It’s easy to look back at the Rudy Gobert trade now and wonder what the Minnesota Timberwolves were thinking. But it’s important to consider the process and what they brought Gobert in to fix. Gobert is a three-time defensive player of the year and a six-time All-Defensive team player who averages 11.7 rebounds per game over his career. That seems to cover Minnesota’s issues of the last season, rim protection, and rebounding. The latter perspective dives deep into the schematics and overall fit, which overcomplicates everything and takes us more into the vision we have seen with the fully healthy Timberwolves team.
Gobert has been in the upper echelon of drop coverage defenders since the Utah Jazz drafted him. He held down the paint and let Utah’s perimeter players play tight on the ball. They would then be comfortable allowing mid-range pull-up jump shots because they could defend more efficient shots. That led to sustained success because the Jazz could hold a top-half defense to pair with their electric offense. It was a lethal combination, but we saw the downfall when they reached the playoffs and lacked on-ball defense. Their opponents would hunt Utah’s poor defenders, and they would give up corner threes when Rudy stepped off of his man in the corner. Maxi Kleber and Terance Mann are perfect examples of players who found success because of this.
In the past, the Wolves tried to do this with KAT, but he was often unable to hold it down and would get cooked in two-on-one situations, with the roller following alongside the ball-handler. As a result, he had a bad reputation as a defender and often was in foul trouble. So last season, the Wolves switched to playing KAT more at the level, meaning he comes up toward the ball handler and helps double-team the ball for a split second. This allowed active players like Jarred Vanderbilt to tag the roll man, but he was able to react back to his man in the corner. This chaotic defense really helped them turn the corner in the second half of the season.
The Wolves find themselves in an incredibly tricky situation, though, as they attempt to combine the two coverages. That also means buy-in from every other player on the floor to be attentive to the scenario and be in the correct spots.
They put this plan into action in the Cavs game when Rudy Gobert left with injury, leaving Naz Reid and Luka Garza with the task of tracking screen coverages and playing heavy minutes in the second half. The Wolves were able to hold their own, getting the ball out of the primary ball handlers, playing well on help-side, tagging the roller, and still being able to cover the corners. My thread below breaks down a multitude of possessions from the Wolves and how it worked out for them.
In their recent matchup, the Jazz offered a similar challenge that the Timberwolves couldn’t meet. Utah’s ability to space the floor better hampered the Timberwolves because they could only focus on one of the two threats. In the Cleveland Cavaliers game, the Wolves could allow Evan Mobley and Isaac Okoro some space because they aren’t established shooting threats. Therefore, the defenders had enough to recover and lightly contest a shot if they were wide open.
The Jazz often had multiple shooters around their ball screen action. When Vanderbilt was on the floor, Utah would heavily use him in the dunker spot or as a corner cutter when the roll man received the ball. That made their offense lethal. When the Wolves got into foul trouble and Garza’s play tailed off, they switched to Nate Knight, who brings the energy and switchability but is still undersized.
In the 4th quarter, Utah sautéed the Wolves in every facet allowing 12 straight field goal makes to begin the quarter. It also did not help that Jaden McDaniels sat the majority of the quarter because of foul trouble. Therefore, the Wolves had a lack of screen navigation and rim protection. The compilation below illustrates how many easy buckets the Jazz could get at their own will.
Those issues illustrated three things:
- They need one of Karl-Anthony Towns or Gobert for sustained defensive success.
- Everyone needs to be on the same page help side when the Wolves play at the level.
- Jaden needs to be on the floor for as many minutes as possible.
The Wolves have the valuable ability to show different coverages and mix that in. But the latter end is that opponents will know how the Wolves defend with certain players and can exploit it. That calls for a lot more positional versatility than what the roster already has defensively, Jaden is by far the best point-of-attack defender and most versatile. However, it tails off behind him.
The other issue is that versatile wings are some of the most highly coveted archetypes in the league today. That puts the Wolves in a tricky spot with the Rudy and KAT experiment. While it may hold that high floor, the ceiling of the defense is hard to reach with the current personnel.