Surrounded by the debut of top picks, game-winning buzzer beaters, and sudden death overtime, the Denver Nuggets played the Minnesota Timberwolves in their first Summer League game. Two weeks ago, Wolves fans would have been excited to watch top pick Walker Kessler emerge. Suddenly, the games felt less important.
Summer League took a back seat after the Wolves traded for Rudy Gobert. Sure, the development of Josh Minott and Wendell Moore Jr. was still vital. But those topics’ relevancy became obscure compared to the blockbuster trade.
Fans surely enjoyed Minott’s 22-point outing in Minnesota’s 85-78 victory over Denver. However, some of the most interesting aspects of the broadcast happened at the beginning of the second quarter when Isiah Thomas and Matt Winer began their interview with Chris Finch. Although the Gobert press conference offered a lot of insight on what the Wolves thought of his fit, they didn’t provide a full explanation.
The interview during the Summer League game provided us with even more information. Gobert is the most expensive asset the Timberwolves have ever traded for by a large margin. Therefore, it’s interesting to see how deep the Wolves have thought about his fit.
For example, how do the Wolves plan to play against small-ball lineups?
Finch answered this in a roundabout way, saying, “there’s a lot of things there that we’re gonna have to work through… hopefully, we have an answer for as many of them as possible.” Finch then cited improved perimeter defenders as a reason for the Wolves to succeed in the playoffs. The improved rim protection “allows (the defense) to be more aggressive, take chances, smart chances, on the perimeter.”
Historically, small-ball lineups have only succeeded under two conditions. Either the team has an insane amount of talent like the small-ball era Houston Rockets, or they are running small-ball lineups against a roster with poor perimeter defenders, like the Utah Jazz. And although poor perimeter defenders are a catalyst for small-ball lineups, the center is almost always partially at fault. Finch acknowledged that saying “finding ways to be creative” with the Wolves’ talented perimeter defenders will be a must for success.
Finch also stated some of the reasoning behind deciding to move away from modern trends and go big while everyone else went small. Besides, they knew “they weren’t going to out small-ball the Warriors.” They also knew that going small would limit one of their greatest weapons, Karl-Anthony Towns.
“When Karl-Anthony Towns is one of your most talented offensive players… you’re not gonna go small,” he said, “you’re just not gonna do it.” If going small eliminates one of if not their best player, why do it? And if they aren’t gonna be able to compete with the Warriors at their own game, then why not create their own? Therefore, the Wolves’ front office decided to zig while everyone else zagged. While the move initially jarred many fans, the reasoning is clear.
It’s also important to note that small-ball lineups do not rule the league. The Milwaukee Bucks, Denver Nuggets, Philadelphia 76ers, and all rely on dominant bigs, and all of those teams are successful in doing so. While the flashy Warriors lineups will get all the attention, and for good reason. But the league isn’t one-dimensional. There are multiple pathways to success.
Finch also highlighted Gobert’s locker room presence, which is worth noting because of Gobert and former teammate Donovan Mitchell’s reported tension in the locker room. Finch said Gobert raved about Jaden McDaniels’, saying, “[McDaniels] can be an All-NBA defender with [his] skill set.”
Gobert has constantly been scrutinized for his offensive shortcomings, but Finch plans to do something nearly unheard of. “I think [Towns is] a very good passer and a willing passer, and I can see a lot of big to big play.” A pick-and-roll with Towns as the ball-handler and Gobert sounds crazy. However, it makes sense upon further examination. Although Towns has exactly 68 attempts at it in his career, his driving ability and generational shooting mark him as a solid threat.
Finch also mentioned how Gobert’s impact will be felt even when he doesn’t have the ball. It was no secret that Towns was often doubled-teamed last year; Gobert will undoubtedly help alleviate that problem. Although Gobert isn’t an elite offensive talent, he’s still better than he’s given credit for. He won’t space the floor from the three, but if teams decide to double-team Towns with Gobert’s defender, “you’re leaving a lot of size at the rim wide open.”
Minnesota’s commitment to being different will show from top to bottom. The Wolves look to use their two centers in ways many haven’t seen since the long-forgotten era of dominant bigs. On the offensive side, the Wolves sound ready to unlock Gobert in unseen ways. A lot is riding on this experiment — four first-round picks, to be exact.
Gobert is more at home on the defensive side of the ball. Even through his three Defensive Player of the Year nods, he’s still seen his fair share of struggles through the playoffs. The Wolves hope being creative with new ways of defending and improved perimeter defense will guide them to victory.
The gist of what Finch is that he’s going to be creative. It took a lot of real estate to get Gobert, so they’re gonna be spending a lot of time trying to figure out what works best. Maybe the Wolves figure out the formula the Jazz never could. Perhaps they don’t. But one thing is for sure: they aren’t gonna stop trying.