The biggest reason that the Rudy Gobert trade was made is because the Minnesota Timberwolves thought that it would improve their defense, make them a more dynamic team on both ends, and cover up Karl-Anthony Towns’ weaknesses. Adding a three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year is a strong argument for pulling the trigger.
While there is no denying that last season was a roller coaster with more downs than ups, there is one good thing from the 2022-23 campaign that surprised even me when looking back on the tumultuous 2022-23 year: the Minnesota Timberwolves ranked #10 in defensive rating. Despite all of the turmoil, injuries and just overall bad luck the Timberwolves still maintained a defense that finished in the top third of the league.
While some may think it was a fluke and that they are poised to regress from that I believe that it will be the opposite. There are many reasons to think that Minnesota should finish in the top ten again, and maybe even make the ascension to No. 1.
Key Individual Defenders
To start my argument for this case, I have to point out the most important and best defenders that will help this prediction become a reality.
1) Jaden McDaniels
Everyone knew that he would be number one on this list. Anyone who has watched a Timberwolves game from last season knows that the man who cannot be nicknamed was a problem for opposing stars.
According to Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic, “McDaniels was the only player in the league this season to tally at least 75 blocks and 70 steals. He led all wings in block rate, dropped opponents’ expected shooting at the rim by 7 percent and spent the most time guarding All-Star players of any defender in the league.” (https://theathletic.com/4505044/2023/05/10/jaden-mcdaniels-timberwolves-nba-all-defense/#)
All of that signals a pretty darn good defender. He is a stopper who locks up opponents on a nightly basis. McDaniels also guards nearly all five positions with great success. There is not enough good things to say about McDaniels’ defense, and he will spearhead what is looking to be a stout Minnesota team on this end of the floor.
2) Rudy Gobert
Most people knew that Gobert would be number two on this list, no matter their feelings about him. One thing about the Saint-Quentin, France native is for certain: he is an elite rim protector. Even after posting a career-worst 109.5 defensive rating this year, that was still good for ninth in the NBA overall this season. To go along with this, even though he had a career low in blocks this season, his rim deterrence was huge in helping the Wolves reach the #10 mark as a team. There were plenty of possessions in every game in which Gobert played that opposing players would not even go up for layups or dunks just because Gobert was there — which won’t show up in the stat sheet. I would also personally bet on a bounce back season from the six-time All-Defensive First Team member, and — health permitting — that he will return to something more similar to the player we saw when he was a member of the Utah Jazz.
3) Anthony Edwards
A bit more surprising than the others, but Anthony Edwards was another focus that I wanted to take when talking about the defense. Edwards has a tendency let his off-ball defensive intensity wax and wane, something to be expected for a 21-year-old. The 2020 No. 1 overall pick also has shown the ability to step up and be a great defender when it matters the most (see the clip against the Dallas Mavericks below). With another year of maturing and learning, he should be expected to step up his game on this end of the floor to form a formidable defensive duo alongside McDaniels on the wing.
4) Nickeil Alexander-Walker
The fourth and final player I want to point out is Nickeil Alexander-Walker. If you watched the Timberwolves in the postseason you know that NAW put fellow Canadians Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jamal Murray in jail during the Play-In and the Playoffs, respectively. Alexander-Walker showed flashes all season of being a physical, athletic and lanky defender who brings something different to the table then Jaden McDaniels. While Jaden beats you to the spot, Nickeil pushes you away from it. That energy and versatility off the bench cannot be overstated for this team.
- Mike Conley: Although he is getting older, Minnesota Mike showed the ability to chase shooters and draw fouls while navigating screens as only the savvy vet can do.
- Kyle Anderson: Lengthy and versatile; think of the steal against the Golden State Warriors on that West Coast road trip that lead to KAT’s game-winning triple — that was not a fluke.
- Troy Brown Jr.: Advanced stats love TBJ as an underrated on-ball defender and has some versatility.
- Shake Milton: Excels in a team concept and can defend either guard spot.
Shake Milton is a reallllly nice signing. 39% shooter, 43% on non-corner treys, 63% at the rim. Philly, a stout defense, was 1.1 points per 100 possessions better defensively when he was on the floor last season.— Jake Paynting (@jakepaynting) June 30, 2023
There is many more that I could have mentioned but I believe these show the positives from the majority of the roster. Towns, Naz Reid and Milton are the only net negative individual defenders who are expected to be in the rotation to start the season — although Shake is a good team defender and I believe KAT’s defensive shortcomings are overstated. All of this points to an elite defense come 2023-2024 if the team stays healthy.
Continuity and Versatility
The theme of the offseason has been to run it back. Last season we did not get enough of a chance to see the entire squad in action and the front office wants to see it through - and you really cannot blame them. The Wolves are banking on continuity to improve upon their defense and while it may not seem like a big deal it is more important than one may think. Getting used to the players around you and having a whole offseason and training camp will benefit the squad this year - compared to half an offseason and a fragmented training camp.
Minnesota is also banking on versatility of their defenders to smooth over some of the cracks that could come with the way the roster is built. The thing is, there is not many cracks. They have an elite rim protector, elite perimeter defenders starting and coming off of the bench and none of the players expected playing the majority of the minutes are, as our good friend Patrick Beverley puts it, “cones” on defense. There are very few players that need to be hidden on that end of the floor anymore and the great majority are high-level defenders who can defend multiple positions. Versatility is huge when it comes to defending at a high level and the Timberwolves have that versatility. There is no doubt for me that Minnesota will have an elite defense, and I would not be surprised if they reached the top spot in the league.