Ever since the Minnesota Timberwolves drafted Karl-Anthony Towns, they’ve worked to find a defensive big to pair him with, allowing him to expend most of his energy on offense. The Wolves had high hopes when they acquired six-time All-Defense and three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, believing that they could cover up Towns’ weaknesses. However, it has not gone as smoothly as planned. The Wolves found themselves finding more of a defensive identity overall, increasing their league ranking in Defensive Rating from 13th in 2021-22 to 10th in 2022-23. However, Minnesota’s lack of consistency on defense and inability to join the league’s upper echelon of defenses creates a lot of uncertainty for the future.
The most surprising part of all this? It’s been hard to get a read on Gobert’s defensive play this year. As a 9-year veteran, shouldn’t he have been plug-and-play? There were bigger questions around how Jaden McDaniels would do with heavy point-of-attack duties and KAT playing off the ball more on offense.
It became more interesting Tuesday when the NBA released its All-Defensive teams, and McDaniels (40 points) and Anthony Edwards (four points) were the only Timberwolves with votes. Last year was Gobert’s first season not being on an All-Defensive team since 2017, his second year as a full-time starter.
The All-Defense award tends to be more based on reputation rather than season-to-season performance. Rudy has done plenty to showcase that he is deserving of the acknowledgment, yet he saw no leaguewide no recognition this season. Why could this be?
You have to look at the team as a unit to gain most of the context with Gobert because he’s the anchor of the defense. When he is in drop coverage, the Wolves are comfortable funneling players his way so he can affect drives. The KAT-Rudy pairing was a shaky concept from the beginning because Towns has to be more active in a position he has not often played in.
Still, lineups involving KAT and Gobert landed in the 98th percentile for opponents’ points scored per 100 possessions, allowing only 106.6. They forced opponents to only shoot 51.1% in effective field goal percentage, which ranks in the 95th percentile. While it still was inconsistent at times and did not always pass the eye test, the numbers do not lie. They allow the Wolves to try to shape an identity.
Individually, Gobert’s case gets trickier. He came over to a new system, with a new coach after playing for Quin Snyder for every year he was a starter from 2014 to 2022. Gobert was around new players in Minnesota and recently represented France in EuroBasket 2022. That means he was playing highly competitive games while most players are doing their usual off-season routines. Lastly, you have to factor in the KAT injury, which I’m sure changed up the team’s planning for how they wanted to play on both sides of the ball coming into the season.
It was hard to get a read on Gobert’s defense early in the season. On one hand, there were growing pains. On the other, he was putting more fear in the eyes of opponents attacking the rim than any Wolves player since Kevin Garnett. Still, we saw many issues linger from the past with Minnesota’s lack of attention to defensive rebounding.
Pre All-Star break, the Wolves ranked 27th in the league in Defensive Rebounding%, only corralling 69.6% of their opponent’s missed shots. A lot of this caused Rudy to be much more hesitant with his urgency to contest opponents driving down the lane. Often, he was stuck in between a potential roller or dunker-spot player and the ball-handler who is coming downhill. That allowed much easier looks for the opponent because the weak side was completely open for a player to tap it in or secure the offensive rebound.
Together these issues were a massive red flag. They were the main reason why the Wolves traded such a haul for Rudy. When you weigh in his limited offensive game, he has to fully capitalize on these facets to be effective on the floor. It took a turn in the second half of the season, though. In his last 20 games, we saw a drastic effect on the team’s play when Rudy is solid on defense much more often despite dealing with ankle and back injuries. It is much easier for a team to rely upon this strategy to anchor a defense.
A comparable example of this is how the Jazz teams won an average of 46 games per year with Gobert starting, having some playoff success with little to no perimeter defenders, and Rudy holding down the fort. More recently, we saw the Toronto Raptors try to deploy lineups full of length and switchable players. While it is very fun in theory, it tends to overcomplicate things. You want to play to this strength as often as possible, even if the outcomes may have some bumps in the road because it is much simpler to understand for everyone around Rudy.
Per the NBA’s tracking data, opponents attempted 7.5 shots on Gobert within six feet or closer this season, which was the ninth-most of any player in the league. Players shot 56.8% on these shot attempts, which ranked him similar to others like first-team all-defense selection Evan Mobley who sits at 57.5% on 8.1 attempts, and Nic Claxton who limited opponents to 56.1% on 7 attempts a night. While Gobert wasn’t getting as many blocks as in prior seasons, which was a talking point, you can see that he’s still making an impact.
It all will come down the relying heavily on the Timberwolves to have more rhythm into this next season regarding their gameplan, defensive identity, and buy-in. The Wolves find themselves in a tricky position attempting to work out the KAT-Rudy experiment while having to pay Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels soon. Next year, it will be vital for Rudy to show that he can fall back into form and build upon his past season.