The Minnesota Timberwolves think big. First, it was a big hire: a new president of the basketball division, poached from a competitor in the Western Conference. What followed was a big deal in which a big hitman gave the Utah Jazz a big catch so he could connect a big global player with another big global player.
Why turn down so many draft picks? Because, words by Tim Connelly“We felt we had taken a huge step forward.”
It’s a big risk, but it’s also a big statement! Connelly wants the Wolves to make the playoffs for the first time since 2004. They are “trying to change the way the league treats us,” he said.
So, Rudy Gobert is in Minnesota, and Karl-Anthony Towns is going to start as a power forward. Connelly is ready for “some awkward moments initially” but the bar has been raised. Wolves will no longer have to fight their way to a decent defense, compensating for low-quality personnel with aggression and activity. They will no longer be hit on the boards.
Coach Chris Finch saw a transformation of sorts last season. Minnesota ruined the game by forcing losses, breaking glass and picking up the pace. Karl-Anthony Towns made his second All-NBA team, Anthony Edwards took over the playoff game, and D’Angelo Russell covered defense from the weak side. Now, with Gobert in the crowd and a few cast changes, Wolves should change shape again.
Connelly sees 21-year-old Edwards as a potentially “outstanding” player and “defender of all leagues”, so he is expected to make a breakthrough. Jayden McDaniels, who just turned 22, is expected to hit triples and fill in gaps with the consistency needed for a rookie. The addition of free agent Kyle Anderson increases the collective length and IQ of the wolves. Brin Forbes brings in the moving shots and Austin Rivers the playmaking, but they’ll have to contend for several minutes with the return of Jordan McLaughlin and Jaylen Nowell in the backcourt. The Taurus Prince is back too, so Finch will have a choice in the frontcourt.
However, it is Gobert who gives Minnesota a different ceiling and a different structure at both ends. He is an unconventional star, maybe he will be able to hide the shortcomings of this rod.
Does this all amount to a legitimate rival in the crowded West? Well, that’s a big question.
Faithful Wolves: I was ecstatic when the Timberwolves traded for Jimmy Butler, but this is so much better. Butler joined a team that had gone 31-51 the previous season; Rudy Gobert joins the one who went 46-36. Karl-Anthony Towns is four years older, and Anthony Edwards is ready for glory. I’m sure you’ll argue with the price they paid, but I don’t mind – this team will immediately become the elite on both sides.
Wolves skeptic: Glad you mentioned Butler. The Wolves turned down Zach LaVine and Chris Dunn and traded in the draft to get him. They haven’t given up on multi-year first-round picks, trades, and numerous role players with good contracts. The Butler era ended badly, but in terms of value, it was a great deal. When he was on the court in 2017/18 they had an elite offense and very good defense. I see the team is about the same this year, which would be great if they didn’t give up so many things to get there. Edwards is 21! What’s the rush?
Faithful Wolves: Why wait? This is no longer a repair team. The playoffs were supposed to give the franchise more confidence in Edwards and the motivation to progress immediately. It’s hard to imagine the Wolves would have lost the series to Memphis if Gobert had been in the middle – they wouldn’t have died on the glass, fouled like crazy, and allowed so many rim shots.
Skeptic Wolves: I don’t know, Ja Morant didn’t seem to be particularly afraid of Gobert. in the playoffs 2021. And I’m pretty sure the Grizzlies’ defensive game plan would have been exactly the same if Gobert had been in Jarred Vanderbilt’s place – they could still replace smaller players with Towns and double him up when needed.
Wolves believers: If I were you, I probably would not raise a series in which Gobert stuffed Moran under the basket and Memphis lost in five games. In any case, as much as I loved Vanderbilt, putting Gobert in his place made the Wolves harder to stop. Its gravity rolling towards the rim changes everything and I can’t wait to see how Chris Finch uses it and Cat together.
Skeptic Wolves: Gobert is an amazing dartboard, but there is no book about him. In particular, in the playoffs, teams will switch his screens with the ball and bet that they will not be penalized for this. Minnesota might try a 4-5 pick and roll, but it won’t work the way it did when Finch was in New Orleans with Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. Towns can spread the floor as Gobert rolls towards the rim, but I’m not sure he’ll be thrilled to spend more stuff parked behind the three-point line.
Faithful Wolves: The last thing I’m worried about is that Finch is turning KAT into an all-out (fantastic) shooter. He can shoot movement and open up on-screen shooters, and he will still get a lot of touches when Gobert is either blocking the ball or hovering in a dunk spot. The fact is, the Wolves have options, including a destructive pick-and-roll game. Obviously Gobert will make D’Angelo Russell better, and I’ll be shocked if he doesn’t immediately turn Edwards into an All-Star. All this, however, is nothing compared to the transformative effect that Gobert will have on the defense. Let me guess: don’t you think the best defensive center of his generation will make a difference?
Skeptic Wolves: Oh sure, he’ll make a difference. I never trusted Minnesota’s super-aggressive pick-and-roll scheme last season, but I like it better as a change of pace. When Gobert is on the floor, I assume he will be under fall protection most of the time, so the Wolves can stay out of rotation, protecting glass and paint. This does not mean that protection will path better than they were last year though – they’ll cause fewer losses playing this style and they can be downright awful when Gobert isn’t on the floor. This doesn’t mean they just added Gobert; the trade cost them Patrick Beverley and Jarred Vanderbilt, two of their top defensemen.
Faithful Wolves: They also added Kyle Anderson and I expect Edwards to beef up his perimeter defense now that Gobert is behind him. When they decide to play the way they played most of last season, they could put out insanely long lineups of a combination of Jayden McDaniels, Anderson and newcomers Wendell Moore and Josh Minott. To be honest, Minott reminds me a lot of Vanderbilt on defense. He is pure chaos.
Skeptic Wolves: If the Wolves are as good as you think, then the 26th and 45th picks won’t be in the draft. And while they can put in a bunch of long, versatile defenders, they can’t do that without sacrificing distance. Anderson’s signing made more sense prior to Gobert’s trade; opponents will collect paint every time they are together on the court. More broadly, I see six players of starting caliber in this roster and a handful of guys that I would love to have on my bench, but I don’t see a close-knit final roster that would intimidate the best teams in the West. If Finch finds one and that group becomes a real contender, give him Coach of the Year.
Curiosity: Josh Minott
Minott is built specifically for the buzz on the internet. In his only season at Memphis, he averaged just 14.5 minutes, but his advanced stats were insane. John Hollinger ranked him 10th on his board.. In the summer league, he looked like a man who should have been taken much higher. Although he wasn’t all that effective, his 3-point shots were encouraging and he always came out on top.
For all his length and athleticism, I have no idea if Minott will play meaningful minutes as a rookie. McDaniels, Anderson and Tauryn Prince are certainly ahead of him in the rotation, and Connelly also picked up ex-Nugget PJ Dozier. However, there is a positive side to this, and I like the idea that Minott and McDaniels are flying at the same time.
Bryn Forbes, who followed Denver’s Connelly, made 41.6% three-point shooting last season and 46.3% the previous year. One little thing to watch out for: Forbes is running around screens set up by Townes and Gobert.