If you went around the league and asked any average NBA fan about the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert front-court pairing from last season, nearly every single one of them would have said that it was a bust.
The sentiment was always that Minnesota paid too much for a funky fit that would never work. Period. While I had my own personal doubts about this duo, the one thing that did not sit right with me about these takes was that there was never enough sample size to make such a definitive claim to give up on something before it even had the chance to begin. Not to mention the lack of context involved in the discussions.
Gobert was clearly not at 100% at the beginning of last season (and really all of the 2022-23 campaign); Towns missed training camp due to an illness that led to him losing more than 20 pounds; there was no Mike Conley; and, of course, KAT suffered a Grade 3 left calf strain and missed 52 games — that’s nearly four months the Wolves went without the player who needed to change the most to make the Gobert move work.
Given that context, it starts to make sense as to why Minnesota was not necessarily firing on all cylinders at, well, any point last year. It’s like the classic nightmare that we have all had at one point or another during our days in school: You show up to class, realize that it’s the day of the exam and that you didn’t study leaving yourself completely unprepared... except in this case it felt like someone had thrown all of the textbooks in the shredder.
Even when they did play (especially before the Conley acquisition), it wasn’t pretty. They turned in a net rating of just +0.9 in 1095 possessions together, ranking in the 58th percentile per Cleaning the Glass. The defensive rating of 106.6 was elite (98th percentile), but their 107.5 offensive rating (seventh percentile) was an unmitigated disaster.
With all this turmoil, it was easy to write the Timberwolves off heading into a season where the front office doubled down on their massive decision. Luckily for everyone, Minnesota didn’t write back.
Not only are they off to the best start in team history at 20-5, but the Towns and Gobert pairing is working.
Towns has seized this opportunity to become a much better defender, while Gobert has opened up some fascinating offensive options that compliment some of the more unique skills that KAT brings to the table. Gobert showing those developments (plus entering a table-setter like Conley weaving everything together) have helped all of us believe that this pairing could be a great success long-term.
As a result, the pair have a +10.9 net rating together (93rd percentile, per Cleaning the Glass). While their 106.9 defensive rating (96th percentile) is incredible, their 117.8 offensive rating is well above average (67th percentile) among NBA lineups, too. This season, the duo maintained their defensive dominance while working to produce an offensive rating that is 10.3 points higher than last season, which is very commendable.
We all know about the defensive capabilities of this roster. But what has been most intriguing to me is that what this pairing is producing offensively — something that doesn’t have much precedent in any era.
4-5 Pick-and-Roll: How Gobert Helps Towns
KAT has always been able to find ways to get himself and those around him buckets. He can shoot the 3 at a high clip, finish at the rim and use his underrated passing abilities to set his teammates up for success. Something that has given the Wolves’ offense an extra dimension — one no other team can replicate — is this gigantic pick-and-roll between Towns and Gobert.
One of Rudy’s best qualities on the offensive end is his ability to set crushing screens that free up players to get a step on the defenders and make plays out of that. This combined with KAT’s unique offensive skillset creates a frightening scenario for other teams: two 7-footers coming at the rim with a full head of steam. Towns has shown an ability to make a good decision out of this action. He is able to determine when he has a step on his defender to take it to the rim without picking up an offensive foul or stopping short and getting out of it when nothing is there.
The nine-year vet can not only score out of this action, but also set Gobert up for a bucket with a lob or dish to get a high-quality look at the front of the rim. The more this comes along, the more of a threat Gobert becomes on offense, which is key in improvement on that end of the floor. Especially when it comes to the big man helping KAT get good looks on offense.
Lobs: How Towns Helps Gobert
In order to make this offense work between the two, the coaching staff needed to identify areas Gobert and Towns complement each other. One way they did this is by using the front-court pick-and-roll to create mismatches and get KAT going downhill at the rim. The other way they have been able to do this is getting the timing down of when Gobert collapses from the short corner to catch a thunderous lob that is sure to get the fans on their feet.
As I had mentioned before, KAT is a very underrated passer. Outside of when he is doubled in the post and some of his questionable decision-making rears its head, the Wolves star is usually able to set his teammates up with open looks or get the defense in rotation to create hockey (secondary) assists. When the Gobert tenure was still in its infancy at the beginning of last year, Towns was one of the few players that made an effort to forge some kind of chemistry with Gobert and help him become somewhat of a weapon on offense. KAT has continued to improve at stopping his drives short and lobbing it over the helping center for those alley-oop jams. So far this season, Towns has 20 assists to Gobert at the rim, per PBP Stats.
Karl-Anthony Towns rebound over Jimmy Butler + lob pass to Rudy Gobert for the dunk pic.twitter.com/TYcs9kSYXp— Timberwolves Clips (@WolvesClips) December 19, 2023
As of two weeks ago, Towns and Gobert were tied for second in connections on the alley oop (coincidentally with another familiar pairing in Conley and Gobert). While Doncic and Lively are up at number one with 20+, KAT and Rudy have been next best at 10 (The alley-oop above makes it at least 11).
Gobert does two things phenomenally well on offense: set screens and catch lobs. Because of that, the players on the roster need to utilize those things to maximize Gobert on offense and, therefore, optimize the offense better as a whole. Conley is obviously the gold standard when it comes to using Rudy as a screener and a lob threat, but Karl is a close second. Towns’ ability to continually help turn Gobert into a threat on offense opens up all of this fun stuff that Head Coach Chris Finch can do on that end of the floor.
I would say that’s pretty good outcome considering how many analysts thought that Gobert would just “get in the way” of Towns.