Each week during the 2022-23 NBA season, we will take a deeper dive into some of the league’s biggest storylines in an attempt to determine whether the trends are based more in fact or fiction moving forward.
The Rudy Gobert trade is an abject disaster
When the Minnesota Timberwolves offered to double Tim Connelly’s salary and give him an undisclosed equity stake if he switched teams as the lead basketball executive, Denver Nuggets governor Josh Kroenke described their Northwest Division rival’s pursuit as the “desperate” move of a team acting like “a startup.”
Little did he know just how desperate incoming Timberwolves owners Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez were.
A month into the job, 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 2026 swap — to the Utah Jazz for three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert. The price 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, uh, we were surprised.” Not exactly the endorsement you want to hear when you just bet the long-term future of your franchise on a guy you think can deliver a championship in the next four years.
The first 15 games of this season have offered no indication that pundits who widely panned the deal were misguided. The Wolves are average or worse in every way imaginable, and their most glaring weaknesses are exactly the issues they should have been worried about when paying a king’s ransom for a 30-year-old center who logged one playoff series victory in the last four years, despite winning 50 games every season.
Presumably, Minnesota acquired Gobert to improve last season’s 13th-rated defense and create more offensive space than he crowds with his screen-setting and rim-running. Only, it should’ve been obvious to anyone who watches the NBA that Gobert would rob the Wolves of what made them special — unleashing All-NBA 7-footer Karl-Anthony Towns, one of the great shooting bigs in NBA history, as a small-ball center.
Minnesota outscored opponents by 5.6 points per 100 possessions with Towns at center last season, scoring at a rate greater than the best offenses to ever play the game, according to Cleaning the Glass. The presence of defensive stalwarts Patrick Beverley and Jarred Vanderbilt, both of whom could switch across multiple positions on the perimeter, kept Minnesota from succumbing to Towns’ weaknesses on that end.
Towns has already played more at power forward than he did all of last season, and the results have been disastrous. The Wolves are posting the equivalent of a top-three defense when Gobert and Towns share the court but scoring at a bottom-three rate in those same minutes, resulting in a net rating of -2.5 points per 100 possessions. It has been even worse with just Gobert on the floor. The offense has been even better than last season in lineups that feature Towns and no Gobert, but those units are only marginally outscoring opponents, because Kyle Anderson and Jaden McDaniels aren’t masking as many defensive problems.
The choice is now between good defense and bad offense, or bad defense and good offense.
Gobert has far from unlocked the pick-and-roll playmaking of D’Angelo Russell and Anthony Edwards. Russell and Gobert are running the sixth-most pick-and-rolls of any combination in the league and producing at an average rate (0.981 points per chance). Edwards and Gobert are also among the top-30 duos, and they are yielding just 0.798 points on every possession Edwards directly shoots, gets fouled, turns it over or passes to someone who shoots right away out of the pick-and-roll. That ranks 122nd out of 138 tandems who have run at least 50 pick-and-rolls, per Second Spectrum. As The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor noted, Edwards has passed to Gobert just twice in the 125 pick-and-rolls they have run together.
When Edwards took 10 games to log his first dunk of the season, he told reporters, “You watch the game. Every time I get to the rim, I have no chance to dunk. Everybody’s in the paint. I’ve got to figure out how to lay the ball up. I’m all of 6-4, I can’t just jump over everybody. I’m not as tall as Giannis [Antetokounmpo]. Everybody’s asking me to dunk the ball like it’s just all peaches and cream. I’ve got to get a good lane to dunk the ball. Every time I drive, it’s five people. For me, finishing the layups is pretty tough, I would say.”
That is nothing other than a direct shot at Gobert. Same with this from Edwards after a loss 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 trade chips to build around a 21-year-old. Towns and Gobert should be the leaders in Minnesota’s locker room, but both have a history of passively clashing with more assertive co-stars. Everyone in the organization understands that Edwards will eventually be the alpha dog in Minnesota, but he is not ready to assume that mantle — at least not for a team that is ready to contend.
Edwards called his team “soft,” and its disinterest is palpable.
It is not a great sign when the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 draft is conceding, “It’s normal for me to be bad on back-to-backs.” It might be worse that Towns — the league’s top pick five years before Edwards — threw gasoline on that fire, informing reporters, “Maybe I could do a better job of teaching him how to take care of his body, diet and everything. That will be on me. I know y’all think it’s funny up here when he talks about Popeyes and all that s***. That doesn’t make me happy to hear. We’re high-level athletes.”
For every signal that the Timberwolves should be better — they are somehow the second-worst defensive rebounding team in the league and allowing more second-chance points (18.5 per game) than anyone else with two 7-footers in the starting lineup — there are a handful more that suggest this is who they are. Their shooting efficiency metrics rank in the top 10, but their offensive rating is barely average. They neither create quality 3-point looks nor feature anyone who reliably makes them, and they turn the ball over a ton.
The reverse is true for their opponents, who are shooting below their expected percentages on a bevy of quality 3-point opportunities, and Minnesota’s porous transition defense makes for easier scoring chances.
All of this should have been expected when the team considered acquiring Gobert. Yet, it did anyway, and it is nowhere closer to contention — and maybe even further from it. Edwards is no guarantee to be a No. 1 option on a team that could win a title, and if he does get there, Gobert will be nearing his mid-30s when it happens and surely the subject of years more sniping about his penchant for clogging the paint.
In the meantime, the Timberwolves could lose Russell’s max salary slot if they cannot flip his contract before he hits free agency. More likely, it will cost Minnesota assets to unload Russell’s deal — devastating, given what it gave up 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, perhaps even parting with Towns. It isn’t working. 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 is hard to imagine a trade that was worse under the circumstances. Bill Russell did not want to join the St. Louis Walks. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wanted off the Milwaukee Bucks. The Wolves didn’t have to do this.
The closest comparison at this point is the Brooklyn Nets‘ 2013 trade for the aging duo of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, who delivered a single playoff victory for the Nets before the picks they returned to the Boston Celtics became Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. We knew it was bad at the time, but we didn’t know it would be that bad.
This has that same feeling, and it could get worse awfully quick.
The Timberwolves (7-8) are 10th in a crowded Western Conference, clinging to the last play-in tournament berth a month into the season. The defending champion Golden State Warriors have yet to enter the fray, and everyone else ahead of Minnesota should remain in the race — save for the Jazz. The Wolves may not make the playoffs anyhow, but can you imagine if Utah prevents them from even securing a play-in berth?
The Jazz have less incentive to lose now that they own Minnesota’s unprotected 2023 first-round pick, currently two losses short of securing a 9% chance to land generational prospect Victor Wembanyama. There are four more picks coming after that, the last of which comes due around Gobert’s 37th birthday.
You know who could use those picks? Connelly, whose strength in Denver was his ability to identity talent in the draft, including Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and Bones Hyland. Well, except for his first move as a lead executive — trading the No. 27 pick that became Gobert to Utah for a pittance in 2013.
Determination: Fact. The Gobert trade is an abject disaster.
– – – – – – –