Heading into the summer of 2022, there were some glaring holes in the Minnesota Timberwolves’ roster. Paint defense and rebounding were among the largest problem areas, both of which came to light against the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the 2022 NBA Playoffs.
Players such as JaVale McGee and Nerlens Noel were floated around as potential cost-effective targets for the Timberwolves to pursue without changing the construct of the roster. After all, the team did just come off one of the most magical seasons in franchise history. However, newly hired President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly instead transformed the roster just under two months after signing with the team as he sent five players and five first-round picks to the Utah Jazz in exchange for three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert.
The Timberwolves are sending Malik Beasley, Patrick Beverley, Walker Kessler, Jarred Vanderbilt and multiple first-round picks for Gobert, sources tell ESPN.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) July 1, 2022
There were mixed feelings when the Gobert trade was first announced, leaving plenty of questions to be answered:
- Will a two-big lineup work in the age of smaller, position-less basketball?
- Did the Wolves overpay for a player who only blocks and rebounds shots?
- How will this affect Anthony Edwards and his attacking mindset?
Those were all fair questions that fans from around the game asked themselves last summer. This, in turn, placed some lofty — and nearly improbable — expectations set at the feet of the three-time All-Star heading into his 10th campaign in the NBA.
What Went Well?
Despite some fans already writing off Gobert and the move to acquire him, the 30-year-old still excelled in key areas through his first 70 games in the Twin Cities.
The Defensive Impact is Still There
When Gobert ultimately decides to hang up his size 20 shoes for good, we won’t look back on his career and remember his offense — despite his elite screen-setting and leading the NBA in field goal percentage for three seasons. Rather, it’s going to be his incredible defensive instincts coupled with a 7-foot-1 frame, gargantuan wingspan, and defensive range. Those skills have enabled him to put together a Hall-of-Fame-caliber defensive resume along with six All-Defensive First-Team selections and three DPOY trophies.
Lauri Markkanen has more points than Donovan Mitchell this season.— StatMuse (@statmuse) February 2, 2023
Walker Kessler has more blocks than Rudy Gobert this season.
Huge trades for Utah. pic.twitter.com/zS6SAEh4Qi
How many shots a player swats are a good way to measure how good a big man is at protecting the paint. However, it’s far from the only way that we can tell if that player is a plus defender.
Above is a graph provided by cleaningtheglass.com of Gobert’s block percentage every year of his career. The number in orange shows the player’s percentile rank in that category. So, as you can see, Gobert ranked in the top 84th percentile or higher in shot attempts blocked from 2013 to 2022. Last season, his first in Minnesota, the numbers fell off as he only blocked 2.2% of the shots attempted with him being the defender.
In Utah, Gobert averaged 2+ blocks in every season except for his rookie year. So, when the Frenchman finished with 95 total blocks during the 2022-23 season, and his replacement, rookie Walker Kessler, swatted 158 shots, some fans were led to believe that Gobert’s defensive impact was starting to decline. There’s no denying it, Gobert was just not swatting the same number of shots as he did for the Jazz. However, Gobert was still able to be a plus defender when healthy for the Wolves.
Just the threat of having Gobert standing deep in the paint can make him a plus defender. Maybe it’s because of his incredibly long frame, or maybe because of his impressive defensive resume. Regardless of the reason, Gobert has owned a league-best rim deterrence percentage over the last decade, and that still held true last season.
Another reason why he experienced a drop-off in his defensive numbers is that he switched gameplans and coaching styles for the first time in his NBA career. During his time in Utah, the Jazz ran a drop-heavy defense with Gobert on the floor. This was necessary because Utah didn’t have great perimeter defense surrounding the Stifle Tower. The Jazz would rarely switch with Gobert on the floor because of how dependent they were on the defense that Rudy brought.
Minnesota, however, relied heavily on their defense from behind the 3-point line during the 2021-22 season because of their lack of paint containment. The Wolves played a scrambled, aggressive, and switch-heavy perimeter defense prior to adding Gobert to the roster. However, Rudy’s arrival forced Minnesota’s Assistant Coach and Defensive Coordinator Elston Turner to completely flip the team's approach on that end of the ball.
“We got a lot of stops forcing turnovers last year,” Turner told Chris Hine of Star Tribune in late April. “This year, a lot of our stops have been coming from contested shots because we can’t fly around too much with two 7-foot guys. It’s two drastically different kind of schemes.”
The defensive adjustment was a challenge for everyone on the team to get used to. However, the presence alone of Gobert lurking by the basket still makes him an All-Star-level threat on that end of the floor — regardless of what shows up in the box score.
Connections With the Floor Generals
When Gobert was dealt to the Wolves, I was most excited to see how he and D’Angelo Russell would connect on pick-and-roll actions. Russell spent two seasons with the Brooklyn Nets where his primary PnR partner was the 7-foot Jarrett Allen. It was in those two seasons that Russell produced some of the best numbers of his career, averaging 19 points, 6.3 assists, and 3.9 rebounds on 42.8% from the floor — good enough to be named to his first All-Star game.
“It’s rare to be in a situation where you feel you’re needed,” Russell told Dane Moore on his podcast last summer. “I’ve been in kind of the opposite my whole career so to be a part of it, and to know he [Gobert] can bring another level of my game every night and vise versa. I feel like everyone compliments each other. I just know what pieces we lacked last year we complemented our team with this year which makes it that much more exciting.”
The excitement that Russell shared with the fanbase wasn't long-lived as he would ultimately be dealt to the Los Angeles Lakers in a three-team deal at the trade deadline which saw the Timberwolves add veteran point guard Mike Conley, the budding Nickeil Alexander-Walker, along with multiple second-round picks.
The on-court chemistry and fit between Gobert and Russell seemed a bit shaky at times. For whatever reason, Gobert had a tough time catching D-Lo’s entry passes off the PnR. It was also reported by The Athletic’s Jon Krawczynski that Russell was “frustrated often” with Gobert.
Earlier today, @JonKrawczynski said on @KFAN1003 that D'Angelo Russell was "very frustrated often" with Rudy Gobert and wore the issues "on his sleeve."— Charlie Walton (@CharlieWaltonMN) February 10, 2023
JK said he'd walk into the locker room and hear DLo "bemoaning the situation" with Gobert.
Here's Jon's full explanation: pic.twitter.com/4xEinoZasU
While the trade shipping Russell out of the Twin Cities was a stunner given the importance of D-Lo’s play with Karl-Anthony Towns out, it was crucial in improving Gobert’s offensive impact.
The four-time All-NBA selection never seemed to be on the same offensive wavelength as Russell. Regardless of any reported disconnect between the two, it’s worth noting that early in the season, Gobert was dealing with a lingering knee injury he suffered playing for France in EuroBasket last summer. In turn, this made it hard for Gobert to fully maximize his traditional offensive impact on the glass and as a roller.
Mike Conley incredible pass to Rudy Gobert for the layup pic.twitter.com/kWv37zfxGH— Timberwolves Clips (@WolvesClips) March 21, 2023
Conley, however, needed no time at all to get back on the same page as his former teammate. That was one of the main draws to trade for the beloved veteran — integrating a better optimized Gobert into the Wolves’ offense as a whole; Minnesota endured well-documented issues consistently synergizing Gobert and Anthony Edwards in the half-court offense. Thankfully, Anderson emerged as a key connector between the two.
Minnesota signed Anderson to a two-year, $18 million contract just two days before acquiring Gobert; as a result, the signing soon became an afterthought. However, Slow-Mo’s impact all season long was at the forefront of what the Wolves were able to do on both sides of the ball. Most importantly, Anderson became one of the only players who figured out the best ways to utilize Gobert’s offensive tools early in the season.
Maybe it was Anderson’s slow approach to the game. Or maybe his experience playing with Tim Duncan and LaMarcus Aldridge with the San Antonio Spurs. But for whatever reason, Slow-Mo was able to pick the brain of Gobert and hit him in spots where he could do something with it.
What Didn’t Work Well?
The Two-Big Offensive Flow
Early in the year, it was tough for Edwards to find his own offense when sharing the floor with Gobert — due in large part to conflicting play styles. Up until last season, Edwards had yet to play with a traditional big man. Towns and Jarred Vanderbilt both played more like forwards, sitting behind the 3-point line or in the dunker's spot, and Naz Reid did a little bit of everything.
The offense between Edwards and Gobert was atrocious to open their first season together. Ant wasn’t getting to the rim and dunking at the rate he did last season, and the two simply weren't connecting on what seemed like simple pick-and-roll reads. However, Gobert was eager to learn how to play alongside his new teammates, so it didn't take long for Edwards to get on the same page as Gobert — especially in PnR actions.
During the 52 games that Towns missed, Minnesota’s flow became leaps and bounds better than what it was before KAT went down. Some associated this with the fact that there was only one center on the floor — leading to better pace and space. However, the sad part is, Minnesota’s offense grew because they had more playing time together, it really didn't have too much to do with Towns missing time. In turn, this led KAT to be even further behind when he returned to playing on March 22nd.
Personally, I thought the chemistry between just Gobert and Towns was pretty good. Even early in the season, we saw Timberwolves Head Coach Chris Finch put the ball in KAT’s hands, either in post-up looks or face-up looks from the perimeter, and he still frequently hit Gobert in the paint on impressive big-to-big passes.
The flow issues with Gobert and Towns both on the floor were primarily team-wide issues. The addition of Conley helped, and the offense got much better toward the end of the season, but I still see some large areas of potential improvement. Most of that improvement will come from enhancing the roster — finding the right players who can space the floor around Edwards, Towns, and Gobert. For example, think of what Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is doing right now for the Denver Nuggets.
KCP came over to the Nuggets after being traded away from the Washington Wizards last summer. Caldwell-Pope fits in Denver like a “glove,” as Austin Rivers explained while on an Instagram Live. His ability to space the corners and shoot 42.5% (11th highest in the NBA, per Stat Muse) from beyond the arc makes him invaluable to this championship run the Nuggets are currently on. Hopefully, Minnesota can find its own Caldwell-Pope this summer.
A full, and hopefully healthy, off-season should work wonders for this Timberwolves team. With KAT not having to change his summer workouts in July, and Gobert having ample time to get on the same page with all of his teammates, things should pan out much better for the team come the end of next season. However, if Gobert hopes to win back some of the Wolves’ fanbase, he will need to come back stronger than ever and make Minnesota’s front office look good for the haul they exchanged for him — even if he accomplished exactly what was expected of him.
Last summer, as I stated prior, Gobert played for France. While having some off-season competitive run is never a bad thing, Gobert’s ankle injury that he suffered while playing in Euro Basket 2022 ultimately altered his first season in a Timberwolves uniform. The French Rejection is still undecided on if he will play for France again this summer, as he continues to weigh the positives and negatives that would ensue from him suiting back up for his home country. However, earlier this week, Ant committed to play for Team USA in the FIBA World Cup which will kick off in early August.
Hopefully, Edwards can remain healthy as he represents the United States of America. If not, he could be facing a similar issue as the one Gobert was dealing with last season — ultimately resulting in the two not bettering their on-court chemistry.
Some fans, myself included, were a little naive after watching Gobert struggle to find his footing with Minnesota early in the year. The famous line from Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones seems to fit perfectly here, you can’t always get what you want... but you can try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.