Each week during the 2022-2023 NBA season, we take a closer look at some of the biggest storylines in the league to determine whether the trends are more factual or fictional.
The trade in Rudy Gobert is an unmitigated disaster
When the Minnesota Timberwolves offered to double Tim Connelly’s salary and give him an undisclosed equity stake if he changes teams as the lead basketball manager, Denver Nuggets Governor Josh Kroenke described the pursuit of their Northwest Division rival as the “in despair“moving a team that behaves like”a startup.”
Little did he know how desperate the new Timberwolves owners Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez were.
After a month, Connelly traded three players from a 46-win playoff rotation and seven first round draft picks this decade – Leandro Bolmaro (2020), Walker Kessler (2022), unprotected picks in 2023, 2025 and 2027, a top-five protected pick in 2029 and a trade in 2026 – to the Utah Jazz for three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert. The award shocked rival executives and Minnesota’s own players.
As Wolves veteran Taurean Prince put it, according to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, “It wasn’t that it put us in a bad mood, but we were surprised.” Not exactly the endorsement you want to hear when you’re betting the long-term future of your franchise on a guy who you think can take a championship in the next four years.
The first 15 games of this season have yielded no indication that pundits who widely believed the deal had been misled. The Wolves are average or worse in every way imaginable, and their most glaring foibles are the very issues they should have been worried about when paying a king’s ransom for a 30-year-old center that was recently recorded one playoff series win for four years, despite winning 50 games per season.
Presumably, Minnesota acquired Gobert to improve on last season’s 13th defense and create more offensive space than he displaces with his screen setup and rim running. Only, it should have been obvious to anyone watching the NBA that Gobert was going to rob the Wolves of what made them special: unleashing All-NBA 7-footer Karl-Anthony Towns, one of the great shooting bigs in the NBA history, as a small ball center.
Minnesota outscored its opponents at 5.6 points per 100 possessions last season with Towns at center, scoring at a higher percentage than its all-time offenses, according to Cleaning the Glass. The presence of defensive stalwarts Patrick Beverley and Jarred Vanderbilt, both of whom could trade multiple positions on the perimeter, kept Minnesota from succumbing to Towns’ weaknesses on that point.
Towns has already played more power forward than last season, and the results have been disastrous. The Wolves put in the equivalent of a top-three defense when Gobert and Towns share the field, but score at a lowest-three percentage in those same minutes, resulting in a net score of -2.5 points per 100 possessions. It’s been even worse with just Gobert on the floor. Offense was even better than last season in lineups with Towns and no Gobert, but those units score only marginally better than the opposition as Kyle Anderson and Jaden McDaniels don’t mask as many defensive issues.
The choice is now between good defense and bad attack, or bad defense and good attack.
Gobert is a long way from unlocking D’Angelo Russell and Anthony Edwards’ pick-and-roll game. Russell and Gobert have the sixth most pick-and-rolls of any combination in the league, producing on average (0.981 points per chance). Edwards and Gobert are also among the top-30 duos, and they only score 0.798 points for every possession that Edwards shoots directly, fouls, turns it around, or passes to someone who shoots straight off the pick-and-roll. That ranks 122nd out of 138 tandems that have ridden at least 50 pick-and-rolls, per Second Spectrum. As Kevin O’Connor from The Ringer notedEdwards has only passed Gobert twice in the 125 pick-and-rolls they’ve run together.
When it took Edwards 10 games to record his first dunk of the season, he told reporters, “You watch the game. Every time I get to the edge, I don’t have a chance to dunk. Everyone is in the paint. I need to figure out how to put the ball down. I’m all 6-4, I can’t just jump over anyone. I’m not as tall as Giannis [Antetokounmpo]. Everyone asks me to dunk the ball like it’s all peaches and cream. I have to have a good job dunking the ball. Every time I drive, it’s five people. For me, finishing the layups is pretty tough, I’d say.”
That is nothing but a direct shot at Gobert. The same goes for Edwards after losing to Vanderbilt, Malik Beasley, Kessler and the Jazz in the second game of the year: “The smaller we go, the better it is for me.”
This is the problem with cashing in all your trading chips to build around a 21 year old. Towns and Gobert should be the leaders in the Minnesota locker room, but both have histories of passively clashing with more assertive fellow players. Everyone in the organization understands that Edwards will eventually become the alpha dog in Minnesota, but he’s not ready to take on that mantle — at least not for a team ready to compete.
Edwards called his team ‘soft’ and the disinterest is palpable.
It’s not a good sign when the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 draft admits, “It’s normal that I suck at back-to-backs.” Perhaps even worse, Towns – the league’s top pick five years before Edwards – poured petrol on that fire, informing reporters: “Maybe I better teach him how to take care of his body, nutrition and everything. That will be on me. I know you think it’s funny here when he talks about Popeyes and all that crap. That doesn’t make me happy to hear. We’re high-level athletes.”
For any signal that the Timberwolves should be better – they somehow are the second worst defensive rebound team in the league and allow more second chance points (18.5 per game) than anyone else with two 7-footers in the starting lineup – there are a handful more suggesting this is who they are. Their shooting efficiency stats are in the top 10, but their offensive rating is barely average. They don’t create high-end 3-point looks, nor do they have anyone making them reliable, and they turn the ball over a ton.
The reverse is true for their opponents, who shoot below their expected percentages on a host of high-quality three-point opportunities, and Minnesota’s porous transitional defense makes for easier scoring opportunities.
All this could have been expected when the team considered acquiring Gobert. Still, it did anyway, and it’s nowhere closer to contestation – and perhaps even farther from it. Edwards is no guarantee that he will be the number 1 option on a team that could win a title, and if he gets there, Gobert will be in his mid-thirties when it happens and certainly be the subject of sniping for years to come about his penchant for clogging of the paint.
In the meantime, the Timberwolves could lose Russell’s maximum salary slot if they can’t flip his contract before he’s released. It’s more likely that it will cost Minnesota assets to undo Russell’s deal — devastating, given what it gave up trying to get him. Or worse, the Wolves could reinvest in Russell and this mediocrity.
The most likely scenario 15 games into the Gobert Experiment is that it will force another panic move this year or next, maybe even saying goodbye to Towns. It does not work. It will not work. The only other option is to trade Gobert, and there may not be a team that would pay half the price for Gobert that Minnesota paid.
It’s hard to imagine a transaction being any worse under the circumstances. Bill Russell did not want to participate in the St. Louis Walks. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wanted to get rid of the Milwaukee Bucks. The wolves didn’t have to do this.
The closest comparison on this point is the Brooklyn Nets’ 2013 trade for the aging duo of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, who pulled off a single playoff win for the Nets before the picks returned them to the Boston Celtics Jayson Tatum and become Jaylen Brown. We knew then it was bad, but we didn’t know it would be this bad.
This has the same feeling, and it can get worse very quickly.
The Timberwolves (7-8) are 10th in a busy Western Conference, clinging to the final play-in tournament spot a month into the season. The defending champion Golden State Warriors has yet to enter the fray, and everyone else for Minnesota should stay in the running – except the Jazz. The Wolves may not make the playoffs after all, but can you imagine Utah stopping them from even securing a play-in berth?
The Jazz have less reason to lose now that they own Minnesota’s unprotected 2023 first-round pick, currently two losses short of a 9% chance of bringing in generational contender Victor Wembanyama. Then there are four more choices, the last of which comes around Gobert’s 37th birthday.
You know who could use those picks? Connelly, whose strength in Denver was his ability to identify talent in draft, including Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and Bones Hyland. Well, except for his first move as chief manager – trading the No. 27 pick that became Gobert to Utah for a pittance in 2013.
Determination: Fact. The trade in Gobert is an unmitigated disaster.
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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Do you have a tip? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach