9 with a 7’3” wingspan Kyle Anderson) extended minutes at center.
The good news? Memphis has an answer...but he’s only logged 234 minutes of playing time across 12 games for the Grizzlies.
When we think of the key Grizzlies in the seeding games at Disney, often times Gorgui Dieng gets left out of the conversation. This is probably because he’s almost certainly not a part of the long-term future of the franchise - he fills a void in the interim as a true traditional big to back up Jonas Valanciunas, one that James Johnson would not have filled. But it cost Memphis some 2020 cap flexibility - now the Grizzlies have eyes to the summer of 2021...or perhaps the offseason/next season as Gorgui’s $17 million contract becomes an expiring deal. Maybe Gorgui makes sense as a future asset to gain more draft capital, or as a big cap number to help Memphis acquire a star after conveying their 1st round pick in the 2020 NBA Draft to Boston and using a couple future firsts to get a scoring wing.
That all comes beyond the bubble, however. Right now? Gorgui Dieng should be the 9th man in the Grizzlies rotation, and one who firmly will be getting minutes night in and night out for Memphis.
It is about the boards
Rebounding isn’t fun to talk about like three point shooting and playing with pace is. But rebounding basketball is winning basketball - in fact, of the top-10 teams in the NBA in total rebounding (Milwaukee is 1st) nine of them are in Orlando as part of the return to play and half of them have at least 40 wins.
A surprising member of this top-10? The Memphis Grizzlies, at 46.7 total rebounds per game grabbed, good for 6th on the list. Part of this is that pace that they play with - more possessions, more boards, etc. Another part of that is players that contributed to that ranking have left the roster - Bruno Caboclo (10.7 rebounds per 100 possessions, according to basketball-reference.com) and Jae Crowder (9.8 rebounds per 100 possessions) are no longer Grizzlies. Since February 7th, Memphis is...1st...in the NBA in rebounding?
Wait...better than Milwaukee?
For one, Jonas Valanciunas went nuclear on the glass during the 14 games before the shutdown. According to NBA.com/stats Jonas grabbed 14.6 rebounds per game in just 27.6 minutes played per game. That is a monster pace. Beyond that, 2nd on the team during this time was Gorgui Dieng at 6.7 rebounds in just 19.5 minutes per game. Per 100 possessions Dieng snags 16 rebounds - the only other consistent rotation possibilities in double digits are Brandon Clarke (12.6) and Kyle Anderson (10.5). Dieng grabs 29% of defensive rebounds and 17.9% of all rebounds available while he is on the floor. Clarke (20.3% and 14.1%) and Anderson (18.3% and 11.8%) are simply not as strong on the glass as Dieng.
Memphis has been content throughout the season to try to cover up the rebounding weaknesses of Jaren Jackson Jr. and to a lesser extent Brandon Clarke in the aggregate. In addition to Anderson, De’Anthony Melton (8.9 rebounds per 100 possessions) and Josh Jackson (7.6 boards per 100 possessions) have helped fill the voids left behind especially by the departures of Crowder and Solomon Hill (7.5 rebounds per 100 possessions). Justise Winslow’s insertion to the rotation (a career 9.5 rebounds per 100 possessions player) will help here as well, offsetting potentially losing Anderson or Jackson’s rebounding if Jenkins goes to a 10-player rotation.
But make no mistake, especially if Justise replaces Anderson given Kyle’s offensive limits as a shooter, the glass will need to remain a priority. And outside of Valanciunas, no one rebounds at the rate that Gorgui Dieng does.
Eyes on the perimeter
While Dieng has struggled mightily from three since he arrived in Memphis, those issues shouldn’t be prevalent for too much longer. Gorgui’s 22.7% conversion rate from beyond the arc during his time with the Grizzlies is a far cry from his career three point shooting percentage of 34.3%. In recent seasons Dieng has outperformed even that number - Gorgui was shooting 38.3% from three this season in Minnesota before the trade and 35.9% last season. In fact, Dieng hasn’t shot below 30% from three since the 2014-2015 campaign with the Timberwolves...and he only took six threes that season! That’s a far cry from the 198 threes Gorgui has taken the last two years combined.
Even with the small sample size of Dieng with the Grizzlies tells us those three point numbers should improve. That especially remains true now that Memphis is introducing Justise Winslow to the Grizzlies rotation. Winslow has experience playing point guard, and while he may be Coach Jenkins’ “positionless” weapon Justise figured to see a majority of his time on the wing, perhaps enabling Ja Morant to be more of a threat cutting to the basket. Depending on the lineup, Gorgui could be seeing a lot of open perimeter opportunities - a Morant/Brooks/Winslow/Clarke/Dieng lineup, for example, will likely prioritize stopping easy looks inside for Ja and Brandon. Considering the most up-to-date scouting reports will likely list Dillon Brooks’ nearly 37% three point conversion rate as the larger threat, collapsing off Gorgui on the Dieng or Clarke/Winslow pick and roll while keeping a defender near Brooks in the corner makes total sense.
So as Justise kicks back out to a popping Dieng, opposing teams will be making the choice to give a player who has shot roughly 35.5% from three over the last two seasons an open attempt.
The Trebuchet lives!— Dane Moore (@DaneMooreNBA) February 13, 2020
Gorgui Dieng hitting that corner-3 in Memphis. (Gah — those jerseys are cool.)
That’s a nice option to have with a reserve big.
The versatile traditional big man
The need for Dieng goes further than glass and offensive gains with the space his shot provides. Gorgui is 1st on the team in blocks per 100 possessions in his 12 games in Memphis at 2.8 - slightly better than Jaren Jackson Jr. (2.7) and quite a bit better than Jonas Valanciunas (2.0) and Brandon Clarke (1.8). The small sample size with Memphis matters here as well, of course, but his career number of 2.2 suggests that he can maintain something close to this contribution. And in an era of positional versatility, Dieng’s footwork defensively and length (7’4” wingspan) enables him to perhaps even have some run as a power forward alongside Valanciunas, or of course as a center next to Jaren Jackson Jr. Gorgui doesn’t have to solely be Jonas’ #2. He can be more than that.
Brandon Clarke is a special talent...but his size could hinder what Memphis is able to do against squads like Portland that can trot out a Hassan Whiteside and Jusuf Nurkic pairing. The Kings were 19th in the NBA in rebounding since the deadline, and even if Bagley is indeed a possible wing for Sacramento that disadvantage for Sac-town could help Memphis in a potential play-in. Dieng is more suitable than Valanciunas to get back to defend the likes of Nicolo Melli and other floor spacers for the New Orleans Pelicans and elsewhere - according to Cleaning the Glass, Dieng is in the 98th percentile among bigs defending the three, with opponents shooting 6.5% worse from range than they do normally with Gorgui on the floor.
In fact, Dieng while he was in Minnesota was in the 94th percentile overall among bigs in opponent’s effective field goal percentage. Opponents shot 4.2% worse with Gorgui on the floor - that made him better than Joel Embiid, and any other Grizzlies defender. In fact, in his short time in Memphis opponents are shooting 2.5% worse than they do normally - which is best among any Grizzlies big.
Beyond this, Dieng has shown growth as a passer (10.3% assist rate this year according to basketball-reference.com) and sets strong screens, meaning that even with his strong perimeter defense you won’t lose too much of what Valanciunas does as a screener when he is off the court.
It’s not just tonight, Gorgui Dieng has had an awesome year.— Dane Moore (@DaneMooreNBA) January 6, 2020
For a guy who was a part-time role player last season, the growth Dieng has shown this year — from rim defense to 3-point shooting to improved passing/screening — has been very meaningful.
That’s impressive. And worthy of note when it comes to discussions of who should play for Memphis in the bubble.
Who knows where Gorgui Dieng will be five months from now. Perhaps he will still be in Memphis - the man is a gifted basketball player and fills a massive void that the Grizzlies currently have. He shoots threes more (and more effectively) than wings like Kyle Anderson, rebounds at a very effective rate, and is a capable defender - especially on the perimeter for his size. He does not have the post scoring acumen of Jonas Valanciunas, the unique skill set of Jaren Jackson Jr., or the raw athleticism and ability to switch defensively with many perimeter players that Brandon Clarke does. But Dieng is yet another example of the embarrassment of riches for Memphis in the front court. In 8-10 minute spurts, and especially against reserve bigs, Gorgui can turn the tide of a game and enable others around him to prioritize movement and working with space - what Memphis does best.
It is fun to talk about positionless basketball. Depending on matchups, maybe Gorgui doesn’t fit in the bubble’s rotations for Memphis. But the Grizzlies will be contending with lots of height and length from the start of their seeding schedule to the their hopeful goal - a 1st round date with the Los Angeles Lakers. Size still matters - and between his defense, rebounding, floor spacing, and all-around ability to set up others around him as a screener and passer, his total package provides value to a Memphis roster in dire need of it.
Maybe Jontay Porter is the future. Perhaps the Grizzlies look to a Xavier Tillman, Zeke Nnaji, or Udoka Azubuike in the NBA Draft to replace Dieng moving forward. But in the here and now, Gorgui must be part of the Grizzlies’ journey in the NBA bubble. Memphis needs him.
Positionless basketball or not.