clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

After Rudy Gobert trade, Wolves are built to win the possession battle

The Minnesota Timberwolves should be a dominant rebounding team, without sacrificing their offensive spacing

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

2022 NBA Playoffs - Utah Jazz v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Cooper Neill/NBAE via Getty Images

Let’s just get this out of the way right off the bat.

Yes, the Minnesota Timberwolves vastly overpaid in their efforts to bring three-time All-Star Rudy Gobert to Minneapolis. There’s just no other way to put it, as the draft compensation alone saw an alarming amount of future assets go out the door. This is generally the type of all-in move that teams make when they’re one move away from a title, not coming off of a season that culminated in a seventh-seed.

So, yeah, the “value” is bad, but I don’t want that to completely overshadow what they’ve done here from an on-court perspective.

This team, especially in the regular season, is going to be absolutely awesome. I really liked the way Britt Robson of MinnPost likened it to “paying $20 million for a $10 million house” on the latest episode of The Dane Moore Podcast. The nice thing about overpaying for the $10 million house is that you still have the $10 million house, ya know?

The Wolves, pretty clearly, have bought a window here, stretching from now to the end of Gobert’s contract (2026). I don’t know that I would’ve bet such dramatic capital on that when two of your most important players are still 21 years old or younger, but based on the aggressive nature of current minority owner and future Wolves governor Marc Lore, I’d bet he just figures they will do this all over again once the Gobert contract ends and Anthony Edwards is still only 24 or 25 years old.

Through all of the risks, the one I can appreciate the most is daring to think way, way outside the box. This quote from a recent Jon Krawczynski article over at The Athletic in particular, struck me.

I haven’t been in on the idea that Karl-Anthony Towns is a 4 defensively, but Gobert fits so seamlessly to cover Towns’ deficiencies that I now can sort of see the vision there.

One of the main gripes people nationally seem to have regarding this “fit” is that the Wolves could’ve tried to find a cheaper option first to get some proof that the concept will work, but I’d push back on that quite a bit.

For one, KAT has genuinely played the 4 on offense for much more of his career than we’d think. He may have been the tallest player on the floor and taken the jump ball to open games, but he has so often played next to a non-shooter that he’s almost always been the de-facto 4 on offense. Whether it was Jarred Vanderbilt, Taj Gibson, or Gorgui Dieng, Towns has plenty of experience operating as the 4 on offense, with great success.

If anything, I would imagine this move will give him more room to operate than he had in last year’s starting lineup.

The one thing that could get the Wolves offense in the mud last year was bringing Jarred Vanderbilt’s defender over from the dunker spot to double Towns. In large part, this strategy worked so effectively because even when his man left him, Vando was still not really a threat. He was an amazing part of the 2021-22 team that we’ll not soon forget, but his poor hands and limited offensive repertoire around the rim made it much easier for teams to not think twice about doubling off of him. It’s much harder to do so now, because not only does Gobert have great hands, but he’s 7’1” with a 7’9” wingspan. If you leave Gobert open close to the rim, it’s an easy lob for a dunk. That’s how he gives you spacing without being a shooter.

In comparison, I’m a little bit less convinced in the defensive fit, partly because I do think the offense is just going to be incredible. What I can’t deny, though, is that with this move the Wolves are fully leaning into Towns’ strengths as a defender. KAT is not a great defender, but a solid one who moves his feet particularly well for his size. We saw this last year, where he had arguably his best defensive season while spending more time on the perimeter sliding his feet with guards at the point of attack. His job will be different now, but at they very least I can appreciate the team trying to lean into his strengths.

Beyond my optimistic opinion of the fit, though, I found the “proof of concept” stuff to be kind of silly in general. The modern NBA is more wing-sized, sure, but it’s not as if teams who play two bigs are irrelevant. Dwight Howard and Marc Gasol played valuable minutes alongside Anthony Davis on the Lakers run to a championship in the Orlando Bubble. The Bucks entire recent run has been predicated on Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez erasing the rim and the backboards.

Going back a bit further even, I thought about how the only non-LeBron James-led team to truly strike fear into the healthy Golden State Warriors was the 2016 Oklahoma City Thunder, who famously blew a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference Finals.

(Editor’s note: Sorry, Mike. Game 6 Klay, baby!)
Memphis Grizzlies v Golden State Warriors - Game Six Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are the big names from that Thunder team, of course, but the Thunder really took a strangle hold on that series (before Game 6 Klay erupted) by absolutely mauling Golden State on the back boards with a combination of Steven Adams, Serge Ibaka, and Enes Kanter. It ultimately didn’t work out in part because Klay went nuclear, but even in a losing effort, OKC was +35 on the boards in that series.

I’m not suggesting there won’t be challenges, and teams like the Clippers will surely cause Chris Finch to either get creative or make some tough rotational decisions. There are more ways to win basketball games than just by going all-in on wings, though. Some people may not like to hear that basketball is in fact a math problem to a degree, but when the objective of the game is to add more points to your side of the ledger than your opponent, it just is to a certain degree.

The Wolves should dominate the possession battle this season due to their ability to clean up the glass on both ends, plus what Gobert’s presence at the rim does for their wing defenders. To that point, the Wolves are not only going to be positive in the possession battle due to their improved rebounding, but also in their ability to force turnovers. Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels are already great at forcing steals and getting out into transition, but there is significantly less downside to taking a risk and jumping passing lanes now.

Ant may not have been willing to admit that Gobert is a generational rim protector last December, but his play on the floor will soon reflect that he understands that now. If Ant’s gambles on the wing last year were like doubling your 11 with the dealer showing a face card, they’re now akin to doubling your 11 with the dealer showing a 6. Even if he and/or Jaden don’t get the steal, the opponent is still likely to end up with a low-quality look anyways because of the presence Gobert brings at the rim. The Wolves are taking an unconventional route to adding possessions, but it’s one worth exploring. Simply put, when you give yourself more opportunities to score with a star as efficient in the half-court as Towns, and a rising star as explosive in transition as Edwards, good things will follow.

The big difference for the Wolves is that most teams that go big end up doing so while sacrificing their spacing.

2022 NBA All-Star - MTN DEW 3-Point Contest
This guy has something to say about that...
Photo by Jeff Haynes /NBAE via Getty Images

They’re not going to, mainly because one of their 7-footers is an elite, 40+% 3-point shooter, and the other is maybe the best vertical spacer in the NBA. That’s not even factoring in the dynamism of Edwards above the arc and above the rim.

Especially in comparison to the 2021-22 team, they should be just as good, if not better, on the offensive glass, while being a significantly better defensive rebounding team. It’s not as sexy as some other parts of basketball, but maintaining an advantage in the possession battle is one of the hallmarks of most great teams. The Wolves are now built to do that, without having to give so many points back at the three-point line like the 2016 Thunder did.

So, yeah, technically there’s no proof of concept here, in that Towns hasn’t played alongside a non-shooter in the front court on offense or guarded the perimeter defensively since ... last season. But aside from that, I really like the fit.

This is going to be a damn good team, and it’s refreshing to finally have a front office/ownership collective that is trying to win the title. This isn’t when I would’ve pushed my chips in, or probably for as many chips, but I won’t complain (too much) about this particular franchise finally making a real run at it.