Timberwolves’ ‘big-ball’ experiment is either the NBA’s future or a future disaster

I’m a bit late to the game here, but I’m still thinking about a very curious thing that happened last week.

The agreed-to trade of Rudy Gobert to Minnesota last week did several things — signify a retrenchment in Utah, usher in an all-in era in Minnesota, up the ante Brooklyn demands on any Kevin Durant trade and, most importantly, knighting my former colleague Brian Windhorst into the memedom round table.

But one thing that happened might have been slept on a bit. The Minnesota Timberwolves signed Karl-Anthony Towns to a four-year, $224 million supermax extension that will have him making $60 million six years from now.

In doing so, they seemingly made the ultimate show of faith in a player’s superstar talent … and at the same time, essentially his defensive shortcomings were severe enough that it required trading for another elite player at the same position. (As my podcast partner Nate Duncan noted last week, the Hawks did a similar thing by pairing Trae Young with Dejounte Murray.)

Usually, if you’re confident enough in a player’s ability to offer that kind of contract, you’re content to sign Random Randomvich to a minimum deal as the backup and worry about other roster issues (like the lack of any real small forwards, for instance) with the remaining assets and money.

Instead, Minnesota went in a different direction. The Wolves traded for the most awesome rim protector they could find in Rudy Gobert, who can fill the defensive role Towns can’t. Whatever you think of the strategy, they didn’t go halfway. Gobert was far and away the best available player to fill this role.

The downside is that the price for doing so was extravagantly expensive. This is neither an opportunistic low-cost flier nor is it a short-term premise. Gobert is expensive, both in terms of salary and acquisition cost. He’ll make $168 million over the next four years, at which point he’ll be nearly 34 years old.

Beyond the salary, however, is the fact that the Wolves gave Utah the full Courtney Love treatment for Gobert (screaming “Go on, take everything…”). The package Minnesota sent out here is absolutely staggering considering Gobert’s stature in the league (a “tier 2B” guy, in the parlance of Seth Partnow), his age and, most importantly, the Wolves already having an All-Star at the same position .

Minnesota gave up the princely sum of three unprotected future first-round picks, an unprotected swap on a fourth and a very lightly protected fifth one (top five in 2029). Amazingly, even without the picks, the Wolves made a hefty commitment: two of their last three first-round picks (including the one they selected with the 22nd pick less than two weeks ago) … and two starters, one of whom is 23 years old and on a very team-friendly contract … and their sixth man. Holding a parade because they didn’t also include their best young prospect (Jaden McDaniels) seems a bit much.

Obviously, no team would ever commit this much to one position unless it considered them to actually be two positions. Surely, Towns and Gobert will be playing at the same time. This wouldn’t be a big deal if they were small forwards; we saw Paul George and Kawhi Leonard team up intentionally, for instance, while Boston made the NBA Finals riding a Jayson Tatum-Jaylen Brown duo.

But at the five spot? A position where modern playoff games frequently involve zero centers being on the floor in high-leverage moments? The Timberwolves are really going to try playing two of them? And not only do that, but bet on it so heavily on it that they’re locked into this setup for nearly half a decade?

Their approach begets another set of huge, league-wide questions. Is “big ball” back? Or, more pointedly, can it make a comeback? Is Towns-Gobert big ball’s last gasp, or is it the dawn of its impending renaissance?

We’ve seen some small smoke signals elsewhere indicating this approach could actually work, even in the pace-and-space era. Boston, for example, effectively amassed the league’s best defense in 2021-22 by playing two centers at the same time. Both were more mobile than Towns, but if you imagine Al Horford in the “Towns” role and Robert Williams in the “Gobert” role, you get the basic idea.

Theoretically, attacking Towns becomes harder now. Sure, opponents can force Towns to switch onto a smaller, quicker player. But the flip side is that Towns can crowd the 3-point line knowing Gobert is lurking behind him, much the same way Horford magically looks more solid when Williams is on the court as his backstop. Alternatively, the Wolves can have Towns hard-trap ball screens, knowing Gobert lies in wait to swallow up any “four-on-three” created by a short roll.

The way opponents worked around this when Gobert was in Utah was to play lineups with five shooters, as Dallas did in the 2022 playoffs and the Clippers in 2021. That takes away Gobert’s rim protection and leaves the opponent free to attack the tastest individual matchup.

However, those teams could play small on Utah because they didn’t fear Gobert’s post-ups on the other end. That isn’t the case once you put Towns next to him. Now, any cute small-ball lineup an opponent puts out there must deal with Towns mashing them on the block on offense. The Wolves’ bet: Sure, maybe you can score on Gobert with a five-out system, but Towns will score on you so much at the other end that you’ll still lose the trade-off.

On the other hand, we just saw a similar movie with the nearly half-decade-long partnership of Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner in Indiana. It was effective but only to a point … and only with some dramatic staggering of their minutes … and only until the playoffs started. Yes, Gobert and Towns are better players, but we have some clear evidence the big-ball approach isn’t airtight. horse all. Especially in the playoffs.

Offensively, one can see the potential fault lines. Towns struggles to deal with double-teams and can be pressured into turnovers; surely any undersized opponent will flood him with arms and bodies and wait for him to spray passes all over greater Hennepin County. Unhelpfully, the spacing for him will be less than pristine with Gobert parked at the rim and only three players spacing the perimeter, a couple of whom aren’t exactly deadeye shooting threats.

Meanwhile, the Towns-Gobert combo may still prove vulnerable in certain situations on the defensive end. Having Towns guard the opposing four is likely to leak pick-and-pop 3-pointers by the bushel, regardless of scheme, or leave him in a hopeless one-on-one matchup in space. The Wolves will likely stagger their minutes as much as possible, Turner-Sabonis style, such that the two might only share the court for 20 to 24 minutes a night in the regular season. That said, the trade is a failure if these two can’t play together in playoff fourth quarters.

Despite similar shortcomings, a few other teams seemed to lean more into two-big lineups this postseason. The Celtics used Williams and Horford together. The Warriors won the title by pairing up Kevon Looney and Draymond Green for long stretches. The Bucks, of course, romped to the title in 2021 with regular doses of the Brook Lopez-Bobby Portis combination, sometimes in huge lineups with Giannis Antetokounmpo at the three. (They didn’t exactly shy away from this in 2022 either.)

The league will be watching: If this works in Minnesota, it could quickly spawn imitators. The most obvious example, coincidentally, is for Denver to add a shot blocker next to two-time MVP Nikola Jokić. (Spicy question: Would new Minnesota president Tim Connelly have made a similar move if he was still running the Nuggets? You have to think the decision to pair Towns with Gobert so soon into his Wolves tenure didn’t come out of nowhere.) would Sacramento add to its collection of centers by daring to put a Turner-type rim protector (or even Turner himself) next to Sabonis? Gazing into the crystal ball, is there a future version of the Pistons where Jalen Duren and Isaiah Stewart can share the court?

It feels like the answers to these questions and similar ones hinge largely on how the Towns-Gobert pairing works out in Minnesota. After all, this is the best possible version of these two player types. The Wolves have united the best-shooting big man in the league, who can also bully smalls on the blocks, with the best rim protector of his generation. Each has a critical weakness: Gobert’s inability to score versus switches, and Towns’ inability to guard pick-and-roll. However, if it doesn’t work with two centers of this talent level, it doesn’t work … period.

Parked on top of this is the reality that the theoretically on-their-way-up Wolves are already out of bullets to make any other significant upgrade as a result of this one trade. Signing Kyle Anderson for the midlevel exception was a nice coup, even if he probably will coexist better with Towns than Gobert, but the Wolves now have near-zero capability to generate useful cap space or trade for necessary upgrades at any point in the next half -decade This has to work. The Wolves have very limited means to maneuver to any kind of realistic Plan B.

That’s the big-picture takeaway from Minnesota’s defiant, spit-into-the-wind Gobert trade. Very few other teams, if any, would have done this type of trade in June 2022, even setting aside the breathtaking cost.

And yet, it’s possible the Wolves are onto something. Call it a last stand or new dawn for big ball, if you will. Nobody is quite willing to join Minnesota and go all-in on this idea just yet, but the pairing of a shot-blocking center with a high-skill center has the potential to be the league’s biggest paradigm shift … or its biggest disaster.

Get your popcorn while we found out.


Related reading

Krawczynski: Takeaways from Rudy Gobert blockbuster
Krawczynski: Logic and risks of Wolves’ big swing

(Top photo of Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns: Bruce Kluckhohn / USA Today)

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