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Is Rudy Gobert the missing piece in a Wolves championship puzzle?

Suffice to say that trading for Gobert last week – the deal was made official on Wednesday – represents the most high-stakes gambit the Wolves franchise has executed since KG was drafted.

Rudy Gobert is signed through the 2025-26 season.
Rudy Gobert is signed through the 2025-26 season.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Is the acquisition of Rudy Gobert the biggest gamble in the 34-year history of the Minnesota Timberwolves franchise?

You can get cute with the answer. You can say that the very founding of the Wolves was an audacious wager, given that original owners Marv Wolfenson and Harvey Ratner were relative paupers in the realm of major pro sports franchise ownership. A couple of childhood friends from North Minneapolis, they cobbled together the $32.5 million franchise fee that was accepted by the NBA in April 1987, and little more than a year later, in a stunning show of fortitude and naiveté, bankrolled the construction of a $104 million arena – Target Center – with a pittance of public assistance. Less than a decade later, they were in over their heads and forced to sell the franchise to Glen Taylor for $94 million.

Or how about Kevin McHale and Flip Saunders drafting a kid right out of high school to play in the NBA in 1995; the first time that had happened in 20 years? Doubts about Kevin Garnett making the leap were pervasive, but by his second season he began leading the Wolves to what would become eight straight seasons in the playoffs. By contrast, in the 19 seasons when KG was not a member of the Wolves, the team has made the postseason twice.

Suffice to say that trading for Gobert last week – the deal was made official on Wednesday – represents the most high-stakes gambit the Wolves franchise has executed since KG was drafted. You can point to the money if you like – the Wolves will pay Rudy Gobert more money, $170 million over the next four seasons, than it cost Marv and Harv to join the NBA and build Target Center – but in the greater context of things, the dough is just a means to an attitude, a seismic change in the culture. Getting Gobert was a message as much as a transaction.

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The Wolves would not exist were it not for the heedless gumption of Marv and Harv. They would not have generated the vast majority of their still-meager achievements and lasting memories had they not drafted Kevin Garnett. Now, new owners Marc Lore and (to a much lesser extent) Alex Rodriguez, are not waiting to take majority control from Taylor before radically transforming the approach and expectation level for how they want this Wolves franchise to be regarded in the community, and in the NBA at large.

Go big or go home … broke

The pros and cons of this impetuous effort are stark, sizable, and thus easily defined. In Gobert, the Timberwolves acquired one of the top two or three defensive players in the NBA, a player who has blocked more shots, grabbed more defensive rebounds, and led his team to more wins than anyone in the league over the past four seasons.

The Wolves accomplished this without relinquishing any of the top four players on their roster.

This broad base of talent is remarkably secured. Gobert is signed through the 2025-26 season. The new contract extension inked earlier this week by Karl-Anthony Towns runs through the 2027-28 season. The NBA’s collective bargaining agreement enables the Wolves to offer third-year players Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels significantly more money than other teams when they are allowed to extend them beyond their rookie deals after the 2023-24 season, meaning they could be around through KAT’s tenure. Among the Wolves top five, only D’Angelo Russell, whose contract expires at the end of this upcoming season, is not solidly in the fold.

But this long-term accrual of top-end talent comes at a steep cost on and off the payroll ledger. The total amount owed to Gobert and KAT is nearly half a billion dollars, $453 million and change. If Edwards and McDaniels continue the upward arc of their development, it is not unreasonable to expect them to cost a combined $40 million per season after 2023-24. In other words, the Wolves are going to blow a big hole through the salary cap and likely become repeat residents in luxury tax territory, being compelled to pay significantly higher penalties each succeeding season they remain above the luxury tax threshold.

In additional to the financial penalties, teams paying the luxury tax are significantly constricted from adding new players who aren’t paid a minimum salary. (There is a biannual exception to sign players in what is now a $6-$7 million per year salary range.) This lack of flexibility is especially relevant to the Wolves, who mortgaged their future for Gobert via a phenomenal amount of draft capital. Their top draft choice in last month’s draft, Walker Kessler, was part of the deal. They also traded rights to their first-round picks in 2023, 2025, 2027 and 2029. If the pick in 2029 lands in the top 5 via the lottery, the Wolves get to keep it, but the other four picks are unprotected. In addition, Utah has the option of swapping their pick with the Wolves pick in the 2026 draft.

The Gobert trade also cost the Wolves some very valuable current assets. Those going to Utah included veteran guard Patrick Beverely and power forward Jarred Vanderbilt, the two players most responsible for setting a tone for the aggressive defense that defined the Wolves identity through the first half of the season and provided a faith and resilience foreign to almost all previous Wolves teams over the past decade. Also traded was Malik Beasley, the backcourt sharpshooter who broke the franchise record for made three-pointers in a season while pouring them in with 37.7% accuracy. Young guard Leandro Bolmaro was a less painful final piece of the package.

The bottom line here is that the potential upsides and downsides of the deal are blatantly obvious and pretty tangible. Anyone who says with any certainty that they know which way the balance between risk and reward is going to tilt is blowing smoke.

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What’s striking is that even though the Wolves retained their top four player-assets from last season, the addition of Gobert will still create enormous changes in how the team operates on both defense and offense moving forward. What follows are my impressions on what could be the key factors that determine how this shakeup pans out on the basketball court and in the locker room.

Going big against the trend

The NBA is a collectively weird beast because it is a copycat league that rewards successful trends and because those trends have become increasingly fluid. The smaller, scrambling defenses successfully deployed by both championship finalists Golden State and Boston made that already popular style more in vogue. Suddenly everyone wants wiry, athletic wings who can switch on and off opponents from every position out on the court.

Except, suddenly, the Timberwolves. Their two best, most expensive players are big men who have exclusively (Gobert) and almost always (KAT) played center for most of their careers. The biggest critics of the Wolves acquiring Gobert either point to the smorgasbord of assets required to get him and/or the absurdity of doubling down on bigs in a league now geared toward better enabling smalls.

It’s a legitimate point, but prone to overreach. Gobert’s critics persistently claim that he has been “played off the court” in the playoffs by teams that flood the floor with outside shooters and dare him to venture outside the paint. KAT’s critics persistently claim that he lacks the speed and athleticism to effectively patrol the paint and will be even more exposed contending with power forwards. They collectively scoff at the notion that the pair can effectively co-exist on defense.

Much of this criticism relies on half-truths that ignore context. Gobert guards opponents on the perimeter as well as or better than any 7-footer in the NBA. But he can’t guard every position and the paint at the same time. Utah’s starting guards, Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley, are both undersized at 6-foot, 1-inch and notoriously terrible defenders to boot. Forward Royce O’Neal is small at 6-feet, 4-inches and Bojan Bogdanovich is 6-feet, 7-inches and slower to close out and recover than Gobert. Yes, Dallas had a bevy of three-points shooters in the playoffs, but all but one were at least 6-feet, 6-inches, and their leader, point guard Luka Doncic is 6-feet, 7-inches and excels at orchestrating both in the paint and on the perimeter.

At 6-feet, 9-inches and just 21 years old, McDaniels will arguably become the most versatile and capable perimeter defender Gobert has ever played with in his 10th NBA season next year. Edwards showed flashes of quality defense. Even with Utah’s putrid crew on the court, Gobert led the Jazz to the 10th best defensive rating in the NBA last season, and Utah ranked third, 13th and second in that category the three seasons prior to that.

The transition of KAT to power forward is frankly more problematic, although critics who claim he is a poor defender didn’t pay enough attention to how much he improved when the Wolves took him away protecting the rim in drop coverage and let him engage the pick and roll at the point of attack further out from the paint last season. During the offseason in the summer of 2021, he lost weight, strengthened his core, and became quicker and more versatile. To the extent that he helped form the “high wall” of aggressive ball pressure and then recovered back to help in the paint, he shows promise as a defensive power forward.

From the time he took over as the Wolves new president of basketball operations in May, Tim Connelly has intimated that KAT is best at power forward – and backed up that sentiment first by drafting the center Kessler with his top draft pick and then trading for Gobert. After Wednesday’s press conference introducing Gobert, he referenced KAT playing well in two-big lineups alongside Gorgui Dieng and Taj Gibson as further evidence of his belief.

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Chris Finch shares the sentiment. At the same Wednesday press conference his calling Gobert a “seamless fit” and a “perfect fit at the perfect time” for the Wolves felt like he was passive-aggressively protesting against critics of the double bigs scenario. But he is also the one who successfully unlocked better defense from KAT by removing him from a predominant rim protection role.

I believe KAT can fulfill the defensive duties asked of power forwards as recently as two or three years ago. But now almost every team utilizes rapid ball movement around the perimeter, interspersed with multiple probes of the paint that lead to drive-and-kick actions to free up outside shooters. To effectively defend those schemes requires at least four defenders flying around in switches, closeouts and recoveries on a continual basis as the shot clock ticks. KAT’s improved fitness helps here, but his huge, size 20 feet and overall mediocre athleticism restricts his effectiveness even if his heart and soul are engaged.

This weakness is far from fatal. A glaring issue for the Wolves defense last season was allowing opponents to extend their possessions because they couldn’t secure the defensive rebound. Now they have the most prolific defensive rebounder in the game, who also happens to be an intimidating shot-blocker that will provide confidence and a safety net for McDaniels, Ant and DLo, enabling them to be more aggressive as they fly around. All that said, however, the extent to which the Wolves can limit and then interrupt those half-court passing marathons against quick, wing-oriented opponents who shoot accurately from outside will go a long way toward determining the success of a Gobert-KAT lineup at that end of the court.

Apportioning the goodness of a glorious offense

Gobert’s reputation is on the defensive end – he’s been named Defensive Player of the Year three of the past five seasons – but I am actually more bullish on how he can upgrade the Wolves offense. While his shooting range is very limited – he rarely if ever attempts three-pointers – he led the NBA is field goal percentage and will establish a presence in the paint that will enable KAT more freedom to shoot from outside, where he shot 40% or better from behind the arc four of the past five seasons. Gobert is also physically and technically superb at setting screens and statistically was the best big man at executing the pick-and-roll play last season, with an NBA-best 1.32 points scored per possession on that type play.

This is ideal for DLo, who excels at initiating the pick and roll. It is easy to dream about him dribbling down and initiating a pick and roll with Gobert on the left block. Consider his options from there: Feed the uber-efficient Gobert for a lob or slam, pull up for one of his patented midrange jumpers, swing the ball to KAT for a trey above the break, and whip it over the weak side where Ant can drive before the defense has a chance to reset itself. McDaniels can hang in the corner or crash the boards in case the defense somehow manages to deny all those possibilities.

In a vacuum, you would run this action over and over. But these Wolves don’t operate in a vacuum. They have a head coach who isn’t partial to the pick and roll – KAT and DLo didn’t run it all that often even though KAT had a very good rate of 1.2 points per possession on pick-and-rolls. Finch prefers his first principles on offense—move the ball and move without the ball. When I asked him on Wednesday about changes to the defense and offense to accommodate Gobert, he replied that the offense wouldn’t change very much, but did say he looked forward to moving Gobert around more, like out on the perimeter where he and KAT could engage some two-man actions, probably akin to what Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic did under Rick Adelman. Remember, few coaches have schemed for big men more assiduously than Finch, who had Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic together briefly in Denver and then Boogie Cousins and Anthony Davis when he was the offensive coordinator in New Orleans.

Beyond Finch’s preferences, there is a political dynamic to consider that could be significant, involving the division of usage between Ant and DLo. Just as KAT’s ability to defend as a power forward is an inflection point for these Wolves on defense moving forward, the ability to foster more of a playmaking role for Edwards is an inflection point for their offense now and in the maximized future.

Any objective observation of the Wolves’ peak potential inevitably factors in the emergence of Ant as perpetual All Star and do-everything playmaker along the lines of Jason Tatum or Paul George. That is the most logical path toward the toughest hurdle – evolving from formidable contender to NBA Champion. Marc Lore, Tim Connelly and Chris Finch didn’t commit themselves to this risky Gobert trade to stall out in the conference semifinals.

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The rub here is that DLo is currently the Wolves best pick-and-roll ball handler and also currently on the last year of his contract. If he flourishes in what is offensively a perfect situation, he probably retards the development of playmaker Ant. He also raises his value – great for the trading deadline in February, perhaps, but what if the Wolves sensibly opt to maximize Ant instead and DLo’s capability isn’t fully explored? An unhappy DLo on a team without PatBev in the locker room is not an enticing prospect.

Thin margins under pressure

For the first time in decades, if not the first time ever, the Wolves are being managed by people who want to take a big swing, make a splash and aggressively seize opportunities that don’t necessarily provide an overwhelming chance of success. The good news is that Connelly and especially Finch inspire confidence in their ability to be clear-headed yet still creative in a pressure-cooker environment. The bad news is turbulence under pressure increases the chances for a blown gasket.

Signing role players like combo forward Kyle Anderson right before the Gobert trade and three-point specialist Bryn Forbes right afterward create stronger contingencies beyond the talented core. But the usual mishaps – an injury, a personal issue, disenchantment over roles and pecking orders – become magnified when the stakes are higher and more people are watching. Because they have risked so much treasure to create a template that goes against the NBA grain, the Wolves will be one of the most compelling teams in the league this season. Along with the genuinely curious, there will be plenty of skeptics and meme-laden social media leeches who would love to have their bias against Gobert and KAT and this reliably mock-worthy team in flyover country validated by a pratfall. And there is indeed a logical path that leads to those “I told you so’s.”

I’m not a fan of building super teams, and I don’t need the Wolves to claim a ring to enhance my joy of covering the NBA in this town. But I acknowledge that there is a sizable chunk of the fan base that has been craving this big swing for many years now. And while the Gobert acquisition isn’t ideal – certainly not as “perfect” as the Wolves organization claims – the timing here isn’t bad. The starting lineup is almost certainly the most talented in Wolves history, with the KG, Latrell Sprewell, Sam Cassell, Trenton Hassell, Ervin Johnson quintet (with Fred Hoiberg and later Wally Szczerbiak coming off the bench) in 2003-04 the primary competition.

All things considered, this is a 50-win roster, and that may be conservative. Yup, the pressure is on, but watching how Ant responds to it, and how Gobert and KAT coexist in it, is more alluring than figuring out the variables that put a Wolves team on the fringe of the playoffs, which has been, optimistically, the summertime drill, for too many offseasons.

There is a trap door. For whatever reason, if it all goes to waste, you unwind the gamble and get what you can for Gobert and KAT, and start to build around Ant and McDaniels. It won’t be as much as you initially gave, but neither will this team be otherwise high and dry.

That’s one of the hidden benefits of the big swing gamble. If it doesn’t work out, there is always another high roller anxious to take their shot. For now, however, we are on the cusp of watching the perpetually downtrodden Timberwolves become must-see NBA hoops.