Wolves mailbag (part 2): How does D’Lo benefit from the addition of Rudy Gobert?

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This is Part 2 of the Timberwolves 2022 Summer Mailbag. Click here if you missed the first. We are grateful to everyone who contributed questions and comments. Interacting with intelligent, engaged fans is one of my favorite aspects of my job.


The DLo saga

If the Wolves have the potential to (pick and roll with) Rudy Gobert/DLo Russell (D’Angelo Russell), should they consider resigning DLo in the offseason? Adam Edison @AdamEdison7

Do you think DLo will be gone next year? What are your options for dealing with the excess cap space that DLo will free up next summer? – Nathanial Renteria @rencito_4040

The biggest question mark for the Wolves roster is DLo. What are your predictions about his tenure/contract? – Ballin Benz @benz_ballin

The Timberwolves’ blockbuster deal for Rudy Gobert has helped to stabilize their core talent and accelerate their rebuild into “win-now” mode over the next four season. Karl-Anthony Towns and Gobert are twin marquee bigs who have been signed for four years and five years, respectively. Jaden McDaniels and Anthony Edwards are beloved assets and budding talents in their 20s. They will transition from their rookie contracts to more lucrative deals that should keep their team members on the team at least as long.

The future of D’Angelo Russell, point guard, is an intriguing mystery with many possible outcomes. He can be a great fit, but he can also cause havoc.

I have written extensively about the DLo situation. I will now explain how we got to this point. DLo stated that he hoped the Wolves would extend his contract because of the quality of his play at the beginning of the last season. His performance was a confirmation of both his hopes and fears.

He was a gifted passer and ball-handler on offense but sometimes he would get lost in the details of shot selection. Although his shooting was not as accurate as it was in his career, he was a skilled crunch time scorer and was still very fearless. He used his brain and scholarship to analyze and respond to opponents’ play-sets. This was especially useful when the Wolves began to ambush teams with their aggressive and opportunistic approach. His on-ball defense was poor and his physicality was unmotivated. This made him a weak link in teams’ understanding of the Wolves’ aggressiveness and helped to reduce its chaos later in season.

Ironically, his playoffs defense improved even though his offensive woes became the dominant narrative. He had torched Memphis in regular season and the team devoted much attention to his game at that time. In the end, he was removed from the game. He was not offered a contract extension even though KAT (whose contract expires one year later) was offered the “super-max extension” he earned by being named to the All-NBA Third Team.

Prior to the Gobert trade, it was unclear when, but not if, DLo would be removed from the team. He was unable to sign the maximum contract that he signed three summers ago. This is widely considered an overpay. It was a sign-and trade meant to facilitate Golden State and Brooklyn, as Kevin Durant was moving to the Nets. The Wolves wanted to trade him this summer at the February trading deadline or wait until the contract expires next summer to either let him go or make another deal-and-trade.

However, Gobert’s presence on the Wolves roster will significantly increase DLo’s productivity and value in Minnesota. Gobert has been a skilled pick-and-roll player, and is undoubtedly the best and most efficient roll man in the NBA. Gobert’s exemplary rim protection provides his teammates with a safety net in case their man passes them and heads to the hoop. DLo is the best matador mitigation.

Gobert’s acquisition has made it less offensive to think about overpaying DLo because of the win-now mindset. You’re already “all in” when you have punted the top seven players in your rotation and five first-round draft selections. This makes it an acceptable cost to stockpile talent rather than waste time looking for alternatives.

However, there are still many questions and contingencies. Chris Finch is not a fan of pick-and-roll offenses. Finch prefers a quicker pace and rapid ball movement, which is despite the fact that DLo enjoys playing cat-and mouse with opposing defenses. Finch also wants to keep focusing on ball pressure even though Gobert is the safety net. This isn’t DLo’s forte. Finch mentioned specifically on-ball defense in comments to Chris Hine, Star Tribune beat writer, earlier this month.

Last but not least, can the Wolves realize Edwards’ full potential as an all-purpose playermaker if DLo is their point guard?

The dominant subplot is “Can the Wolves play two big men in a small league?”. This season, DLo’s performance and role on the Wolves will be compared to the “can they play two large men in a small league?” question. I believe that DLo will be successful on offense – he had a career high in assists last year, even with a good dose of pick-and-roll plays. It would be smart for him to reduce his shot selection and to use his playmaking skills to help Ant, particularly in the crunch time. The guy is very gifted and has the support of players who can give him the space and options to make the offense tick.

However, DLo should improve his on-ball defense in order to be able to extend his contract. He has the brains and the skill set; now he needs to put in the work. An Ant-like DLo who plays league-average defense, and helps to run the offense, is more valuable than any cerebral but indifferent defender or ball-dominant floor-general we’ve seen over the past few seasons.

There is a common interest. If the Wolves rise in the standings, DLo’s worth will increase as either a trade item in February or a free agent next year. The Wolves have the most leverage. If DLo fails to maintain the balance necessary for the Wolves’ success, he could find himself in the middle of his career looking at a pay cut via the free agent market.


Define success

How can you determine if the Gobert deal was a success? To justify trading Gobert, how many playoff series must the Wolves win? – Paul Mueller @cspPaul

What is the smallest achievement the Wolves need to accomplish in the next 3-4 year period to make the Gobert trade worth it? – kunal @kunanmahesh7

These two words capture the feeling of a host of questions about the benchmarks that we may want to set to determine the ultimate success of Gobert’s blockbuster.

There are certain tangible ways to view this. It’s all about the bottom line. Does the Gobert trade bring in more revenue than it costs? You must also consider ongoing fan loyalty, engagement, and merchandising sales.

You are asking me this question so I will personally answer it. I want high-caliber, captivating hoops. I would prefer a Wolves season that saw them lose seven games in the conference semifinals to one where they won the conference finals. Or, to put it another way, the highlight of the Tom Thibodeau/Jimmy Butler peak season was not Houston’s one-off win, but Taj Gibson’s saving Game 82 from Nikola Jokic and sending the Wolves into the playoffs.

It’s not about the destination, but the journey. Even though I said that, I still appreciate the connection: A shorter destination reduces the enjoyment of the journey. You are more likely to have memorable experiences if you travel longer.

Most will consider the Gobert deal a failure if the Wolves don’t make it to the second round in the playoffs for the next four seasons. What if the deal provides the right pitch, grease and ramp to elevate the future play by Ant and McDaniels.

This means that I am not very helpful in these “boom-or-bust” thought experiments. Most fans agree that a trip to conference finals is the minimum standard of success for Gobert. This was the farthest the Wolves have ever been in franchise history. It happened in 2004.

To add to the buzzkill, I have to remind you of the sentence at the beginning of this mailbag. The roster churn in NBA is too dynamic for any kind of prediction about what will happen two or three years down the line. Therefore, I prefer to focus on the short-term and the positive side. We have seen a major change in the Wolves’ regime, which has been the biggest win-now blockbuster franchise history. This increases the drama and excitement and makes the unknowns more important. That tonic will be mine.


Another potential star

It was great to see McDaniels grow in their ability to cut and create down the stretch this year. Do you think Gobert’s gravity will cause problems for McDaniels, and Ant to a lesser degree? – jmag @jmag21

Will we be concerned about Jaden’s 3-point percentage if it doesn’t get very close to 40%? Chris and Christy @chris_n_christy

Chris Finch loves Jaden McDaniels. Finch was not afraid to compare McDaniels potential to Scottie pippen when he interviewed him in Las Vegas a year back. Finch was there to help McDaniels after a terrible start to the 2021-22 season. He pulled him from the starting line, encouraged him (told McDaniels he was more that a three-point shooter) and continued to expose McDaniels to high-leverage situations. McDaniels was a man of faith, encouraging McDaniels to continue his improvement and expanding his skills. No Timberwolves were more at ease competing in the playoffs.

McDaniels will be more benefited than DLo by Gobert’s arrival. McDaniels will be the most benefited player, as he is only two months away his 22 nd birthday. He also weighs in at just 185lbs on his 6-foot, nine-inch frame. Basketball Reference reports that he was able to play power forward and center for 78% and 67% of his NBA season’s minutes, respectively, in his rookie and second seasons. His natural position of small forward allowed him to play only 28% of his time on the court.

McDaniels will be able to pick apart players of his size, particularly on defense, and McDaniels will also have the support of a big brother who will protect his rims most of the time. In this mailbag, one of the questions was “What aspect of the Gobert deal am I most excited about?” McDaniels’ defense of opposing playmakers at the perimeter is a high priority for me.

He will be the fifth option in the offensive lineup. This should give you an idea of how great the Wolves are at that end. After a 36% result in his rookie season, his accuracy dropped to 31.7%. Yes, Gobert will be on the court.

McDaniels has gained muscle definition and maturity, and will no longer be subject to the bullying and punishment that were a result of the difficult situation in which he was placed the previous two years. Blame Gersson Rosas, former team president and his dislike for power forwards. Rosas was the one who drafted McDaniels. The Wolves added two more first round picks to Utah as a sweetener, rather than parting with McDaniels in the package for Gobert.

McDaniels will be deployed by Finch in a different way than I know. He is, at the very least, the “minor piece” that transforms a B+ team to an A-team. He will be an indispensable cog in the Dallas team, much like what Mikal Bridges does with Phoenix. Finch is a master tactician and is already thinking about Pippen.


Quick hits

Other than trading KAT, which other “outs” does the Wolves have? (or at least what the front office thinks they have) if Rudy’s plan goes sour? @jakebanderson32

It is difficult to know how or why things would turn out differently. However, I felt that the “two timelines” theory was too simplistic and was pleased to see Tim Connelly acquire a veteran aged 30 years despite having two starters ages 20 (Ant), and 21 (McDaniels). The Wolves are a problem both in the short-term as long-term because of their inability to develop.

However, if injuries, lack of depth, or failure of KAT or Gobert to make the dual bigs lineup function, the front office would not have any problem unloading either or both bigs and building around them with draft picks.

There has been a lot of talk about Gobert’s ability to improve the lives of those around him. Wolves fans are excited for Gobert/DLo pick-and-rolls. Do you know of any other obvious ways he will help our offense? Gobert is a genius at offensive analytics. Why? – Buddakao @Buddhakao

Gobert is a very efficient scorer, and analytics are often focused on efficiency. Gobert’s shooting percentage has always been at or near the top in the NBA.

Straight screens by Gobert, in addition to pick and roll, are extremely effective. His technique is amazing. This is an area of hoops the Wolves have missed for many years. KAT is not good at timing or maintaining his screens correctly. Finch spoke of Gobert being used more at the high post and around the perimeter. This will likely be oriented towards dribble-hand-off (DHO), actions – think of how Gorgui Dieng helped Zach LaVine. Ant will be freed up by Gobert, who will give him the opportunity to jump off the curl or beat a big off of the dribble.

Gobert’s rebounding skills and rim protection are key to his offense. The best way to score is through transition. Sweating shots and grabbing defensive rebound are more efficient than making basket shots or inbounding. Gobert’s dominance in the defensive glass allows his teammates to get out early for transition opportunities.

What do you think of the Wolves signing Boogie Cousins with them? – Benzo @158Wolves

It’s disgusting. It doubles down on the big-man emphasis, takes up usage on a player with no long-term future, and adds an unreliable locker guy to the mix.

What do you find the most rewarding about covering the Wolves/NBA? And what are the worst aspects? Comment by Jeff Germann, Minnpost

It is amazing to watch the most talented athletes on the planet play the best game. I also enjoy the opportunity to witness the changes in the game and surf alongside serious media that covers it with more nuance, depth and flair than when I started doing this. The core writers and talkers of the Wolves beat are an example of this.

Hucksters and conmen who trade in stupid speculation for clicks or other useless attention are the worst. To stoke egos and to fill wallets, the cynicism necessary to convince the gullible with bullshit or other forms of disinformation stains basketball. This is the exact opposite of what makes basketball so beautiful.

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