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Examining Rudy Gobert’s Fit With the Minnesota Timberwolves

The Minnesota Timberwolves are betting on a two-big lineup with a rare zag in today’s NBA.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Utah Jazz Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

I picked up my phone and looked at it at approximately 3 PM CT on Friday. I’d been spending time with family, away from things for about an hour.

My Face ID didn’t work right away, but I immediately knew something had happened. My Anthony Edwards-inspired lock screen was engulfed in notifications, unreadable as my phone failed to recognize me.

The group chat had a message from each member.

The ESPN and Bleacher Report notifications piled up, unchecked.

One missed phone call from a friend.

Three text messages.

Tens of messages in the Canis Slack chat.

Then, my phone unlocked.

The “10 Notifications” text morphed into some combination of “Gobert,” “Minnesota” and “Timberwolves.” My brain caught only those three words.

Oh no.

After swearing and yelling, buckled over in a weird crouching stance, my family members asked if everything was okay.

I still don’t have an answer for them.

Rudy Gobert is a Minnesota Timberwolf. At the expense of Patrick Beverley, Jarred Vanderbilt, Malik Beasley, Walker Kessler, Leandro Bolmaro, three unprotected first-round picks (‘23, ‘25, ‘27), one first-round pick swap (‘26), a top-five protected first-round pick (‘29) and future cap flexibility, the Wolves have their third star.

Let’s talk about it.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Utah Jazz

The Defensive Fit

The Wolves gave up a lot for the man referred to as “a walking top-10 defense.” But when it’s phrased like that, doesn’t it make sense?

When thinking about how KAT and Gobert will work together, keep it simple. The three-time Defensive Player of the Year will provide the Wolves elite-level rim protection and rebounding. Those worries about interior size, defensive rebounding and shot blocking that we’ve been stressing about for the last, who knows how long? Eviscerated.

The Jazz’s team defense was Gobert last season. Utah finished ninth in the NBA in team defensive rating in 2021-22, with Gobert’s league-leading 103.2 individual DRTG leading the charge. Perimeter defense was less than ideal for Utah, and the man in the middle did everything in his power to keep the defense from cratering. Without the Frenchman on the floor, opponents’ offensive rating went up by seven points. Aside from his rookie year, Gobert’s defensive estimated plus-minus percentile rank have never been lower than 98th percentile.

Minnesota differs from Utah in that aspect, in that they have physically-imposing, versatile defenders that can hold their own. The three-time All-Star center will be happy to have Swiss army knife Jaden McDaniels and 6-foot-4, 225-pound NFL linebacker Edwards on the perimeter, and will be comfortable cleaning up their relatively infrequent mistakes.

The Timberwolves’ starting lineup (as of now) will feature not one player shorter than 6-foot-4, as well as at least a 6-foot-9 wingspan for each player.

In general, the whole “two bigs can’t work” idea might be accurate when they have similar skillsets. Lucky for us, these two are quite different.

If KAT was three or four inches shorter, I don’t think people would have an issue with this. But he doesn’t play like a normal 6-foot-11 big. He proved he can survive in a switching defensive scheme, which should be enough to convince fans he can play the four.

KAT is (super generally) all offense, Gobert is (generally) all defense. Ultra simplified, that’s a very good outline for your front-court (not everyone can have Joel Embiid).

I would describe having an elite rim protector as, “the greatest backup plan you could ask for.” Meaning — your other four players don’t feel the pressure to do everything in their power to keep their man in front of them. They take comfort in knowing that they have another line of defense, and Gobert is the best there is in that role. It’s not a flashy role, but it’s one that has a hefty impact on winning.

The Offensive Fit

The question brought up when considering starting a true five next to KAT was always about spacing. Given the type of player the Timberwolves were looking for (rebounding, rim protecting big), it was most likely that the guy being brought in wasn’t going to be a floor spacer. Therefore, that guy would be your one player on the floor that doesn’t shoot. You’re really only allowed one of those, and that would be Minnesota’s one.

And that’s limiting.

One of KAT’s incredibly valuable traits is that he isn’t that one. Many other centers are. With KAT on the floor, one of your other four starters can be that one. Vanderbilt and Josh Okogie were the one(s) in previous years. Going forward, Gobert is that one. However — if you were going to create a player NBA 2k-style to be that one for your team, it’s basically Gobert.

Playing Towns at the four will allow him to be used in new ways. While maintaining the ability to do everything he’s been doing for years in certain situations, he’ll now be able to play almost like a wing. Moving around, coming off screens, cutting, potentially throwing lobs/dump offs to Gobert when he seals off rolls, etc. are now in the offense’s wheelhouse.

Because KAT can do so much on the offensive end, this feels like a natural change. There are times where it feels as if he’s a guard/forward trapped in a big man’s body, as he’s able to act as a shooter and also attack the basket off the dribble.

Being able to go “small” with Towns at the 5 and newly-signed Kyle Anderson at the 4 is yet another fun wrinkle that’s been added to Chris Finch’s coaching arsenal. Anderson could guard opposing 4s, while KAT holds down the 5 (as we know he’s capable of doing). On offense, it would add even more on-ball creation and passing to a lineup that already has plenty.

The Cost

Giving up three unprotected firsts, a pick swap in ‘26, a top-5 protected first in ‘29, and Kessler? That hurts, a lot.

If things go sideways, there could be some serious regret from sending that ‘26 swap, unprotected ‘27 first, and the top-5 protected first in ‘29. You can only empty your war chest once, so of course there will be concerns when the picks being sent out are seven years away. Plus, the fit isn’t a slam dunk.

Giving up Beverley and Vanderbilt? Heart-wrenching.

Those two gave the Wolves an identity. Beverley was the source of grit for a group yearning for a playoff birth. Vanderbilt showed relentless hustle and determination that got viewers fired up and fueled Beverley’s relentless fire. From co-starring in Aura ads to working out together this offseason in Atlanta, Edwards and Vanderbilt had a fun relationship that reflected the juice Vanderbilt brought to the team.

Much of what the Wolves accomplished last season wasn’t achievable without Beverley and Vanderbilt. They showed the fanbase that someone cared, that someone was willing to do the dirty work, and that someone wanted to turn things around. And they did. Not because they were supremely talented, but because they worked their tails off.

But the Timberwolves are, without a doubt, better than they were two days ago.

It’s a hard pill to swallow, but game-changing talent reigns supreme in this league. At a certain point, a seismic move must be made to get to the next level.

And now, the move has been made.