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The Bigger They Are … the Harder the Fit

While teams across the league shrink their rosters, the Timberwolves made one of the biggest bets on size in recent history by pairing two All-Star centers. How will Minnesota fit Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert in the same frontcourt? The answer lies in the small stuff.

Jay Torres

Before giving up a virtually unprecedented haul to pull off what NBA general managers voted the most surprising move of the offseason, the Minnesota Timberwolves’ brain trust imagined life with Karl-Anthony Towns playing alongside Rudy Gobert in its most practical terms. “You just walk through it,” says Tim Connelly, Minnesota’s president of basketball operations. “OK, we’re gonna play this team. What’s it gonna look like late-game? How do we match up?” Together, Minnesota’s staff went team by team to consider how its hypothetical new frontcourt would operate against every opponent in the league. Where it might be stretched, and where it might dominate.

“It was the fun part of this process,” Connelly says. “To see what the basketball actually looks like.”

The Wolves didn’t necessarily set out to trade for Gobert. They didn’t even target any one specific skill set. Coming off a thrilling return to the postseason, an up-and-coming team saw a critical moment in its path forward, and decided to swing for the biggest possible improvement. So Minnesota’s staff started at the top of the NBA, surveying which of the game’s elite players might be available, and then worked backward to figure out what those stars could bring to one of the most exciting young clubs in the league. They landed on a three-time Defensive Player of the Year who could revolutionize the team’s coverage—and then moved heaven and earth and future picks to make that vision a reality.

But while Gobert is a huge upgrade for what was already a winning roster, his addition represents one of the biggest questions of fit in modern NBA history. Towns played next to a defense-first counterpart in Jarred Vanderbilt last season, to promising results. Adding Gobert takes that same formula in a far more extreme direction—in open defiance of a league that trends smaller every postseason. The dynamic is so complex that the Wolves front office sought the blessing of their All-NBA center before trading for another one.

“We wanted to make sure Karl shares a similar vision,” says Connelly, who was lured away from Denver in another splashy acquisition during the offseason. Seeing as news of the Gobert trade broke almost in tandem with that of Towns re-upping on a four-year supermax extension worth $224 million, it’s safe to say that star and franchise found their way to alignment.

“My job is to help him as much as he’s gonna help me,” Towns said of Gobert this summer, at a press conference announcing his extension. “His strengths are my weaknesses, and his weaknesses are my strengths.”

If only it were that simple. Pairing an all-time defensive center with one of the game’s most talented offensive bigs may sound easy, yet putting that much size on the floor is always a bit cumbersome—in a way that, at minimum, requires Towns and Gobert to rethink the way they navigate the floor. Lanes to the basket shrink. Defensive assignments get less comfortable. The most basic actions suddenly require deliberate planning and Swiss-watch precision, just to keep two of the world’s best centers from accidentally bumping into each other.

“The single biggest key,” Timberwolves coach Chris Finch says, “is to get those two comfortable with their spacing.”

Minnesota’s supersized new strategy has been completely overwhelming at times in its initial games—forceful in ways that few teams can match. Then, minutes later, the same lineup will turn into a claggy mess without any hint of discernible flow, looking very much like a team that’s barely had a chance to share the court in full form. The Wolves are four games into their season and already playing from behind. Training camp went off the rails from the start when a throat infection put Towns in the hospital, and then on bed rest. Before the start of the season, Minnesota’s towering costars had only a single exhibition and a few practices together to feel out one of basketball’s most challenging arrangements.

There are certainly more straightforward ways to contend in the small-ball NBA than flanking your 6-foot-11 center with a 7-foot-1 center. But there’s also no real substitute for the way a giant lineup, if all goes according to plan, can dictate the terms of every possession. “I think in the league, we have different trends going on,” Gobert says. “But if people are starting to believe that size isn’t important to a game like basketball, I think they’re foolish.” A long-suffering franchise is banking on that very premise. All the Wolves have to do now, after making a massive bet against the sport’s prevailing wisdom, is figure out how, exactly, it’s supposed to work.

Utah Jazz v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

The slow summer months gave Minnesota’s coaching staff an opportunity to look back, to where a lineup with two big men has worked. Every pair of bigs that found a way to play together has something to offer—even if it’s just a trick of positioning or the basis for a set play. It’s instructive to watch Tim Duncan and David Robinson revolve around each other, even in a very different NBA with very different spacing. There’s plenty to take away from how Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan found points of connection for a Clippers team that ranked in the top three on offense for four straight seasons.

“I think the one anomaly we have,” Wolves assistant coach Micah Nori says, “is those guys could not shoot the basketball like KAT.”

While Towns was recovering from his infection, Minnesota got by in camp by using a variety of stand-ins. Sometimes it was emerging stretch big Naz Reid, or playmaker (and newcomer) Kyle Anderson, or even tweener forward Taurean Prince. Yet you could merge the skill sets of all three of those players, blending the absolute best of what each has to offer, and still not come close to what Towns can do.

Minnesota couldn’t have even considered trading for a center like Gobert if not for Towns’s wide array of perimeter skills—the pure shooting, the show-and-go drives, the natural passing aptitude. Yet there’s a fine line between leveraging those talents and relying on them to the point that they box Towns in. “We have to be mindful of not cannibalizing who KAT is,” Finch says. However, there will be times when Towns will be asked to stand out on the perimeter and keep the floor spaced, for the simple reason that he can.

That isn’t necessarily such a bad thing for the self-proclaimed greatest-shooting big man of all time. What’s more concerning is the way that Towns, in making room for Gobert, has sometimes lost the plot on the rest of his scoring game. The issue feels largely rhythmic—a versatile star searching, sometimes too desperately, for the natural beats of an offense in constant flux. Thus far, he’s converted an uncharacteristic 46 percent of his shots inside the arc, though that number is trending upward as the Wolves find their way. It was inevitable that one of Minnesota’s two centers would have to dramatically adjust their game to make room for the other. Towns, for his part, never had a doubt as to who that would be.

“I’ve been doing nothing but adjusting and changing,” Towns says. “I don’t think there’s any player in the NBA, let alone star, that’s had to change their game as much as I’ve had to every single year to benefit the team.”

In his seven seasons in the league, Towns has played under four head coaches and with a revolving door of teammates. He’s seen too many losing seasons, and too many promising ones derailed by injury, inexperience, or Jimmy Butler. And every time the Wolves attempted to reinvent themselves, Towns was asked to do something different. To post up more (or less), to pick up a new defensive scheme, to shift his game into an entirely different flow.

“And I’m gonna continue to do that,” he says, “until this jersey’s taken off my back.”

Gobert essentially played one style under one coach during his entire stay with the Jazz, rising to stardom in parallel with Towns. During that time, he became a standard-bearer for Utah’s entire way of life—a symbol of the continuity that brought six straight playoff runs and a whole mess of regular-season wins.

“The best development stories are when you can develop a guy into a role and into a culture,” Finch says of Gobert’s time in Utah. “Jalen Hurts right now is an example of that. Let him do what he can do, and then just kind of build it out from there and get the pieces around him to support that.” There are trade-offs, however, that come with such a systemic approach—including the constraints that made Gobert a complete afterthought in the Jazz offense, year after year. The three-time All-Star was so entrenched in Utah that he would sometimes daydream about what a different role might look like.

After the first game that Minnesota’s two star bigs played together as teammates, Towns mentioned off-hand that Gobert—who averaged just 7.7 shot attempts a game last season despite leading the league in field goal percentage—had been “underutilized” offensively with the Jazz. I later asked Towns why he thought that was the case, and he corrected me. “I didn’t think,” he said. “I knew.”

“He’s one of the most efficient NBA players we’ve ever seen,” Towns explained. “So it seems pretty obvious that if you’re one of the most efficient players the NBA has ever seen, you probably should shoot the ball a little more. And we’ll look for him in more spots where he can impact the game offensively. It’s just simple math. I wanna give him the ball and give him a chance to expand his shooting numbers—get him more chances at the rim and open the floor up more for him. That’s where I excel.”

Through four games, Gobert is taking 9.5 shot attempts a night—a career high. On some occasions, he’s seemed caught off-guard by the fact that his teammates are actually looking to get him the ball. The trust is there; the execution is yet another work in progress.

“We haven’t played with a rolling big, so I think working on our lob passes and our interior passing, those things are going to be growth areas for us, just getting used to that,” Finch says. “How early do you throw it? Where do you throw it? Where does Rudy like it? Just being able to put enough pressure on the defense to commit them so Rudy’s open when you need him to be.”

The Lob City Clippers churned out searingly efficient offenses with Griffin and Jordan on the floor in part because they also had Chris Paul, maybe the greatest micromanager the sport has ever seen, to work out the kinks in their spacing. D’Angelo Russell, while an impressive passer in his own right, isn’t quite operating at Point God levels. And the thrill of watching Anthony Edwards comes from the fact that, at 21, he doesn’t always seem to know exactly what he’s doing with the ball and yet still he manages to make incredible plays.

Both guards will have to find a working chemistry with Gobert in their own way and in their own time. Russell is already making strides, and gunslinging backup Jaylen Nowell has shown a knack for finding Gobert on the move. So far, however, no other Timberwolf has assisted Gobert more often than Towns:

The great irony in all these shifting dynamics is that the basic layout of the Timberwolves’ lineup hasn’t changed all that much. Vanderbilt, who started next to Towns in the frontcourt last season, was simply a smaller, less confident, and less capable finisher than Gobert. “If you look at last year’s clips of Minnesota, they had KAT on the perimeter and Vanderbilt in the dunker,” says Anderson, who signed a free-agent deal with the Wolves in the offseason. “Now, Gobert is Vanderbilt. No disrespect to Vanderbilt, but that’s a little bit of an upgrade.” Enough of one for Gobert to ask more of the Wolves, and the Wolves more of Gobert.

“The only thing I want him to change is his mentality that when he gets the ball offensively, I want him to look to be aggressive,” Towns says. “Post up hard, look to get the ball on the run, and also just expect to be utilized more on offense. I think that’s something he’s been asking to do in Utah for how long?”

Minnesota Timberwolves Introduce Rudy Gobert
Gobert with Tim Connelly, the Wolves’ presidenet of basketball operations, and head coach Chris Finch at the center’s introductory news conference in July
Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

With Towns out of action during training camp, there was only so much use in the Timberwolves running through the full breadth of their offensive concepts. So instead, Finch and his staff oriented the agenda around the team’s other tentpole center, bringing the rest of the roster into what he does best.

Welcome to Drop School.

Over the past five seasons, no player has defended more ball screens in drop coverage than Gobert, according to Second Spectrum. The Jazz didn’t invent drop defense, though considering how expertly Gobert anchored that system and how much Utah relied on it over the years, they might as well have.

The outline is simple enough: Whenever an opponent sets a screen on the ball, the man defending that screener (see: Gobert, Rudy) will hang back below the developing play, walling off the paint and taking away the rim. The ultimate goal is to keep the entire defense out of rotation. For a Wolves team that ran one of the league’s most aggressive schemes last season, that represents a pretty radical departure—and an opportunity to limit the sort of frenzy that got the Wolves in trouble at times against higher-level competition.

“We were basically a fastball pitcher,” Finch says. “We just tried to rear back and throw it by you, and it worked for us. It got us to a certain point.”

To push past that point, the Wolves aimed to diversify. Minnesota will still run last season’s “high wall” defense in smaller doses when KAT plays the 5, showing up at the level of the screen and then scrambling to force turnovers and rush shooters. Adding another, more conservative style of drop defense to the mix just allows Minnesota to bounce between extremes. “The reality,” Finch says, “is we’re gonna have to have different looks.” One way to accomplish that was to bring in a rim protector who could be a defensive system unto himself. You don’t trade four future first-round picks and a pick swap for Rudy Gobert only to not play a style of defense that suits him.

“Offensively, when you have a great offensive player, you’ve gotta give them the freedom to be their best selves,” Finch says. “I think defensively, all too many times we might make the mistake of trying to shoehorn guys into coverages or schemes that may not best accentuate what they do.”

With Rudy in the drop, a franchise that hasn’t had a top-10 defense since 2004 aims to be one of the best. That isn’t to say that Gobert won’t have his own opportunities to switch or pressure the ball as the situation demands. In a way, his playoff viability (and thus Minnesota’s) depends on it—on being more than he was allowed to be in Utah, on defense as well as offense.

Toggling between schemes, however, also requires every other Timberwolf to rewire the way they think about defense. It’s not that Minnesota has never run the drop before; it’s that, with Towns in the middle, they never managed to run it all that well. So the Wolves gravitated toward a completely different style of coverage that worked for them, and patterns that will no longer apply whenever Gobert is on the floor. Russell has transitioned from calling out reads from the back line last season to giving chase over screens. Wings like Edwards and Jaden McDaniels, rather than fly into the paint to protect the rim, will spend more time babysitting shooters on the perimeter. Towns, in shifting matchups and responsibilities, could face the steepest learning curve of any of the Wolves.

“Instead of being the one telling the guard they’re getting hit with a screen, being the one getting hit by the screen,” Towns explains.

It’s a lot to ask of a player who played the 5 full time last season, but this is where drop defenses live and die. If the Wolves don’t fight over those screens and work their way back into the play, everything falls apart; it’s harder for Gobert to protect the paint while trying to guard two opponents at once, which means more defenders get pulled into the frame, which means mass hysteria. “All I need is for them to compete,” Gobert says. “Be physical. Affect the ball. Make the guy with the ball uncomfortable, and then the guys on the back side need to communicate. Then, we’re gonna feel the game.”

Any new defensive system is awkward until it isn’t, misshapen and ungainly until all its rules become common practices. Monday night’s debacle against the Spurs—in which the Wolves were roundly booed by their own fans—proved just how much work is left to be done. More broadly, Towns hasn’t looked all that comfortable guarding a quicker, rangier crop of forwards this season. Maybe he never will, though he understands better than anyone the value in trying. The greatest way that Gobert can complement Towns on that end of the floor isn’t by swooping in behind him to protect the rim. It’s by giving the Wolves other ways to play, and broadening the kind of defense Minnesota can be.

During the Wolves’ preseason road trip to Las Vegas, Gobert made a point to catch another exhibition game in town: French phenom Victor Wembanyama’s hotly anticipated showcase against Scoot Henderson and the G League Ignite. Gobert and Wembanyama had once been the costars of a viral video showcasing the teenager’s incomprehensible game—ridiculous crossovers setting up splashed jumpers over the outstretched arms of a future Hall of Famer. On this occasion, the two countrymen posed for a photo on the sideline, in which Gobert was dwarfed by what may well be the future of the sport.

It’s easy to paint Gobert as an old-fashioned player in his way—particularly in comparison to do-it-all bigs like Towns, and certainly next to a reality-warping prospect like Wembanyama. To Gobert, however, those sorts of designations feel a bit narrow.

“I don’t see myself as a traditional big,” he says. “Even though I’m not a big that spreads the floor and shoots 3s, I’m not a traditional big defensively.”

Although he’s mostly anchored elite drop defenses to this point, Gobert insists he can do more. Play a wider variety of styles. Take on a broader range of assignments. After all, simply surviving as a center in the modern NBA has required constant deviations from big man orthodoxy. Wembanyama is a dramatic, evolutionary leap forward. But even as the NBA has become increasingly hostile to non-shooting bigs, Gobert has found ways to thrive.

“I think the game from when I got drafted to now has evolved a lot,” he says. “I’ve had some teaching moments. There are always tough moments, tough nights—especially early on, when I started to play against popping bigs, and I had to get comfortable doing that. And then we started last year to switch more, so I started to guard even more guards, and I got comfortable doing that. So you always have to adapt.

“I’m unique. I’m comfortable guarding 1 through 5, and the numbers back it up. You can look it up.”

The numbers really do back it up. The Jazz didn’t switch very often last season, but when they did, Gobert held opponents to just 0.89 points per chance, according to Second Spectrum, a mark in line with many of the league’s most credible switching centers.

There are better uses of Gobert’s time than tracking pipsqueak guards around the arc, but an open-minded coach could do worse than to have every possibility on the table. Finch has been up-front about the fact that Gobert will be out there when it matters—that allowing teams to play one of Minnesota’s best players off the floor isn’t an option. For all that’s left to figure out, the dimensions of this team are nonnegotiable. The Wolves are who they are.

Utah Jazz v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

The formal introduction of the new-look Timberwolves came at an open practice a week into training camp, where fans filled out the lower bowl of the Target Center just to see Gobert, Edwards, and Russell work up a light sweat. Towns, on his first day back with the team after getting medical clearance, took in the festivities from the sideline—sporting a vintage shirt celebrating Kevin Garnett as the 2004 MVP, and draped in a blue-and-green Wolves Starter jacket.

Up in the stands, you could trace waves of generational disappointment—jerseys reading SZCZERBIAK or LOVE or WIGGINS, reminders of ill-fated teams gone by. This is a franchise that hasn’t advanced out of the first round of the playoffs since that 2004 season, when several players on the roster—Edwards included—were toddlers. In the seven years that Towns has played in Minnesota, the Wolves have posted the sixth-worst record in the league and managed just two winning seasons. One was followed by Butler staging his own dramatic exit; the other by a monumental trade for one of the best centers in the league.

There are plenty of organizations that wouldn’t have given up what the Wolves did for Gobert, citing the fit, his offensive limitations, or the sheer number of picks involved. Yet it’s impossible to separate the ambitions of this franchise from its history, especially when considering the kind of impact that Gobert could have.

“We haven’t enjoyed as much success as a lot of teams in our league—as most teams in the league, to be brutally honest,” says Connelly, who joined the front office in May, and traded for Gobert roughly a month later. “We have to be our own biggest fans and slowly shift that narrative of how not just the league, but the world views the Timberwolves.”

For all the complications that come with mortgaging the team’s future picks or working another big into the lineup, Gobert’s arrival gives Minnesota its best chance yet to change that. In the 2022 playoffs, the Timberwolves made history by blowing more double-digit, fourth-quarter leads in a series than any team ever had before. “Our mistakes, I would say, were always interesting,” Finch says with a smirk. “We had a young and exciting team. I wanna maintain that, but we need to mature.” Adding Gobert, who at 30 years old is somehow the oldest player on Minnesota’s roster, was one way to accelerate that process.

This is one of the game’s most steadfast stars. Gobert buys in. He executes. He was the cornerstone of a franchise that won more games over the last four seasons than any other in its conference, owed to the systems he helped build and worked tirelessly to maintain. There’s an opportunity for the Wolves, enormously talented as they are, to make the kind of run that redefines an entire organization. Teams with two true bigs don’t often last to the later rounds of the playoffs these days—and when they do, they tend to feature all-time outliers like Giannis Antetokounmpo or LeBron James. Minnesota, in pairing two all-league centers, aspires to be a different kind of historical exception.

Gobert spent years living the playoff habits of a Jazz team that tried, and failed, to get over the hump. In that time, he dwelled on the differences between the teams that break through and the ones that don’t.

“I learned,” Gobert says, “that it’s about the details.”

Contenders are made in the particulars. The balance of this hugely consequential trade might boil down to how, exactly, Gobert establishes post position to take advantage of a switch. Or where Towns instinctively goes on the floor when the offense starts to jam. Or how these two unlikely teammates calibrate the space between them—not this week or next, but in some critical moment months or even years down the line. “It’s a puzzle,” Towns says eagerly. “I’ve loved doing puzzles since I was young, with my mom.” The catch, this time, is that no one knows what the final picture will look like—only what it could be. A franchise hangs on every piece.

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