Let’s start with this: regardless of your feelings on Gobert and the price paid, this trade makes the Timberwolves arguably the most interesting team in the league next year (barring whatever happens with the Brooklyn malcontents).
First, there’s going to be a hilariously awkward reconciliation between the incumbent Wolves and their new teammate after several verbal jabs last season:
But assuming that won’t be a problem, the Timberwolves will now start the most offensively gifted seven-footer and most defensively dominant heptapod in the league. We haven’t seen a lineup like this since the 2011 Dirk Nowitzki/Tyson Chandler frontcourt, and for anyone keeping score, those guys won the championship.
But man, did Minnesota give up a lot. The total haul for Utah: three legit rotation players (Malik Beasley, Patrick Beverley, Jarred Vanderbilt); Walker Kessler and Leandro Bolmaro (the Wolves’ last two first-round picks); a pick swap; and four first-round picks (the first three are unprotected). I had to scrape my jaw up from the floorboards after reading the deets.
That’s one of the largest hauls for an individual player we’ve ever seen. Rudy Gobert is a generational defensive player with real offensive usefulness. But this price would feel more appropriate for Luka Doncic or Jayson Tatum. I just wrote a piece in which the thesis statement was, “Hope is a trap,” and I wondered if I should just re-run that article.
But hope springs eternal. There are differences between this and the Dejounte Murray trade, which saw a lesser but still-astronomical haul. For one thing, the Wolves’ ceiling is still more defined by Towns and sentient supernova Anthony Edwards. Both Towns and Edwards have MVP-candidate potential. Towns is just 26 somehow, barely entering his prime, and Edwards can’t legally order a drink for another month. They are already two of the best scorers in the league.
Atlanta has no real path to contention as of now. They have Trae Young (at least as flawed a superstar as KAT) and Dejounte Murray (who could turn into Jrue Holiday if things go well), and they’re still filling in the pieces around them without an easy path towards a third star. Minnesota would need a lot of things to break right, but if you squint into the future after a couple of Purple Rain cocktails, you can envision what propels this team to the conference finals: KAT shooting over smaller defenders, Edwards jumping through the stratosphere and then re-entering like a vengeful comet, and Gobert FORMING A F****** WALL by himself. It’s a hazy apparition, the miraculous desert oasis that turns into a mirage, but it sure feels real in the moment. People lost in the shifting sands don’t really have a choice but to chase it, right?
Gobert will single-handedly fix Minnesota’s interior defense, a blessing for a team that gave up the 10th-most shots at the rim and allowed buckets there at a below-average rate. Unlike Utah, Minnesota actually can surround him with some capable defenders at nearly every other spot on the floor if they choose: last year’s breakout defender Jaden McDaniels, Edwards (who possesses some of the league’s best physical tools at his position), and the recently added Kyle Anderson. Even much-maligned point guard D’Angelo Russell (who may still be traded) had the best defensive year of his life after coach Chris Finch moved him to a free-safety role.
The Wolves will need a completely different plan of attack when they have the ball; luckily, Finch is an offensive guru. Gobert has a vaguely insectoid shape, but his surprisingly wide base and everlasting arms make him the league’s best screener and a relentless lob threat. Edwards and Russell have never played with someone who can unlock them in the pick-and-roll like this before (will we see any KAT-Gobert big-big P&R? I can dream!). Although daring Wolves might see a more crowded paint when they drive, Gobert is one of the best offensive rebounders in the league. He’ll clean up any layups that spin softly away from the hoop and emphatically put them back in their place.
Let’s acknowledge cold, heartless reality for a moment. The downside risk on both sides of the ball is genuine. KAT is not the world’s nimblest defender, and he will struggle defensively with some of the better power forwards in the West or whenever an opposing team goes small. Gobert’s presence will clog up the paint for Edwards’ heads-down forays to the rim, and KAT will not be able to post as often as he did last season (although maybe that’s a good thing). Gobert isn’t as effective on any offensive possession not involving him in the P&R, so there’s a risk that Minny falls into a trap of using too many Russell/Gobert screens without getting KAT and/or Edwards involved.
I’m not sure what the closing lineups will be. Russell-Edwards-McDaniels-KAT-Gobert is tempting in theory but might not bring enough on either end to challenge the West’s elite, like Golden State or a healthy Clippers squad (who, even more than the Warriors, will be a horrible matchup for Minnesota).
What would you take if I put the over/under at 0.5 playoff series wins for Minnesota next year? The Warriors and Clippers are still ahead of them. The Grizzlies will be a question mark with Jaren Jackson Jr. out for some of the season, but they’ll be a threat, as will the Mavericks (even without Brunson). A healthy Nuggets team and a Lakers team with Kyrie might be favored over Minnesota.
But it’s not clear that any of those teams would outright dominate this Minnesota squad, and furthermore, what else should Minnesota have done? They succeeded in the draft with KAT and Edwards, two alpha-dog scorers, and needed a third piece like Gobert. Unfortunately, top-tier free agents don’t choose cities like Minneapolis, and the Wolves are too good to earn high-level draft assets. That leaves trading for stars as their only option, and even with that, we know that many players can exercise some sort of control over their trade destinations. The leap from “good” to “great” is the hardest to make, and cold-weather teams are usually working with fewer tools than their rivals.
Also, the criticism that Minnesota no longer has a future isn’t quite accurate. Although their future draft picks have been alchemically transmuted into a giant human, if worse comes to absolute worst and Edwards/Towns demands out in a couple of years, they will both bring back substantial capital in terms of picks and/or players. It won’t be too hard to start from scratch (just with someone else’s picks).
This trade probably won’t work. The vast, vast majority don’t “work,” if winning championships is the sole criterion of success. But it removes Minnesota’s ceiling (or at least knocks a skylight in it). New owners Alex Rodriguez and Marc Lore, and their high-priced front office hire, Tim Connelly, are All In. The Wolves will likely have multiple seasons to give this a shot, and they’re prepared to make some noise in a way they never have before.
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