Feeling Minnesota? Wolves betting big on Rudy Gobert’s defensive impact

As the start of the 2022-23 NBA season grows closer, I’m taking a closer look at some of the most interesting teams in the NBA (to me, if not necessarily to anyone else). After stops in Denver oath New Orleansthe journey continues to the Twin Cities, home of the offseason’s biggest swing — and, maybe, the league’s biggest bet.

It’s understandable if you’re still having trouble getting past the sticker shock. The package the Timberwolves sent to Utah was mind-boggling at the moment, and it’s still breathtaking three and a half months later: three unprotected first-round picks, another top-five-protected first, and swap rights on a fifth, plus two recent first-round selections (2020 pick Leandro Bolmaro and 2022 pick Walker Kessler), oath three legit rotation players (starters Patrick Beverley and Jarred Vanderbilt, plus reserve wing Malik Beasley).

There are two reasons why you fork over 5,300-plus minutes of quality NBA-level play from a team that won 46 games oath more than a half-decade of the draft equity that so often determines a franchise’s future. The first: You think the quality of the minutes you’re getting outstrips the quantity you’re losing — and, given the specific areas in which Minnesota struggled last season, and the specific player they targeted, the Wolves might be right on the money .

Rudy Gobert brings the ball up the court ahead of Damian Jones of the Lakers in their preseason game at T-Mobile Arena on Oct. 6, 2022, in Las Vegas. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Minnesota ranked 13th in points allowed per possession last season, the franchise’s best finish in eight years. But head coach Chris Finch and Co. arrived at that above-average defensive production through a shadow-game gamble — mitigating Karl-Anthony Towns’ weaknesses as a rim protector through frenetic trapping of ball screens and hair-on-fire rotations behind the play. To their credit, the Wolves taste create plenty of chaos, forcing turnovers at the NBA’s second-highest rate last season. The thing about blitzing, though, is that when you don’t get home and hit the quarterback, you can give up a lot of big plays: Minnesota finished near the bottom of the league in opponent field-goal percentage at the rim, second-chance points allowed, defensive rebounding rate, and corner 3-pointers conceded.

After a disappointing first-round loss to the Grizzlies in which they blew three double-figure leads, new Wolves president Tim Connelly knew he had to find a way to keep slashers like Ja Morant out of the paint and relentless rebounders like Brandon Clarke off the offensive glass. So he found one.

It feels impossible to conceive of a more direct response to what ailed the Wolves than adding Rudy Gobert — three-time Defensive Player of the Year, six-time All-Defensive First Team selection and one-man answer for turning the paint into a no – fly zone.

Want to stop giving up so many high-quality looks? The Jazz hardly ever allowed shots at the rim or from the short corners during Gobert’s tenure in Utah. His shot-blocking prowess lingers in the minds of drivers like the fear that they forgot to pack something but they just can’t remember what; his constant presence allows defenders to stick tighter to their men on the perimeter. Want to stop giving up second-chance opportunities? Gobert has ranked in the top six in defensive rebounding rate in each of the last four seasons, and led the NBA last season by inhaling more than 36% of available misses — the seventh-highest rate in the last 40 years, according to Stathead.

Want to dial back the pressure in favor of a more solid base scheme? Only the Warriors allowed fewer points per possession last season in “soft” or drop coverage than the Jazz, according to Second Spectrum tracking data, thanks largely to Gobert; out of 152 players to log at least 250 defensive possessions in a drop, he finished fourth in points per chance allowed, despite significantly higher volume than the top three (Kevon Looney, Isaiah Hartenstein and Taj Gibson).

Finch won’t completely abandon the system with which Minnesota found success last season; according to Jace Frederick of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Wolves plan to toggle between drop when Gobert’s on the floor and the “high wall” scheme when the Frenchman rests and KAT or Naz Reid slides to the 5 spot. He could, though: Adding Gobert essentially grafts an all-in-one recipe for a top-10 defense onto an offense that ranks as the NBA’s best after Jan. 1.

The Wolves carved opponents up, led by both Towns’ resurgence to All-NBA form and the ongoing ascent of Anthony Edwards — who looked at times (like in Round 1 against Memphis) like he might already be Minnesota’s most dependable offensive player. Which brings us to the second reason you trade away so much draft capital: You think you’ve already got the most important part of your future locked up.

In his second season, Edwards became the ninth player in the last 30 years to average 20 points per game on .550-or-better true shooting by age 20, joining some pretty great company: Shaquille O’Neal, LeBron James, Kevin Durant , Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis, Luka Doncic, Zion Williamson and fellow 2020 draftee LaMelo Ball. He stepped up his scoring another notch in his playoff debut, joining Luka as the only 20-year-olds to average 25 a game in the postseason.

Already an electric driver with a lightning-quick first step, the vertical thrust of a space shuttle launch, and the strength to bulldoze his way to the rim, Edwards added more craft to his game in Year 2. He improved his shooting percentages all over the court, nudged his assist percentage north as he got more comfortable operating in the pick-and-roll, and made significant strides as an on-ball defender capable of bodying up opponents’ top scoring threats. Most of the all-in-one advanced metrics — FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR, ESPN’s real plus-minus, The Analyst’s DRIP, value over replacement player, Taylor Snarr’s estimated plus-minus, regularized adjusted plus-minus — pegged him as roughly a top-40 -to-80 players last season.

To be clear: That is fantastic for a 20-year-old. Reaching the next level, though, will require continued advancements across the board: a smoother stroke on pull-up 3s, a higher free-throw rate to get opponents in the penalty earlier (and himself some easy points), sharper reads and more accurate deliveries coming off screens, more attentive off-ball defense, etc. The fact that Connelly and Co. were willing to trade the entire kitchen sink for Gobert evinces organizational confidence not only that Edwards soul take those steps, but that he’s ready to — that he’s poised to make the sort of Year 3 leap that Morant did, where you instill constant rather than occasional dread on a defense, where you enter the All-Star and All-NBA conversation and where you turn a good team into a potentially great one.

Even if Ant’s ready for that kind of explosion, Minnesota will have questions to answer. Two 7-footers in the starting lineup present a half-court geometry problem, even if one ranks among the greatest big-man shooters of all time. How will Finch ensure that the Wolves attack doesn’t get congested when Towns and Gobert share the court? Where does a Towns-Gobert-Edwards big three leave D’Angelo Russell, who’s in the final year of his contract? (The guess here: in perfectly fine position. The Russell-Gobert pick-and-roll will be the heartbeat of Minnesota’s offense when Towns and Edwards are off the floor, and it’s going to give opponents fits.)

On the other side of the ball: How effectively will Towns guard opposing power forwards? Can he serve as a weak-side helper off Gobert? With Beverly and Vanderbilt gone, who takes on the toughest point-of-attack challenges against top ball-handlers and big wings? When opponents jettison their centers, play five-out, and try to force Gobert out of the paint — and after what the Clippers and Mavericks did to Utah in the postseason, you know they will — does Minnesota have enough stopping power on the perimeter to prevent a steady march to the rim? Are Edwards and hopeful 3-and-D wing Jaden McDaniels (the most important non-headline-name piece on the roster) ready for that responsibility? With a roster so heavily tilted toward dual-big minutes, can Finch find a small-ball changeup to keep in his back pocket for the postseason?

We’ll find out soon enough. It’s worth taking a moment, though, to remember that concerns over whether a team has answers for the playoffs are only relevant if we expect it to make the playoffs — which, to put it mildly, hasn’t always been the case for a franchise that has the league’s worst winning percentage since Kevin Garnett left in 2007, has made the postseason just twice in the last 18 years, and has won two series in 34 NBA seasons.

There’s plenty of reason to quibble over the fit and the finances, but teams in markets like Minnesota don’t get their pick of the All-NBA litter. The Wolves found a legit difference-maker, and they spent what it took to get him because they’d spent enough time being a punchline. It costs a lot to make a real run at winning big. But sticker shock doesn’t last nearly as long as banners do.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.