The Minnesota Timberwolves have found a remedy for the malaise of mediocrity that plagued the team throughout the first seven weeks of the season.
Keep more than $400 million worth of All-Star talent on the sidelines.
The Wolves are paying center-forward Karl-Anthony Towns approximately $232 million over the next five years, and center Rudy Gobert about $169 million for the next four. And yet, with first KAT and now Gobert waylaid with injuries, the Wolves are playing a more joyful, aesthetically pleasing, and above-all, more successful style of hoops. They have morphed from turgid, talent-laden underachievers into scrappy underdogs.
The Wolves have won six of 10 games since KAT went down with a significant calf strain. They have won three in a row since Gobert joined him on the injured list with a sprained ankle suffered on Dec. 14. They have responded with a throttle-tromping salvo of synergy, bursting forth on the court with the pent-up joy of a jailbreak.
Better yet, this giddy-inducing display of teamwork does not feel like a fluke. On the contrary, it is being led by the player with the highest potential ceiling of anyone on the team, 21-year old Anthony Edwards. Since he was drafted with the top overall pick in 2020, the blossoming of Ant into a bona fide superstar has been the capstone to any legitimate scenario where the Wolves ascend into championship contention.
Since KAT went down, Ant has averaged 24 points per game by shooting 42.4% from three-point territory and getting to the free throw line seven times per game. Of course putting the ball through the hoop is second nature to Ant – it is the well-rounded, subsidiary enabling that is cause for excitement. He’s notched 6.6 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 2 steals per game over the past 10 contests, numbers that swell to 10.3 rebounds and 9 assists since Gobert joined KAT among the injured three games ago; gaudy marks further abetted by his 27.7 points, 45% shooting from long range and 7.7 trips to the free throw line. He has also become more engaged on defense.
During the off-season, there was plenty of chatter about Ant making the proverbial “leap” that frequently happens in the third year for players who become superstars. While the sample size is still not large enough for concrete conclusions, Ant’s play certainly looks to be in mid-air ascension, which is one of the most beautiful and encouraging sights for a team’s fan base to behold.
Fundamental flaws exposed
The quickening of Ant has been the most spectacular crescendo amid the waves of good tidings and crisp execution that have suddenly seized this short-handed Wolves roster. But beneath the roar of the surge and the surf, a harsh undertow lurks, one that threatens to sap and then subsume the whole feel-good enterprise of the past three weeks.
The sobering fact is that the elevated joy and competence of recent Timberwolves basketball has exposed some fundamental flaws in the way this roster was rebuilt this past offseason. The makeover required a fairly phenomenal loss of then-current and future assets that are probably impossible to fully recoup. The sheer magnitude of the investment will prompt the team’s front office and coaching staff to be stubborn about staying the course on their preseason plan. But the inferior product that has resulted when the Wolves have been at “full strength” is too obvious to ignore.
Some sort of reckoning between the original grand design for the 2022-23 season and the fantastic offshoot that has blossomed via serendipitous necessity will likely consume the deep winter nights in the months to come. It will be a fascinating, risky, difficult process.
Let’s get specific. The blockbuster July 1 trade for Gobert was controversial for two reasons. First was the treasure sacrificed to make it happen. Three of the Timberwolves top seven players in terms of minutes played were dealt, including three-point specialist Malik Beasley, spiritual team leader Patrick Beverley and inexhaustible bloodhound Jarred Vanderbilt. (Prospect Leandro Bolmaro was also in the mix.) To that add on five first-round draft picks, including the Wolves 2022 selection, center Walker Kessler, and top picks in 2023, 2025, 2027 and 2029. (Gobert’s former team, the Utah Jazz, also has the option of switching places with the Wolves in the order of the 2026 draft.)
The second source of controversy was the fit. Although there are some prominent counter-examples, the NBA has been steadily trending toward more “space and pace,” with a premium placed on athletic, medium-sized wing players who can race up and down the court, switch assignments easily on defense and shoot from three-point range. By contrast, the Wolves were pairing two players who do not fit that quick, versatile, athletic prototype. Instead they were gambling that the fewer but more elite skills that KAT and Gobert possess could become so complementary and overwhelming that other teams would be the ones who had to adjust.
By all accounts, both new president of basketball operations Tim Connelly and holdover head coach Chris Finch truly believed (and presumably believe) that the rewards will outweigh the risks and spent resources involved in the deal. In a nutshell, they rightfully regard Gobert as among the top two or three rim protectors and rebounders in the NBA, two areas where the Wolves were notably deficient last season. On offense, they correctly noted that Gobert is the most efficient shooter in NBA history because of his ability to finish on the pick-and-roll and turn offensive rebounds into tip-ins and lay-ups.
The problem is that the various skills of five players on a basketball court don’t fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Among the many potential impediments are the chemistry factors of pecking orders and human nature, the history and habits developed on differently configured rosters, and the ever-evolving levels of expectation and maturity among players, coaches, front office and fan base. All of these have sabotaged both the perception and the reality of the trade’s benefits at different points in this still-young season.
Offensive possessions are a zero-sum game
On offense, Finch and Connelly reasonably believed that swapping in an elite finisher like Gobert for a player with the unreliable hands and a shaky shot of Vanderbilt would be a huge upgrade in the “dunker’s spot” down near the basket. But they failed to fully comprehend how much Gobert would displace the existing positions and rhythms that could be deployed around Vando last season.
Vando is a worker bee who knows his primary skill is the sweat equity of hustle. Because his hands and shot mechanics were dubious, he would have to earn every touch of the ball; mostly by chasing it down, stealing it, flying in to rebound it, or cutting in from the wing or the baseline to be wide open near the hoop. Which is all to say that Vando could be ignored, even as his constant movement created space for his teammates.
By contrast, Gobert lives in the painted area on both offense and defense. He is extremely good at the timing and mechanics of the pick and roll and expects the ball when open on the roll. He is reasonably good at the combative art of “sealing” his defender down low, and expects the ball when he’s won that battle. Gobert and Finch also believe he has other offensive skills to “unlock” that were miraculously overlooked during nine years of refining his game in Utah, eight of them under the same coach, Quin Snyder. Last but not least, an elite defender like Gobert automatically deserves to get repaid with some attention at the other end of the court.
There are a raft of problems with all of this. The Wolves went from a guy who could be totally ignored on offense while he spaced the floor and triggered constant movement, to a guy who needs to be fed, especially on set plays and situations, and spends almost all his time stationed in the paint or setting screens before rolling to the paint.
The displacement value of this ripples throughout the roster. There has been much talk about KAT’s adjustment to play out in space as a power forward on defense, but being the power forward beside Gobert on offensive also has its challenges. Per basketball-reference.com, only 20.8% of KAT’s field goal attempts have been within three feet of the rim this season, way below his career mark of 32.8% and his previous low of 28.5% in the 2020-21 season. Meanwhile, KAT is now much more likely to be guarded by a more mobile power forward on the perimeter, which is at least somewhat of a factor in his career-worst 32.5% accuracy, way below his career average of 39.3%.
More to the point, KAT can’t freely pick and choose whether to post up or deal on the perimeter without factoring in Gobert presence. And he’s not the only one caught in a more regimented offense. Point guard D’Angelo Russell, widely thought to be the biggest beneficiary of Gobert’s arrival due to his own abilities initiating the pick-and-roll, confessed recently that his slow start to the season, especially in terms of shooting, had to do with the perceived need to get Gobert and KAT their touches instead of being more freewheeling with his options.
The bottom line is that there are only so many possessions – and player-touches on those possessions – in a single game. Coming into the season, the Wolves had four starters who needed and wanted the ball, and even the fifth, small forward Jaden McDaniels, had improved his offensive arsenal enough to increase his usage at that end of the court.
Drop versus fly around
We’ve dealt with the difference between the “drop coverage” defensive scheme that best utilizes Gobert’s elite rim protection and the “high wall” scheme that enables defenders to be more active and aggressive going for deflections and turnovers while risking lapses in rim protection. Last season, led by the energy of Vando and the leadership of PatBev, the Wolves excelled at the high wall but couldn’t play drop or most any other scheme very well.
This season, Gobert has held up his end of the bargain as a superb defender. But that leaves KAT needing to cover a lot more ground defending on the perimeter, and for the backcourt of Ant and DLo to be much more disciplined and rugged staying with their man so they can’t flood Gobert in the paint with dribble penetration, and being physical on the pick-and-roll so Gobert has clearcut options on how best to react.
The reality has been that KAT is predictably too slow in space and too frequently reverts to paint-centric coverage out of habit; and that DLo and Ant have generally done such a poor job containing the man with the ball that Finch opted to concentrate more instances where teammates switch assignments on the fly rather than stay with their man, and on defending a zone instead of a player.
These adjustments don’t really allow for the kind of “fly around” mentality that Finch favors, something the “high wall” actively promotes. After the Wolves thumped Dallas on Monday night for its third straight win without either KAT or Gobert I asked Finch about that fly-around factor and how the presence of the bigs affects it.
“Yes, with KAT we use more switches that doesn’t create fly-around situations, and with Rudy, he plays back in pick-and-roll situations mostly. The one thing with the drop coverage is it does make you static sometimes. And those are habits we have to get better at,” he replied.
When I asked if he thought there was a connection between flying around on defense and moving the ball more on offense—a contagious pace—he answered, “Might be. If the ball moves, one thing I learned early in the league is players are driven by the opportunity to touch the ball. The more they touch the ball on offense the more commitment they have defensively, and even if they are a defensive stopper they still need the opportunity to feel the ball on offense.”
Addition by subtraction
What is striking about the three games without either Rudy or KAT has been the return of that fly-around mentality at both ends of the court. While the Wolves have been deprived of the elite skills of their two All-Star bigs, they also enjoy less regimentation and freedom from the duties imposed in order that two expensive players are properly fed on offense and adequately supplemented on defense.
DLo and Ant have become dual combo guards, their roles flowing fluidly between point guard and shooting guard. Despite the fact that his skills are more accomplished as a passer than as a shooter, DLo has steadfastly sought to claim that combo designation, and it is hard to argue with the results. While playing in eight of the Wolves last 10 games, he averaged 23 points on shooting splits of 53.9% from the field, 46% from three-point range and 81% from the line. In a stirring win in Utah, he scored 19 points in the fourth quarter, and 30 in all, while registering only two assists. By contrast, he had 10 dimes and merely 15 points in a home victory against Memphis.
But, as mentioned earlier, it is Ant’s emergence as an all-around playmaker that is the headline out of this ten-game stretch. Thirty games into Year Three, having faced copious pressure from double-teams as his scoring has become more refined, he is ready to seize his “point guard” stints.
On Sunday night, Ant and DLo collectively torched the Chicago Bulls, racking up 65 points and 19 assists while the Wolves erupted for a franchise-record 150 points and finished with the second-highest true shooting percentage, 78.7%, in NBA history. In the locker room after the game, an ebullient Ant explained that, “A while back I’d be in the corner and come off, just thinking ‘shoot.’ But now I’m on the ball every time so I get to see everything. It is pretty dope. Like, I’m having the most fun I’ve ever had playing basketball.”
And true to Finch’s dictum that more offensive touches generates more defensive aggression, Ant (and to a lesser but important extent, DLo) has up his defensive intensity and effectiveness. Back to playing the high wall scheme, he is filling gaps, getting steals, and blocking shots, including a game-changing block against Thunder star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in OKC and a marvelous snuff job in the paint against 6-10 forward Christian Wood of Dallas last night.
Two more honorable mentions must be meted out. First to Naz Reid, who didn’t hang his head when the trade for Gobert effectively foreclosed his role in the rotation absent of injury. Instead, Naz lost weight, worked on his craft and his quickness and become the most improved player on the roster this season. His talents as a fly-around big man in the high wall scheme never shown as bright as his sterling work against the Bulls on Monday, when he consistently showed hard on the high pick-and-roll against Mavericks star Luka Dončić, then recovered rapidly back to his man. Incredibly enough, it is hard to imagine either Gobert or KAT fulfilling that duty as capably in that scheme under those circumstances.
Oh, and Naz has averaged 21.7 points per game, while shooting 63.4% from the field and 53.8 from deep starting at center these past three games. Over that time, the Wolves have outscored their opponents by 52 points in the 89 minutes Naz has been on the court, and been outscored by 17 in the 55 minutes he sat.
Second, backup guard Austin Rivers has been played his complementary role to optimum effect. Like forward Kyle Anderson, Rivers has played big moments for winning franchises, has a high court IQ, and doesn’t need touches or attention to be effective. His outside shooting and on-ball perimeter defense have been aces and his fiery temperament have filled some of the void left behind by PatBev without strain or slavish imitation.
Rescuing the trade
There is no sugarcoating it: Right now, the optics on the Gobert trade make it look like a horrible miscalculation. But abandoning the experiment this early in the process, after so much has been sacrificed, would compound the incompetence.
Bottom line, the Wolves have to retain their fly-around spirit without thoroughly short-changing the potentially enormous advances they bring to the hardwood.
Finch is no dummy. He’s already thinking of potential tweaks. After Ant and DLo destroyed the Bulls on Sunday, I pointed out that where KAT and Gobert require a steady diet of touches, Anderson and McDaniels need very few, and wondered if that freed the guards to be spontaneous.
“It has certainly helped them find their rhythm – their rhythm together (and) their rhythm individually,” he replied. “From the beginning of the season you’ve heard me say that the bigs have had their own rhythm when they’ve played together. The key is when we all get back together, we’ve got to marry it up. We can learn some lessons with our spacing. We didn’t come into the season intentionally trying to make KAT just a corner spacer, but I do believe we have to take way more advantage of his shooting and just maybe parking him in the corner at times.”
Right now, the talented Wolves roster is enduring a troubled marriage—a situation helpfully put in stark relief by their glorious performances of late. Saving the union will require extensive counseling, but with a four-year window on the Gobert-KAT pairing, the airborne Ant, and the mortgage of many future assets, the Wolves have plenty of time to get it right. Because the divorce would be exorbitantly expensive.