Is Rudy Gobert’s acquisition the greatest gamble in the 34-year history Minnesota Timberwolves franchise?
It’s possible to be cute about the answer. It’s possible to say that the founding of the Wolves was an intrepid wager given that Harvey Ratner and Marv Wolfenson were poor in the world of pro-sports franchise ownership. They were childhood friends from North Minneapolis. Together they gathered the $32.5 million franchise fee, which was accepted by NBA in April 1987. A year later, in a remarkable show of fortitude, naivete, they bankrolled the construction a $104million arena, Target Center, with very little public assistance. They were out of control a decade later and had to sell the franchise for $94 million to Glen Taylor.
Flip Saunders and Kevin McHale drafted a high school student to the NBA in 1995, the first time this had ever happened in twenty years. There were many doubts about Kevin Garnett’s ability to make the leap, but his second season saw him lead the Wolves to eight consecutive seasons in the playoffs. The Wolves have made the playoffs twice in the 19 seasons KG wasn’t a member.
It suffices to say that Gobert was traded last week – it was officially announced on Wednesday – and this is the highest-stakes deal the Wolves have executed since KG was drafted. The money can be cited if you wish – Rudy Gobert will receive $170 million more from the Wolves over the next four seasons than Marv and Harv spent to build Target Center. But in the larger context, the dough is a means to a change in attitude and culture. Gobert’s acquisition was as much a message than a transaction.
Without the unflinching gumption of Harv and Marv, the Wolves wouldn’t exist. Without Kevin Garnett, they would not have made the most of their still-small achievements and created lasting memories. Marc Lore, Alex Rodriguez and, in a lesser degree, Alex Rodriguez are now the majority owners of the Wolves. They will not wait to take over Taylor’s majority control before changing the way the Wolves franchise is viewed in the community and the NBA.
Be big or go home… broken
These impetuous efforts have many pros and cons. They are large, significant, and easily defined. The Timberwolves have acquired one of the best defensive players in the NBA in Gobert. He has been a blocker, grabbed more defensive rebound and led his team’s four-season winning streak.
This feat was achieved by the Wolves without having to give up any of their top four players.
This wide range of talent is extremely secure. Gobert will be signed through the 2025/26 season. Karl-Anthony Towns has extended Gobert’s contract through the 2027/28 season. The collective bargaining agreement with the NBA allows the Wolves to offer third year players Anthony Edwards, Jaden McDaniels more than other teams. They are also allowed to extend their rookie contracts after the 2023-24 season. This means they could continue to be around during KAT’s tenure. Only D’Angelo Russell is among the Wolves’ top five players, and his contract expires after this season.
This long-term accumulation of top-end talent comes with a high cost. KAT and Gobert owe nearly half a trilliondollars. This amount is $453 million and changing. It is reasonable to assume that Edwards and McDaniels will continue their upward spiral of development. They could cost $40 million each season after 2023-24. The Wolves will blow a huge hole in the salary cap, and they will likely be repeat residents of luxury tax territory. They will have to pay much higher penalties for each season that they are above the threshold.
Teams that pay the luxury tax have to limit the number of players they can add. There is an exception that allows players to be signed in the $6-$7million per year range. This is particularly relevant for the Wolves who borrowed a lot of draft capital to mortgage their future. Walker Kessler was their top draft pick in the last month’s draft. They also traded their rights to their first round picks in 2023-25, 2027, 2027, and 2029. The Wolves can keep the 2029 pick if it lands in the top five via the lottery. However, the Wolves cannot protect the four other picks. Utah also has the option to swap their pick with the Wolves draft pick 2026.
The Wolves also lost some valuable assets in the Gobert trade. Jarred Vanderbilt and veteran guard Patrick Beverely, who were the most important players in setting the tone for aggressive defense that defined the Wolves identity throughout the first half of the season, and which provided faith and resilience unlike any other Wolves team over the past decade, were both traded to Utah. Malik Beasley was also traded. He was a backcourt sharpshooter and broke the franchise record for making three-pointers in one season, while shooting them with 37.7% accuracy. The package’s final piece was Leandro Bolmaro, a young guard.
Bottom line is that there are obvious upsides and disadvantages to the deal. Anybody who claims they can predict which direction the balance of risk and reward will tilt is lying.
It’s remarkable that the Wolves have retained their top four players-assets from last year, but Gobert’s addition will make a huge difference in the way the team functions on offense and defense. Here are my thoughts on key factors that could determine how this shakeup plays out on the court and in the locker area.
Going big against
Because it rewards success and those trends have become more fluid, the NBA is a strange collective. Both the Boston and Golden State championship winners successfully used smaller, more agile defenses to make this style even more popular. Everyone wants athletic, wiry wings that can quickly switch between any position on the court.
The Timberwolves suddenly appeared. The two most valuable players in their team are large men who almost always (Gobert) have played central for most of the time. Gobert’s acquisition by the Wolves is criticized for the large number of assets needed to acquire him, and/or the absurdity in double-dipping on bigs in an league that is now more geared towards enabling smalls.
This is a valid point but it’s easy to get carried away. Gobert’s critics claim that he was “played off court” by teams that flood the court with outside shooters, daring him to venture out of the paint. KAT’s critics insist that he lacks speed and athleticism to efficiently patrol the court and will be more exposed when competing with power forwards. They laugh collectively at the idea that they can co-exist on defense.
Half-truths that disregard context are a major source of criticism. Gobert defends his opponents from the perimeter just as well or better than any other 7-footer in NBA. He can’t protect all positions and the paint simultaneously. Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley are both 6-foot-1-inch, and notoriously bad defenders. Forward Royce O’Neal, at 6’4″, is smaller than Bojan Bogdanovich, who is 6’7″ tall and 7’7″. Bogdanovich is also shorter and more difficult to recover and close out than Gobert. Dallas had several three-point shooters in the playoffs. However, all except one were below 6-feet and 6-inches. Their leader, Luka Doncic, is 6-feet and 7-inches tall and excels at orchestrating from the perimeter and in the paint.
McDaniels, who is just 21 years old and 6-foot-9-inches tall, will undoubtedly be the best perimeter defender Gobert has ever seen in his 10th NBA Season next year. Edwards displayed glimpses of high-quality defense. Even with Utah’s pathetic team on the court Gobert led Jazz to the 10 th highest defensive rating in NBA. Utah was ranked third, 13 th, and second in this category in the three previous seasons.
KAT’s transition from power forward to KAT is more difficult, but critics who say he is a poor defensive player didn’t pay enough attention how much he improved after the Wolves removed him from protecting the rim with drop coverage and allowed him to engage the pick-and-roll at the point of attack farther out of the paint. He gained weight and strengthened his core during the offseason of 2021. He also became more agile and quicker. He is a promising defensive power forward, as he was able to create the “high wall” of aggressive pressure ball and then recover to help in the painting.
Tim Connelly, the Wolves’ new president of basketball operations, has insisted that KAT is the best power forward since May when he assumed the role. He first drafted the center Kessler with the top draft pick and then traded for Gobert. He also mentioned KAT’s performance in the two-big lineups with Gorgui Dieng, Taj Gibson and Taj Gibson at Wednesday’s press conference to introduce Gobert as evidence of his belief.
Chris Finch agrees with the sentiment. On Wednesday, Gobert called Gobert a “seamless match” and a perfect fit at the right time for the Wolves. It felt like he was passive aggressively protesting against the double bigs situation. He is also the one who removed KAT from his dominant rim protection role to unlock better defense.
KAT is capable of fulfilling the defensive duties required of power forwards, as I believe it can. Almost every team now uses rapid ball movement around their perimeter. This is interspersed by multiple probes of paint that lead to drive and kick actions to help free up outside shooters. As the shot clock ticks, you need at least four defenders to defend these schemes. They must be able to switch between closeouts, recoveries and switches on a regular basis. KAT’s increased fitness is a plus, but his 20-foot stature and mediocre athleticism limit his effectiveness, even though his heart and soul are fully engaged.
This is not a fatal flaw. Last season, the Wolves defense was plagued by opponents extending their possessions when they couldn’t get the defensive rebound. They now have the best defensive rebounder in the game. Ant is an intimidating shot-blocker, which will give McDaniels, Ant, and DLo confidence, allowing them to fly more aggressively. However, it is important to note that the Wolves’ ability to limit and interrupt half-court passing marathons against fast, wing-oriented opponents that shoot accurately from the outside will play a significant role in determining whether a Gobert/KAT lineup is successful.
Taking the glory of a great offense
Gobert’s reputation on defense is strong – he was named Defensive Player-of-the-Year three times in the past five seasons. But I’m more excited about how he can improve the Wolves’ offense. His shooting range is limited, he rarely attempts three-pointers and he is not a good shooter. However, he is the leader in the NBA’s field goal percentage. This will allow KAT to shoot more from the outside. He shot better than 40% from behind the arc four times over the past five seasons. Gobert is also a skilled screen-setter and was statistically the best big man in the NBA at picking-and-roll plays. He scored an NBA-best 1.32 points per possession.
This is a great position for DLo who is a master at picking up and rolling. It’s easy to imagine him dribbling down and initiating the pick and roll with Gobert on his left block. You can think of what he could do from there. He could feed Gobert for a lob, slam or slap, then swing the ball to KAT for an ace above the break. Ant will be able to drive it over the weak side before the defense has the chance to reset. McDaniels has the option to hang in the corner, or crash the boards if the defense fails to recognize all of those options.
This action would be repeated in a vacuum. These Wolves are not able to operate in a vacuum. Their head coach isn’t a fan of the pick and roll – KAT, DLo and DLo did not run it very often despite KAT’s excellent rate of 1.2 points per pick-and-roll. Finch prefers to follow his first principles of offense, which is move the ball and not the ball. On Wednesday, Finch answered my question about the defense and offense changes necessary to accommodate Gobert. However, he said that the offense would not change much but that he was looking forward to moving Gobert more. He suggested that he could move Gobert out to the perimeter so that he and KAT could engage in some two-man activities, similar to what Kevin Love did under Rick Adelman. Finch was one of the few coaches to have worked more hard for large men than any other. He had Yusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic in Denver, and then Boogie Cousins in New Orleans.
Finch’s preferences aside, there is a potential political dynamic that could be important. It involves the division of Ant and DLo usage. As KAT’s ability as a power forward to defend is an inflection for these Wolves on defense moving ahead, Edwards’ ability to foster a more playmaking role is an inflection for their offense now as well as in the maximized.
An objective assessment of the Wolves’ peak potential will undoubtedly factor in Ant becoming a perpetual All Star and do everything playmaker, much like Jason Tatum or Paul George. This is the logical way to overcome the hardest hurdle: becoming a formidable contender for NBA Champion. To avoid being left out of the conference semifinals, Chris Finch, Tim Connelly, and Marc Lore didn’t make this risky Gobert deal.
The problem is that DLo, currently the Wolves’ best pick-and roll ball handler, is also on the final year of his contract. He can flourish in an offensively perfect environment, but he may hinder Ant’s development. His value also rises – which is great for February’s trading deadline, but what if Ant’s potential is not fully explored by the Wolves? A team with no PatBev is not a good place to have a unhappy DLo.
Margins under pressure
The Wolves are now being managed by people who want a big swing, to make a splash, and take advantage of opportunities that may not necessarily offer a great chance of success. Connelly and Finch, especially, inspire confidence in their ability be clear-headed but still creative in a pressure cooker environment. Unfortunately, turbulence under high pressure can lead to a blown gasket.
Role players such as Kyle Anderson, a combo forward, and Bryn Forbes, a three-point specialist, were signed right before the Gobert trade. This creates stronger contingencies than the core. When the stakes are higher, more people are watching, the chances of mishaps like an injury or a personal problem, disenchantment about roles, and falling behind in pecking order, are magnified. The Wolves are one of the most intriguing teams in the league, having spent so much money to create a template that is against the NBA grain. There will be many curious people, as well as skeptics and meme-laden social media laeches who would love to see their biases against Gobert and KAT and this consistently mock-worthy team in flyover land validated with a pratfall. There is a path that leads to the “I told you so”s.
I am not a fan building super teams and I don’t need the Wolves for a ring to increase my joy of covering this NBA game in this city. However, I do acknowledge that there is a large portion of the fan base who has long longed for this big swing. While the Gobert acquisition may not be ideal, and certainly not as perfect as the Wolves organization claims, the timing is good. This Wolves’ starting lineup has the KG, Latrell Sprewell and Trenton Hassell as the most skilled in Wolves history. The Ervin Johnson quintet was the primary competition in 2003-04, with Fred Hoiberg (and later Wally Szczerbiak) also on the bench.
This is a team with 50 wins, which may seem conservative. Yes, there is pressure. But watching Ant react to it and how Gobert, KAT and Ant coexist in it is more exciting than trying to figure out what variables put Wolves teams on the fringes of the playoffs. This has been optimistically the summertime drill for too many offseasons.
There’s a trap door. If it goes to waste for any reason, you can unwind the gamble, get what you want for Gobert or KAT, then build around Ant McDaniels. This team will not be as wealthy as you originally thought, but it won’t cost as much.
This is one of the hidden advantages of big swing gambling. It doesn’t always work out. There are always other high rollers who will be eager to get their shot. We are currently watching the perennially downtrodden Timberwolves make their way to the top of the NBA basketball ladder.