Without question, the 2022-23 version of the Minnesota Timberwolves, with the newly acquired Rudy Gobert, are a better team than the 2021-22 squad that won 46 games. The NBA is about top-end talent, and while Gobert is not a traditional “star,” he has that type of impact on winning, and the Wolves were able to add him to their team without dipping into their core. The acquisition was still spendy in terms of draft capital and quality rotation players, but adding a top-end talent like Gobert immediately covers up many imperfections, while amplifying existing strengths.
While some may worry about the fit, I truly believe Gobert is about as perfect of a fit for this team as there is in the NBA. With that said, though, the one area the trade did leave the Wolves potentially thin is on perimeter defenders. Last season, the Wolves relied heavily on Jarred Vanderbilt to bother bigger wings, with Patrick Beverley taking most assignments against the best opposing guard. Those responsibilities will now fall heavily on Jaden McDaniels and Anthony Edwards, and the Wolves season may depend on whether or not they’re up to that challenge.
On that note, it’s hard to overstate exactly what Vando did for this team. I really believe he’s the piece of the Gobert trade that the team will miss the most, mainly because of how selfless he was with giving up his body to battle opposing stars. There just aren’t many guys in the league who will routinely beat themselves up in order to make life miserable for an opponent, knowing that they’re rarely going to see the ball come their way on offense. Surely part of his willingness to play that role had to do with knowing it’s his ticket to staying in the league and playing a big role, but that doesn’t make it any less impressive.
The type of effort that @JVando pours in on defense is exactly why the Wolves FO were so keen on re-signing him this offseason.— Leo S (@Y0Leo) November 19, 2021
On this 1 Spurs possession alone, he helps stifle FOUR attempts. pic.twitter.com/KxpmL9Uz7Y
The Wolves added a generational protector of the paint when they traded for Gobert, but they still did lose a huge piece of their defense last season by moving Vando in the deal.
As for the kids, Ant and Jaden took on tougher assignments from time-to-time last year, so it’s not as if this is totally new to them, but the frequency of those tough assignments will be new in varying ways.
This season for Ant is going to be about consistency for him defensively. He’s proven to be more than capable of sliding his feet with quick guards, which figures to be his role in the starting lineup. While they’re very different players, he’s likely going to take many of the assignments that Pat Bev took on last year. His defense against Ja Morant in the playoffs was a glimpse into what is possible when he locks in on that end, but the Wolves may need that every night now. Will he lock in defensively night in and night out?
Anthony Edwards emphatic block on Ja Morant pic.twitter.com/VdKRvO0Xcc— Timberwolves Clips (@WolvesClips) April 30, 2022
Unlike Ant, we’ve seen Jaden be able to matchup with opposing wings in a larger sample size in large part because that’s always been his role. That won’t really change now, but without Vando to eat up 20-25 minutes against the best wing on the opposition, the Wolves cannot afford for McDaniels to find himself in foul trouble with regularity. It’s on Jaden now to not only take those assignments from the opening tip, but for him to make himself available for 30 minutes a night. That’s a big step for him and his development, maybe more so than anything he could add offensively.
While in theory Edwards could slide up and defend bigger wings if McDaniels were in foul trouble, that doesn’t seem to be the best use of Ant’s skill set. Ant, to this point, has looked more suited defending 1-3, whereas Jaden may take pretty much any player outside of the center. Especially against jumbo wings, it’s going to be vital that Jaden keeps himself in the game.
Vando’s absence makes Jaden’s ability to defend without fouling just so vitally important. There is no Vando minutes to replace Jaden when he picks up two quick ones. Now, the pressure would fall to Kyle Anderson, or possibly KAT, to defend those bigger wings. Anderson is capable, but would severely hurt the offensive spacing, while KAT is not best used as a wing defender. There’s a significantly bigger opportunity cost this year.
Julius Randle will have nightmares about Slenderman Jaden McDaniels https://t.co/cgCzgMRBmR pic.twitter.com/DmLmIb9Jub— Cooper (@CoopCarlson) January 19, 2022
This isn’t to suggest that these guys can’t fill those roles. Don’t get it twisted, these guys absolutely are capable of shutting other stars’ water off. It’s just going to take a bit of an adjustment in terms of their mindset to ensure that this team reaches its ceiling. That might mean for Ant exerting a bit less energy on offense to make sure that he’s able to give more consistent effort on defense, although his offense will probably come much easier this year than it has in the past due to Gobert’s presence. Not to mention, D’Angelo Russell should have more bandwidth for offensive creation beside Gobert. Not swiping down at the ball when a ball-handler takes away the space Jaden likes to keep between himself and the ball will be key for McDaniels to remain effective and out of foul trouble.
While it would be nice to see these two swallow up opposing stars each and every night, the reality is that that’s just not realistic over an 82-game season. The regular season is long as hell, and focus naturally comes and goes, especially for younger players. It’s hard to believe because of how long they’ve been vital pieces of this roster, but Ant is just about to turn 21, and Jaden will only turn 22 in September. They’re still so, so young. Lapses are going to happen.
For the Wolves, it’s going to be about limiting those nights where the focus isn’t there. Thankfully, that shouldn’t be very difficult this year, considering the strength both of the Western Conference and Minnesota’s playoff viability. Every game is going to be extremely important for seeding purposes and staying in the top-six in the standings. They need enough nights of excellence from Ant and Jaden to give themselves a higher ceiling for their seeding position, as well as in the playoffs.
I have no doubts that this team will lock-in come postseason, but still, the regular season is about building habits. This is a potentially great team, but they are not good enough to build poor habits and expect to just flip the switch once the bright lights come on. It’s going to be about building winning habits and demanding a consistent standard of excellence from each other defensively.
As far as regular season results go, it honestly may not matter that much just because of the way Gobert erases the rim. That alone should keep the floor for their regular season defense pretty high. Again, this is going to be about building those habits for Ant and Jaden, as we’ve seen that even a rim protector as good as Rudy can only do so much in the playoffs if the perimeter defense in front of him is not up to par.
I strongly believe that the offense for this team is going to be great. There are too many good players and good creators for this team to struggle to score regularly. While it seems counterintuitive to worry about the defense after adding Gobert, my concern really applies to the ceiling that this group could have. The consistency on the perimeter from Ant and Jaden is what will determine if this is a first-round exit or a potential Western Conference Finals contender. It’s what held Utah back from that breakthrough for the majority of Gobert’s tenure there.
I have learned the hard way to never doubt this young duo, particularly Ant, so I won’t make the same mistake again. With he and Jaden committing to being the best they can be defensively, the sky is the limit for this core group.