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How Rudy Gobert Can Improve the Timberwolves’ Offense Without Changing Their Style

The three-time All-Star isn’t an offensive threat on the block like Karl-Anthony Towns is, but that doesn’t mean he can’t bend defenses with his gravity.

Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

When the Minnesota Timberwolves traded for Rudy Gobert, the goal was to improve their rim protection and defensive rebounding. Like with any new acquisition, especially one that requires a significant schematic overhaul, there are going to be learning curves on both sides of the ball. Even though Gobert was brought in to improve the team’s defense, he could be just as valuable of an offensive addition.

When the Gobert trade happened, the biggest complaint, besides the number of picks given up, was how this would affect the offense and ruin their spacing. To some extent this concern has born true as the Timberwolves offensive rating of 112.9 ranks 15th in the league, down from 114.7 and seventh last season, per Cleaning the Glass. However, when we look at the play style of Gobert compared to Jarred Vanderbilt, there isn’t a ton of variance.

None of this analysis is meant as a slight to Vanderbilt. He is the most logical comparison for whom Gobert replaced in the rotation. Looking at just last season, Vanderbilt took 80% of his shots at the rim (89th percentile) and 16% percent of his shots in the short mid-range (4-14 feet) (32nd percentile). In those regions, he shot 67% (46th percentile) and 28% (13th percentile) respectively. Gobert on the other hand took 90% of his shots at the rim (97th percentile) and 9% of his shots in the short mid-range (8th percentile), while shooting in those zones 77% (90th percentile) and 32% (19th percentile) respectively. Despite their shot profiles being nearly identical, Gobert is still viewed as a hinderance to a Wolves offense that just played a full season with a non-shooter playing prominent minutes.

Los Angeles Lakers v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

To be fair to the doubters and skeptics, the Timberwolves have been worse on offense with Gobert on the floor than when he is off. So far, their offensive rating is 13.7 points per possession (PPP) lower when Gobert is on the court than when he is off. While I’m not suggesting that Minnesota are going to turn into the league’s most prolific offense, I also think that this is going to be the worst we see it.

Let’s still focus solely on Gobert and where he is making an impact. As a quick aside, we are only six games into the season, so numbers going forward are subject to significant changes. Despite the Timberwolves’ lackluster offensive numbers with Gobert, he has nearly an identical shot profile to the one he had last season, which means it is still almost identical to that of Vanderbilt last season. Gobert is taking 94% of his shots at the rim (100th percentile). Unfortunately, he is shooting just 66% at the rim (42nd percentile). Skeptics will want to believe that this is the beginning of the downward turn for Gobert, but I’m pretty skeptical since Gobert hasn’t shot below 70% at the rim since the 2015-16 season, his third year in the league.

So, despite being one of the league’s most effective at-rim finishers for the last half decade and sharing a nearly identical shot profile to the player he “replaced” on the league’s seventh best offense, Gobert is still a negative offensive player? I find that hard to believe.

With the proliferation of outside shooting in today’s game, we often think of spacing as just who can and who cannot shoot from outside. It is a crucial aspect of the game and roster building, but it has also diluted the meaning and importance of vertical spacing. Even though Gobert is viewed as “clogging the lane” despite operating in the same areas as Vanderbilt, he significantly improved the team’s vertical spacing. It is a real threat that this team has never really had. So far this season, last year’s rebounding champ has an offensive rebounding rate of 13.8 (83rd percentile) and a free-throw offensive rebounding rate of 6.2 (77th percentile). He also ranks third in offensive rebounds with 4.7 per game and in the 65th percentile in put-backs with 1.14 PPP, per NBA Stats.

Los Angeles Lakers v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Given the prestige of a player like Gobert, he is naturally going to require more offensive touches than a player like Vanderbilt. So far, we’ve seen that as the Wolves have at times forced the ball to Gobert. His paint touches are up from 11.3 per game last season to 13.8 this season, his post up touches are up from 1.1 to 2.5, and his elbow touches are up from 2.8 to 4.0. Ensuring Gobert is actively involved in the offense is really important. However, it needs to be in areas where he thrives and not forcing him the ball.

Playing with a 7’1” rim runner compared to 6’9” energy forward requires entirely different passes to be made. The Timberwolves’ ball-handlers still haven’t fully adjusted to the idea that they need to throw Gobert lobs instead of bounce passes at his feet. Those passes worked better with Vanderbilt who could go down and get them, but it is a lot to ask of Gobert who is much more comfortable and effective when catching lobs.

Here, Minnesota uses a dribble handoff to kickstart a Spain pick-and-roll. As D’Angelo Russell comes off the handoff, he has a relatively clean driving lane to his left with Gobert rolling to the rim on his right. As Russell attacks, he falls for LeBron James’s jab step. As a reaction, Russell throws a bounce pass that is behind Gobert, despite Gobert showing his hand high to request a lob.

Plays like that one have been a common occurrence in this early season where players are trying to force the ball to Gobert. Unfortunately, they aren’t putting it in the spots that make life easier for him. Instead of getting him more touches in the short roll, on post ups, or at the elbows, they need to use him more as a play finisher at the rim. We already saw how dominant his offensive rebounding has been, but they are barely utilizing him to his full potential as a roll man.

I know it’s become a cliché, but Gobert’s effectiveness as a screener is immense. Last season, Gobert led the league with 6.3 screen assists per game and is second this season with 6.0. Additionally, Gobert operated as the roll man in 27.1% of his possessions where he ranked in the 82nd percentile with 1.32 PPP. This season, though, Gobert is operating as the roll man on only 12.7% of his possessions and ranks in the 57th percentile with 1.10 PPP. It may take some time to adjust to as many of these players haven’t had a quality screening rim runner to play with, but that steep drop-off in his pick-and-roll usage shouldn’t be happening.

Where Gobert has been effectively used, though, is as a cutter. All of last season we saw how Vanderbilt brilliantly navigated the dunker spot and the baseline to position himself for advantageous dump off passes and offensive rebounds. We’re seeing a lot of the same with Gobert this season as well as 26.6% of his possessions are cuts, and he is scoring 1.52 PPP (85th percentile).

Here, we see the Timberwolves run a nice motion set to get Karl-Anthony Towns a post-up on the left block against the smaller defender, while Gobert positions himself in the opposite dunker spot. As Towns receives the ball, the Lakers immediately send a double. As they do so, Gobert immediately flashes to the lane before Patrick Beverley can rotate down to him. This decisive movement by Gobert ensures that he gets the seal on Beverley and creates an easy score once Towns finds him.

Here, we see Gobert fully utilize his size in a similar way. As Towns receives the ball in the extended post up, Gobert is on the opposite block and being nearly doubled as the Lakers attempt to go small. Gobert quickly recognizes that Russell Westbrook is guarding him, and that Westbrooks positioning is providing little resistance to Gobert establishing a deep seal. Gobert quickly cuts across to the left block, uses his size to clear out Westbrook, and finishes with the easy dunk.

This ability to fully utilize size and play bully ball didn’t exist last season. Instead of effortlessly clearing out defenders, Vanderbilt would’ve roamed the baseline, made a few flash cuts, and generally work to reposition himself for an offensive rebound or dump off pass. Since Gobert is a massive human being, the Timberwolves can really utilize that size to create effortless above-the-rim finishes like this regularly.

This time, we see Gobert operate in a very Vanderbilt-esque fashion. As Edwards’s drive gets cut off, he kicks the ball out and it swings to Jaden McDaniels in the corner. McDaniels perfectly attacks the closeout and drives baseline. As he does so, Gobert relocates from the left block to the middle of the lane. As Gobert relocates, his defender loses track of him as he is more focused on the ball and impeding a baseline skip pass to the corner shooter. McDaniels finds Gobert who uses a quick shot fake to dispatch his defender before finishing with a layup.

When the Timberwolves’ offense is flowing, Gobert operates in a shockingly similar fashion to Vanderbilt. They both are adept at finding open pockets, corralling offensive rebounds, and being opportunistic finishers. The big difference, though, is the fashion in which they score. Vanderbilt is a terrific athlete, but given their size disparity, nearly all of Gobert’s finishes are above the rim and incredibly difficult to block.

Last season, we saw how Towns further expanded his offense as he turned into one of the most prolific drivers, especially among big men, in the league. He has immense scoring gravity in all three levels of the floor. We already saw how Gobert can feast off of it in the post, but he can also be a great outlet on Towns’s drives. Last season, Vanderbilt was frequently this option, but they were nearly always shovel passes and there was a high chance of Vanderbilt bobbling the pass.

Here, we see how Gobert can provide that outlet to Towns in a much more reliable fashion. As Towns keeps the ball in the handoff, the defenders collide and give Towns an opening to drive. This mishap forces Gobert’s defender to rotate to the drive. Meanwhile, Gobert slides towards the rim, while Shai Gilgeous-Alexander drops down to Gobert. Last season, Towns would have to take an out-of-control floater here because the passing lane to Vanderbilt would be too tight. With Gobert, though, Towns now has the option to go over the top of the defense. Instead of trying to thread the needle, Towns lofts a lob to Gobert for an easy dunk.

When Gobert was with the Utah Jazz, we frequently heard about how he wanted to be more involved on offense. This request has always felt ridiculous given Gobert’s skill set, but there are a lot of ways the Timberwolves can use him in incredibly effective ways without completely changing their identity on offense. Gobert is one of the best play finishers in the league as he has a long history of dominating as an at-rim scorer. His shot profile is nearly identical to that of Vanderbilt’s last season, but Gobert has significantly more size and better hands. It may take some time as the Timberwolves adjust their habits to look for the lobs instead of the shovel passes, but Gobert has all the tools and experience to elevate this offense.

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