Long-term prognostication in the NBA is a fool’s errand for the Minnesota Timberwolves, no less than the league’s other 29 franchises.
A year ago today, Gersson Rosas – then president of basketball operations – was still arraying the personnel on the Wolves roster, and Patrick Beverley had yet to be acquired for Jarrett Culver and Juancho Hernangomez.
As for short-term plans, this MinnPost 2022 summer mailbag was temporarily displaced by the seismic trade that brought Rudy Gobert to the Wolves –announced on July 1 and made official five days later. Now that we’ve had a little time to absorb that blockbuster and all logical signs point to a relatively tranquil period before the opening of preseason training camp in September, let’s get to the questions you’ve kindly posted in the comments to my previous column and at my twitter feed @brittrobson.
The thought, commitment, and sheer volume of your response continues to reinforce my belief that if you honor and respect the intelligence of your audience, they will reward you with a level of compassionate critical thinking that both inspires and educates. Even grouping them into themes – and splitting this mailbag into two parts – I can’t come close to a full airing of what you’ve provided. But they will help inform my coverage moving forward into the 2022-23 season.
With the new roster, who is the soul of this team, especially on defense? – Jim Beilby @jimbilbs
How significantly will the Rudy addition/PatBev/Vando (Jarred Vanderbilt) departure impact the Wolves preferred identity? I feel like scrappy/run-in-transition was fitting for their personnel. (But) is that change better for their incumbent personnel? – Delusional Wolves Optimist @OptimistWolves
What is your feeling about what adding Gobert will do to the Wolves chemistry? –Michelle Sichak @MichelleSichak
Every season brings a new identity – even when the roster changes are minimal, a parade of different circumstances alter the equation – but I understand the concern about what has been lost. I’ve frequently stated that the 2021-22 Wolves were my favorite team since the pinnacle squad that went to the 2004 Western Conference Finals. Beverley, Vando, and even seldom-used Josh Okogie generated a scrappy defensive mentality based on sweat equity that fueled the team’s early success as the offense struggled. Now all three are gone.
But let’s also put the mourning in perspective. Last year’s Wolves had an underdog mentality, made all the more appealing because it helped them overachieve like a fairy tale come to life. But that’s always when the fairy tale ends, because the second act needs a different kind of pixie dust. The bar was always going to be higher for the 2022-23 Wolves, and adding Gobert significantly ups the ante. And, uh, that’s not a bad thing.
With PatBev gone and Gobert the inevitable soul of this team on defense, the Wolves will be considerably less brash, but probably more effective, at that end of the court. Was it a joy to watch PatBev holler, and Vando scramble, helping the whole team scrap? Absolutely. This coming season, what Gobert brings to the court will almost certainly be less visceral on its own terms. But he was acquired to raise the stakes for this team to a level that provides a different thrill.
Gobert is not a scrappy underdog, he is an efficient lord of rim protection. That’s a step up on the food chain. Make no mistake: You don’t become the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year three of the past five seasons without a depth of grit and grind. Wolves fans who appreciate “the little things” should revel in the peripheral vision, timing, quickness and stealth that enables his efficiency at both ends of the court – he does his work early so he is in position to finish the job, often without scrambling.
But yes, inevitably, the chemistry changes. Franchises that flail for a long time and then boast a team that suddenly quickens, do so because of great chemistry. That was certainly true of the 2021-22 Wolves. So, what are the keys to good chemistry for the 2022-23 edition of the team?
First off, head coach Chris Finch needs to at least come close to repeating his sterling performance of a year ago by designing defensive and offensive schemes that best fit and motivate his players. His “high wall” defensive concept brilliantly boosted strengths and hid weaknesses last season. Second, Anthony Edwards needs to turn his teasing stardom into the real deal by becoming more consistent, mostly by increasing his attention span on defense and honing his shot selection and playmaking on offense. After a year apiece of mentorship by Ricky Rubio and Patrick Beverley, the training wheels on his leadership should come off, and if the initial ride is wobbly, patience is required.
Getting the roster-wide buy-in that occurred last season is probably too much to hope for. But the Wolves are stepping up in class to a proving ground that determines who and how much a player is willing to sacrifice to facilitate winning. That’s another reason to get excited about what lies ahead.
Maximizing KAT and Gobert together
Your biggest concern with the Gobert trade is KAT (Karl-Anthony Towns) (and his big feet) being able to get out to the perimeter and guard consistently as a 4 (power forward). If you were Chris Finch, how would you game plan with the current roster to protect KAT from getting burnt by smaller and quicker 4s? –Jarrett Olek in the comments section.
It is not so much KAT’s specific assignment on defense that concerns me; it is the rapid perimeter ball movement, interspersed with drive-and-kick action that is now a staple of half-court offenses in the NBA. The premise is the ball can move faster than the players and if a team is crisp and unselfish moving the ball, no amount of switching and diligent running can prevent an open look. KAT’s relatively slow foot speed exacerbates this challenge for the Wolves defense.
Finch stated, and backed it up with schemes, that he values rim protection over defending the three-point shot. That said, there are many opponents who will kill you from distance if you don’t reduce those open looks from behind the arc. Last season, Finch’s response was disruption – pressuring the ball and scrambling at the same time so that ball movement was difficult. But that occurred by having the center – KAT – come out and guard the pick-and-roll at the leverage point and having his teammates backfill to protect the rim from cutters. With Gobert at center, the Wolves will deploy the classic “drop” scheme of rim protection far more frequently.
If I’m Finch, I’m having my off-ball defenders jump the passing lanes on the perimeter, ideally hoping for steals but at least deterring the “round the horn” rhythm of ball movement. Sure, players can cut behind them, but that’s why you have Gobert in drop coverage. In this manner KAT can also be lurking to deter dribble penetration arising out of the jump-the-lane approach part of the time, and doing his own sell-out on the perimeter at other times.
The goal here would be to approximate the disruptive approach of the high wall from last season while taking advantage of Gobert’s rim protection, which increases the margin of error when you fail to contain your man on the perimeter. One good thing about this Wolves roster is that collectively they have tremendous wingspans, which generates coverage for deflections and sight obstruction even when the legs can’t get them there on time.
All that said, don’t be surprised if Finch comes up with something better.
How do you see the backup (frontcourt) minutes shaking out? How much of the game do you see KAT/Rudy sharing the floor? – Corey Hermanson @CoreyHermanson
In non-Gobert minutes, do you think Towns will be asked to play the same style defense as Gobert or will the defensive scheme depend on which center is in the lineup? – Jon Dale @JonRyanDale
In the modern NBA, you want your best players on the floor between 32 and 36 minutes per game. KAT and Gobert are obviously two of Minnesota’s best players. Just as obviously, how much they play together, how much apart, and which players fill the gaps when one or both are sitting, will be heavily dependent on the individual and synergistic caliber of their performances.
For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume that KAT and Gobert each average 34 minutes per game, and that they click well enough to share the floor 24 of those minutes. KAT would slide over to play center in 10 of the 14 minutes Gobert sits, leaving four minutes when the Wolves could either go small with Kyle Anderson at center, or plug in Naz Reid for light duty. That leaves 24 minutes to fill at power forward – 10 beside Gobert, 10 beside KAT and four beside Naz or smallball –from among Anderson, Taurean Prince and perhaps Jaden McDaniels, all of whom can also see duty at small forward, where McDaniels will normally play.
Because of their skill sets (shooting range and accuracy, defensive coverage area and tenacity) I like Anderson best beside KAT and Prince as a good pairing in the frontcourt with Gobert, although even under the best of circumstances, these pairings won’t be exclusive. We’re spit-balling here: Variables like injuries, foul trouble, fit, and schemes create a lot of noise for any theoretical rotations. I do believe that the schemes will generally flex depending on who is on the court, however, with drop coverage predominating with Gobert at center and the “high wall concept” being deployed more often when KAT is in the pivot or the Wolves are going small.
The crowded backcourt
I get a sense from Finch that he doesn’t trust (Jaylen) Nowell defensively or in critical spots during a game. With (Austin) Rivers and (Bryn) Forbes around, I’m hoping Nowell doesn’t disappear again. Thoughts? – Brian Morlach @BrianMorlach
If our plan is to stick with Nowell as our 6th man, how do we make room for both Forbes and Rivers? – T’Wolves Nation France @TWolvesNationFR
There was also a question (that I can’t find amid the multitude right now) worrying about Jordan McLaughlin being the odd man out in the backcourt logjam.
The arrival of Gobert bumps everyone down a position – KAT to power forward, McDaniels to small forward and Ant to shooting guard – putting a severe crimp in the amount of available backcourt minutes among the two guard positions.
I obviously don’t know what Finch is going to do – and all the earlier caveats among injuries, schemes, chemistry, etc., still apply – but there are some things I do believe hold more weight than others.
One is if Finch is a big believer in J-Mac (McLaughlin). Nobody pushes the pace better than J-Mac and Finch loves pace for both practical and motivational reasons. J-Mac also facilitates ball movement and movement without the ball, Finch’s two First Principles for offensive execution. Finch openly stated his regret about bumping J-Mac out of the rotation after that happened last season, and had enough confidence to insert J-Mac over D’Angelo Russell in the waning moments of a playoff elimination game.
So, given that DLo will/should flourish running the pick and roll with Gobert, I expect DLo and J-Mac to pretty much swallow up the point guard minutes.
It is true that Finch was been very straightforward and consistent in his criticism of Nowell’s defense last season. But after the press conference introducing the draft picks in June, Finch went out of his way to cite the development of Nowell as a crucial way for the Wolves to improve during the upcoming season, even stating that he thought Nowell’s defense had improved.
Granted, all this was before Gobert was acquired for, among others, long-range marksman Malik Beasley, and before Forbes (a long-range marksman) and Rivers (who raised eyebrows with quality defense on Steph Curry in last year’s playoffs) were signed to veteran minimum deals. But I think Nowell’s playmaking insulates him from getting shunted aside too much, provided he does demonstrate at least some improvement on Defense.
That leaves Forbes and Rivers fighting for scraps. It should be noted that both were part of the Denver Nuggets player rotation in the playoffs at the time when current Wolves president of basketball operations Tim Connelly was running the team. Of course the Nuggets were ravaged by injuries all season, but the abiding point is that Connelly sees value in both.
I prefer Forbes, who is a poor man’s Beasley in that he shoots the trey very well (if not quite on Beasley’s level) and is frequently exposed on defense, a la Beasley. Yes, KAT is a historically great three-point shooter for a big man, and Ant and DLo (and McDaniels, for that matter) all have the potential to improve on their inaccurate ways from distance last season. But there is no one off the bench guaranteed to space the floor as reliably as Forbes, and that alone should earn him a sliver of rotation time. My knock on Rivers is that he tries to do too much on the court, and lacks the self-awareness to throttle his usage when it is costing his team. But if he can continue to bolster a reputation for hounding quality perimeter scorers, he could find his way into the mix.
Assuming a four-year core of Ant, KAT, Gobert and McDaniels, go into the lab and create the perfect fifth player to complement that group in the closing minutes of a playoff game. – starksgm6 @starksgm6
Vintage Tony Parker or the Jrue Holiday of the 2021 NBA playoffs and subsequent Olympic Games.
In Mailbag Part 2: Delving into DLo’s role and future; determining what is required to make the Gobert trade a “success,” a little more scheme-talk, and some miscellaneous quick hits.