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The Timberwolves’ Big Gamble on Rudy Gobert

Minnesota paid a steep price to go bigger in a league that’s gotten smaller and more athletic.

Lord knows it’s tempting to ponder and speculate whatever Kevin Durant’s next stop will be. The oversized domino hasn’t tumbled yet, like the entire NBA seems to be waiting on it to do. But that’s given us plenty of time to hear the array of possibilities that might lie ahead for one of the greatest players of his generation. Phoenix. Miami. Toronto. Perhaps even Golden State, which would be even more surprising this time around than it was the last time.

Since we have no idea when Durant might be traded, or even when Kyrie Irving might be dealt, perhaps it makes more sense to talk about the last blockbuster that did go down.

That, of course, would be the one in which the Timberwolves essentially gave up five first-round picks—three of which are totally unprotected—a pick swap and three high-level rotation players in the deal for three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert.

Much like we saw with the Hawks’ deal for San Antonio’s Dejounte Murray, it was certainly a haul that the club sent over to get its man, perhaps even more so in Minnesota’s case. There were two immediate apparent similarities in those massive trades. First, both the Hawks and Timberwolves spent big to double up on the position their best players already inhabit. Secondly, they may have given us a new, enhanced indication of how hungry NBA teams might go about spending on credit. Put another way: It’s one thing to send over a boatload of picks, but it’s far riskier to throw them to another franchise with no protections at all. But it’s also a way to sweeten an offer beyond what another club might be willing to put on the table. (Perhaps it spared Minnesota having to deal someone like Jaden McDaniels to get it done.)

Rudy Gobert

The Jazz received a massive haul after sending Gobert to the Timberwolves. 

Still, I can be honest in saying that my first thought as the deal landed was, Damn, if this is what it takes to get Gobert, what on earth is someone going to sacrifice for Durant? (My second thought was: The Wolves did at least present this offer to Brooklyn to see what the Nets would say, right? And it turns out they did reportedly have talks.) Aside from loosening protections even more, a team can’t really throw that many more picks into the fray. The only real thing the Nets could ask for more of is talent, presumably meaning a bonafide young star, along with a youngster or two that has star potential and the aforementioned haul of picks.

In any case: the Timberwolves’ gamble is a fascinating one. It could undoubtedly lift them into contention to win the Western Conference, yet at the same time, no one would argue it makes them the likeliest or even second- or third-likeliest to reach the Finals in the next year or two. That trajectory could change with time, obviously. Budding star Anthony Edwards won’t be old enough to legally drink for another month from now, and Karl-Anthony Towns turns 27 this fall. Prior to executive Tim Connelly’s recent arrival, the Wolves finished seventh, 13th and 10th, respectively, in the league in offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency and net rating—numbers that historically have signaled a team that’s on the brink of true contention.

The calculus has shifted now, though. Aside from shuffling the deck by sending out key players in Malik Beasley, Patrick Beverley and Jarred Vanderbilt, Minnesota has gone against the grain in an enormous way.

Two years from now, once Towns’s supermax extension kicks in, he and the 30-year-old Gobert will be making almost $94 million a year by themselves. Almost nine figures per season devoted to two men who, generally speaking, both play the center position. That doesn’t even factor in Edwards, who is well on his way to earning a max contract, too.

It’s often said that Gobert by himself—his shot blocking, his shot deterrence—is a top-10 defense. Just add water. That was the case this past regular season, even as Utah’s perimeter defenders resembled Swiss cheese most nights. But as we’ve seen a couple times now in the postseason, for how otherworldly Gobert is at protecting the paint, he can only do so much at times when a guard gets a full head of steam toward the basket and has a stretch big or open teammate in the corner. The Clippers utilized small ball to perfection in 2021, and then Jalen Brunson and the Mavs proceeded to spread the Jazz out, too, with Maxi Kleber and Davis Bertans wreaking havoc as beneficiaries of repeated drive-and-kick opportunities.

And it raises the question: How would the Wolves, with Towns at power forward and Gobert at center, look against elite teams that vie to go small against them? Teams like the Warriors, the full-strength Clippers, the Celtics? The Giannis-at-the-five Bucks? A club like the Suns, should they land Durant? Would Minnesota be able to keep up the pace defensively in those sorts of matchups?

There’s also the somewhat fair question of whether the offense would always hum with a pairing like that. Some have critiqued the thought process to trade for Gobert, saying spacing will be an issue. I don’t know that I buy that, necessarily. Towns is a fantastic perimeter shooter for a big, and Gobert is a great screener and vertical spacer, along with being good on the offensive glass. The bigger challenge, I think, could be something I witnessed during my time covering the Knicks for The Wall Street Journal. Specifically, those New York rosters that trotted out both Amar’e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler—completely different players with very different skill sets. Stoudemire was one of the most accurate long-two shooters in the league; Chandler was an ever-present lob threat. But the similarity they shared was that each player was totally used to being a roll man. And, by definition, when they played together in New York, one of them generally had to play away from the ball when a set began.

That becomes my question here. Does Towns end up being underutilized in his minutes with Gobert for the same reason, or can the Timberwolves find a fix? (Another question: will Towns be able to punish the smaller defenders who will have to guard him now? He often looks uncomfortable or overly eager trying to back down smaller guards, and picks up offensive fouls, like he did repeatedly in the play-in game and in the first round versus Memphis.) Will Gobert assume the dunker spot when Towns is serving as the roll man on screens? If not, where will Gobert be, and will the defense really even have to pay attention to him?

Assuming he’s back D’Angelo Russell will have a lot of responsibility in sussing everything out to keep the offense flowing, as will Chris Finch and the Wolves’ coaching staff. But they absolutely have the talent to be a 55-win team in the regular season. The bigger question is whether their new alignment—and the highly unusual nature of it in today’s NBA—is destined to come up short repeatedly in the postseason. And if it does, Connelly and the Wolves may come to regret the steep, steep price they paid to go bigger in a league that’s gotten smaller and more athletic.

Meat and potatoes: Good reads from SI and elsewhere this past week

Mercury center Brittney Griner looks on during the first half of Game 2 of the 2021 WNBA Finals.

Brittney Griner said she fears being detained indefinitely in Russia.

  • I’ve mentioned and linked to stories about her several times in recent weeks, but want to lead with it here. Yesterday, WNBA star Brittney Griner—who’s now been held for 139 days in Russia—penned a handwritten letter to President Joe Biden, in which she said she fears being detained indefinitely in Russia.

This all stands out to me a lot, because a couple months ago, as details of Griner’s detainment first trickled out, we all heard that folks in her circle preferred to keep relatively quiet concerning the ordeal, worrying that too much noise would make the scenario worse.

For Griner to personally plead for help from the president strikes a much different tone. It’s desperate, and given the situation—one where Russia may very well be holding onto her for bargaining purposes in the midst of the war with Ukraine—that desperation seems warranted.

Barring any news, we'll be taking a summer break for a bit. In the meantime, be sure to keep up with me at @Herring_NBA on Twitter and with the rest of my colleagues at @TheCrossover. And, if you have any questions, please don't hesitate to email Thanks for reading.