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The Bigger They Are … the Harder the Fit

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Before giving up on a near-unprecedented catch to pull off what NBA general managers voted the most unexpected move of the offseason: the Minnesota Timberwolves brain trust put life with Carl-Anthony Towns playing alongside Rudy Gobert in the most practical way. “You just go through it,” says Tim Connelly, president of basketball at Minnesota. “OK, we’ll play this is team. What will it look like at the end of the game? How do we match? Together, the Minnesota staff took team after team to consider how its hypothetical new frontcourt would perform against every opponent in the league. Where it can be stretched, and where it can dominate.

“That was the fun part of the process,” Connelly says. “To see what basketball really looks like.”

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The Wolves weren’t necessarily going to trade Gobert. They didn’t even target any specific skill set. After an exciting postseason comeback, the promising team saw a critical moment in their path forward and decided to bet on the best possible improvement. So the Minnesota staff started at the top of the NBA, figuring out which of the elite players might be available, and then worked backwards to figure out what those stars could bring to one of the league’s most exciting young clubs. They settled on a three-time Defensive Player of the Year who could revolutionize team coverage and then moved heaven and earth and future elections make this vision a reality.

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But while Gobert is a huge upgrade to what was already a winning roster, his addition represents one of the biggest fitness questions in modern NBA history. Last season, Towns played close to defenseman Jarred Vanderbilt and produced promising results. The addition of Gobert takes the same formula in a much more extreme direction – openly challenging a league that’s getting smaller with each postseason. The dynamic is so complex that the Wolves front office sought blessings from its All-NBA center before trading it for another.

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“We wanted to make sure that Carl had the same vision,” says Connelly, who was lured out of Denver in the offseason with another flashy signing. Considering the news of Gobert’s deal broke almost simultaneously with the news that Towns was renewing a four-year, $224 million supermax extension, it’s safe to say the star and franchise have found their way into alignment.

“My job is to help him as much as he can help me,” Townes said of Gobert this summer at his renewal press conference. “His strengths are my weaknesses and his weaknesses are my strengths.”

If only it were that easy. Pairing a center back of all time with one of the most talented forwards in the game may seem easy, but putting such a large size on the floor is always a bit of a burden – in a way that, at the very least, Towns and Gobert need to rethink the way they do it. they move across the floor. Tracks to the basket are reduced. Defense missions become less comfortable. The most rudimentary moves suddenly require deliberate planning and the precision of a Swiss watch to keep two of the best centers in the world from accidentally colliding with each other.

“The biggest key,” says Timberwolves coach Chris Finch, “is making sure these two feel comfortable being apart.”

Minnesota’s new grand strategy was at times downright overwhelming in the early games – powerful that few can match. Then, after a few minutes, the same line-up turns into a mess without any hint of discernible fluidity, much like a team that barely had time to split the court in full uniform. The Wolves play four games of the season and are already falling behind. The training camp didn’t go according to plan from the start, when a throat infection left Towns hospitalized and then bed rest. Before the start of the season, Minnesota’s outstanding colleagues had only one performance and several training sessions together to experience one of the most difficult basketball agreements.

Of course, there are easier ways to tackle smallball in the NBA than flanking your 6’11” center with a 7’1″ center. But there’s also no real substitute for how a gigantic lineup, if all goes according to plan, can dictate the terms of each possession. “I think we have different tendencies in the league,” Gobert says. “But if people start believing that size isn’t important in a game like basketball, I think they’re stupid.” The long-suffering franchise is banking on just that. All the Wolves have to do now, with a huge bet on the prevailing wisdom of the sport, is figure out exactly how it should work.

Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

The sluggish summer months gave the Minnesota coaching staff an opportunity to look back to where the two-big-man squad It has worked. Every pair of big players that have found a way to play together has something to offer, even if it’s just a positioning trick or the basis for a standard game. It’s instructive to watch Tim Duncan and David Robinson spin around each other, even in a completely different NBA at very different intervals. There’s a lot to take away from how Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan found common ground for a Clippers team that is in the top three offensively for four seasons in a row.

“I think we have one anomaly,” says Wolves assistant coach Mika Nori, “that these guys can’t shoot basketball like a CAT.”

While Towns was recovering from the infection, Minnesota made do with the camp, using a variety of stunt doubles. Sometimes it was standout forward Naz Reid, or playmaker (and rookie) Kyle Anderson, or even teen forward Taurean Prince. However, you can combine the skill sets of all three of these players, mixing in the absolute best of what each has to offer, and still not come close to what the Towns can do.

Minnesota wouldn’t even consider trading for a center like Gobert if it wasn’t for Towns’ wide range of skills on the perimeter – clean shooting, show-and-go drive, natural passing ability. However, there’s a fine line between using these talents and relying on them to the point where they corner Towns. “We have to remember not to cannibalize the CAT,” says Finch. However, there will be times when Townes will be asked to stand out on the perimeter and leave space on the floor for the simple reason that he can.

It’s not necessarily so bad for self-proclaimed the best big man shooter of all time. What’s even more troubling is that Towns, while making room for Gobert, sometimes lost plot in the remainder of his scoring play. The problem seems largely rhythmic – the versatile star seeks, sometimes too desperately, the natural rhythms of attack in constant motion. So far, he has converted an uncharacteristic 46 percent of his arcing shots, though that number tends to increase as the Wolves find their way. It was inevitable that one of Minnesota’s two centers would have to drastically change his game to make room for the other. Townes, for his part, never doubted who it would be.

“I didn’t do anything but adapt and change,” says Towns. “I don’t think there is any player in the NBA, let alone a star, who had to change his game as much as I did every year to benefit the team.”

In his seven seasons in the league, Towns has played under four head coaches and with an ever-changing number of teammates. He’s seen too many losing seasons and too many promising ones thwarted by injury, inexperience or Jimmy Butler. And every time the Wolves tried to reinvent themselves, Townes was asked to do something new. Bet more (or less), pick up a new defense scheme, take your game in a completely different direction.

“And I will continue to do so,” he says, “until this shirt is taken off me.”

In fact, Gobert played the same style under the same coach throughout his time with the Jazz, rising to stardom alongside Townes. In that time, he has become the flag bearer of Utah’s life—a symbol of continuity that has delivered six straight playoff berths and a slew of regular season victories.

“The best developmental stories are when you can turn a guy into a role and into a culture,” Finch says of Gobert’s time in Utah. “Jalen Hurts is an example of that right now. Let him do what he can and then just build him up from there and gather the pieces around him to support it.” However, there are trade-offs to be made with such a systematic approach, including the limitations that have kept Gobert in the shadows on the jazz offensive year after year. The three-time All-Star is so rooted in Utah that he occasionally daydreams about what a different role might look like.

After the first game in which the two Minnesota star players played together as teammates, Towns casually mentioned that Gobert, who averaged just 7.7 shots per game last season despite leading the league in field goal percentage, “underutilized” the Jazz’s offensive play. . I later asked Townes why he thought that, and he corrected me. “I don’t count,” he said. “I knew“.

“He’s one of the most efficient NBA players we’ve ever seen,” Towns explained. “So it seems pretty obvious that if you’re one of the most efficient players the NBA has ever seen, you should probably hit the ball a little…


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