NBA

From Deep: Timberwolves are taking ‘Go big or go home’ quite literally

The Minnesota Timberwolves are thinking big, everybody. First, there was the big hire: A new president of basketball operations, lured from a Western Conference competitor. Then, the big trade, in which the big hire gave the Utah Jazz a big haul so he could pair an all-world big with another all-world big. 

Why give up so many draft picks? Because, in Tim Connelly’s words, “We felt like we took a huge step forward.” 

It’s a big risk, but it’s also a big statement! Connelly wants the Wolves to advance in the playoffs for the first time since 2004. They’re “trying to redefine how the league views us,” he said. 

So Rudy Gobert is in Minnesota, and Karl-Anthony Towns is going to start at power forward. Connelly is prepared for “some clunky moments initially,” but the bar has been raised. No longer will the Wolves have to scramble their way to a decent defense, making up for subpar personnel with aggression and activity. No longer will they be beaten up on the boards.

Last season, coach Chris Finch oversaw a transformation of sorts. Minnesota mucked the game up by forcing turnovers, crashing the glass and pushing the pace. Karl-Anthony Towns made his second All-NBA team, Anthony Edwards took over a playoff game and D’Angelo Russell quarterbacked the defense from the weak side. Now, with Gobert in the fold and several changes to the supporting cast, the Wolves must shift shapes again.

Connelly sees the 21-year-old Edwards as a potentially “transcendent” player and “all-league defender,” so he’ll be expected to make a leap. Jaden McDaniels, who just turned 22, will be expected to knock down 3s and fill in the gaps, with the consistency required of an every-night starter. Free-agent addition Kyle Anderson increases the Wolves’ collective length and IQ. Bryn Forbes brings movement shooting and Austin Rivers brings playmaking, but they’ll have to fight for minutes with the returning Jordan McLaughlin and Jaylen Nowell in the backcourt. Taurean Prince is back, too, so Finch will have options in the frontcourt.

It is Gobert, though, who gives Minnesota a different ceiling and a different kind of structure on both ends. He is an unconventional star, he might be precisely the one can cover up the shortcomings of this core. 

Does all of this add up to a legitimate contender in the crowded West? Well, that’s the big question.  

The conversation 

Wolves believer: I was thrilled when the Timberwolves traded for Jimmy Butler, but this is way better. Butler joined a team that had gone 31-51 the previous season; Rudy Gobert is joining one that went 46-36. Karl-Anthony Towns is four years older, and Anthony Edwards is ready for stardom. I’m sure you’re going to quibble with the price that they paid, but I don’t mind it — this team is going to be elite on both ends immediately. 

Wolves skeptic: Glad you brought up Butler. The Wolves gave up Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn and traded down in the draft to get him. They didn’t give up years of first-round picks, a swap and numerous role players on good contracts. The Butler era ended horribly, but, value-wise, it was a perfectly fine deal. When he was on the court in 2017-18, they had an elite offense and a very good defense. I see this year’s team being about the same, which would be awesome if they hadn’t given up so much stuff to get there. Edwards is 21! What’s the rush? 

Wolves believer: Why wait? This is not a rebuilding team anymore. The playoffs should have given the franchise more confidence in Edwards and motivation to improve immediately. It’s hard to imagine the Wolves losing the Memphis series if Gobert were in the middle — they wouldn’t have gotten killed on the glass, fouled like crazy or allowed so many shots at the rim. 

Wolves skeptic: I don’t know, Ja Morant didn’t seem particularly scared of Gobert in the 2021 playoffs. And I’m pretty sure the Grizzlies‘ defensive game plan would’ve been exactly the same with Gobert in Jarred Vanderbilt’s place — they still could’ve switched smaller players onto Towns and doubled him when necessary.  

Wolves believer: If I were you, I probably wouldn’t have brought up the series in which Gobert stuffed Morant at the rim and Memphis lost in five games. Anyway, as much as I love Vanderbilt, putting Gobert in his place makes the Wolves way harder to stop. His gravity rolling to the rim changes everything, and I can’t wait to see how Chris Finch uses him and KAT together. 

Wolves skeptic: Gobert is an awesome lob target, but the book is out on him. Particularly in the playoffs, teams are going to switch his ball screens and bet that they won’t be punished for it. Minnesota can try the 4-5 pick-and-roll, but it’s not going to work the same way it did when Finch was in New Orleans with Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. Towns can space the floor while Gobert rolls to the rim, but I’m not sure he’ll be psyched about spending more possessions parked behind the 3-point line. 

Wolves believer: The last thing I’m worried about is Finch turning KAT into strictly a (fantastic) spot-up shooter. He can shoot off movement and screen shooters open, and he’ll still get plenty of touches, with Gobert either screening off the ball or hanging in the dunker spot. The point is that the Wolves have options, including a devastating pick-and-roll game. Gobert will make D’Angelo Russell better, obviously, and I’ll be shocked if he doesn’t turn Edwards into an All-Star right away. All of this, though, is nothing compared to the transformative effect that Gobert will have on the defensive end. Let me guess: You don’t think the best defensive center of his generation is going to make much a difference there?

Wolves skeptic: Oh, sure, he’ll make a difference. I never trusted Minnesota’s super-aggressive pick-and-roll scheme last season, but I like it much better as a change of pace. When Gobert is on the floor, I assume he’ll be in drop coverage most of the time, so the Wolves can stay out of rotation, protect the glass and protect the paint. This doesn’t mean the defense will be way better than they were last year, though — they’ll force fewer turnovers playing this style, and they might be straight-up awful when Gobert is off the floor. It’s not as if they simply added Gobert; the trade cost them Patrick Beverley and Jarred Vanderbilt, their two best defenders.

Wolves believer: They also added Kyle Anderson, and I’m expecting Edwards to up his defensive intensity on the perimeter now that Gobert is behind him. When they decide to play like they did for most of last season, they can unleash crazy-long lineups with some combination of Jaden McDaniels, Anderson and the rookies: Wendell Moore and Josh Minott. Honestly, Minott reminds me a lot of Vanderbilt defensively. He is pure chaos. 

Wolves skeptic: If the Wolves are going to be as good as you think, then the No. 26 and 45 picks in the draft aren’t seeing the floor. And while they can put a bunch of long, versatile defenders out there, they can’t do it without sacrificing spacing. The Anderson signing made more sense before the Gobert trade; opponents are going to pack the paint whenever they’re on the court together. More broadly, I see six starting-caliber players on this roster and a handful of guys I’d be happy to have on my bench, but I don’t see a cohesive closing lineup that scares the top teams in the West. If Finch finds one and this group becomes a real contender, give him Coach of the Year.

The curiosity: Josh Minott

Minott is tailor-made for internet hype. He averaged only 14.5 minutes in his lone season at Memphis, but his advanced stats were insane — John Hollinger ranked him 10th on his board. At summer league, he looked like someone who should have been picked much higher. While he wasn’t all that efficient, his 3-point shooting was encouraging and he was always making things happen.   

For all of his length and athleticism, I have no idea if Minott is going to play meaningful minutes as a rookie. McDaniels, Anderson and Taurean Prince are surely ahead of him in the rotation, and Connelly picked up ex-Nugget P.J. Dozier, too. There’s upside here, though, and I love the idea of Minott and McDaniels flying around at the same time. 

One more thing

Bryn Forbes, who followed Connelly from Denver, made 41.6 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s last season and 46.3 percent the previous year. One small thing to watch: Forbes running around screens set by Towns and Gobert. 



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