Can the Rudy Gobert pairing with Karl-Anthony Towns work?
Timberwolves believe ‘there’s no reason why it won’t’
MINNEAPOLIS -- Rudy Gobert’s agent, Bouna Ndiaye, informed the All-NBA center about the Timberwolves’ potential interest in acquiring his services in the days ahead of the actual trade.
Gobert told Ndiaye that he needed a day or two to think about it. Twenty-four hours later, he came back to Ndiaye and told him it was probably the “best” and “most exciting” situation for him in terms of basketball.
Shortly thereafter, the deal was consummated. Gobert is now paired with Karl-Anthony Towns, placing two of the game’s four best centers side by side in the same starting lineup on a nightly basis.
“Obviously me and KAT have been going at it for many years. We’re very unique and different players,” Gobert said. “The first time that Bouna told me, I was like, ‘Can that work?’ I was thinking about it every day.”
Many others still are. The potential successes and pitfalls of two legitimate, elite bigs playing alongside one another have been hotly debated in the basketball world since the trade was first reported.
Can it work? Gobert thinks so, as do the Timberwolves.
“When I was going to bed I was thinking about it more and more and actually (realized) that was probably the best, most exciting challenge for me,” Gobert said. “To pair with a guy like KAT and the whole organization like the Timberwolves that really wants to win and is willing to do whatever it takes to win. I couldn’t hope for a better situation, a more exciting situation.”
There isn’t much recent evidence on which to base opinions of the “Twin Tower” approach, but the small sample sizes that do exist are positive.
Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis posted positive net ratings in their minutes together in Indiana in three of the past five seasons before Sabonis was shipped off to Sacramento.
Perhaps the best comparison for Towns and Gobert is DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis, who were briefly paired together in New Orleans. In the 2017-18 season, the Pelicans outscored opponents by 5.3 points per 100 possessions when the two bigs shared the floor. In roughly one full season worth of games over the two seasons, the defense of Cousins and Davis lineups rivaled that of the best teams in the NBA. Chris Finch, now coach of the Timberwolves, was the associate head coach during the final year of that duo’s time together. He saw what could work about the dual-center system.
“Well, we certainly know the blueprint of how it all fits together,” Finch said, “but every one of those players’ skill sets are a little bit different.”
A new scenario for Wolves
Indeed, it is difficult to make any comparisons, because the game has seen so few big men as versatile and offensively skilled as Towns, nor as dominant defensively and on the glass as Gobert. The NBA has yet to see how two of the very best bigs will co-exist.
“We’re going to be very unique,” Gobert said. “I don’t think there’s going to be another team that is going to be able to bring to the table what we’re gonna bring to the table. But my goal is really to make Karl a better player on both ends and make his life easier and allow him to be even better than he already is.”
That seems to be the belief in Minnesota, that the two will be assets to one another, rather than hindrances. Early in the offseason, Minnesota discussed the possibility of putting a rim-protecting center next to Towns. Finch said that’s been an “ongoing discussion” since he arrived in Minnesota.
Timberwolves president of basketball operations Tim Connelly noted that Towns has a long history of success playing in two-big lineups, from his time battling alongside Taj Gibson to Gorgui Dieng.
“I thought some of his best minutes have been at the four (position),” Connelly said.
And putting Towns next to, frankly, the best traditional five is a “home run,” Finch said.
“I think the questions about fit to me are not a major concern,” Connelly said. “I think collectively, those guys seem to balance each other out pretty well in a good way. The league hasn’t gotten smaller and smaller and smaller. You go small when your bigs aren’t better than the other bigs, and I feel pretty confident our bigs are going to be pretty good this year.”
Defensively, that fit is obvious. Towns has struggled with foul trouble year over year while serving as Minnesota’s sole rim protector in recent seasons. He averaged 3.6 fouls per game last season, trailing only Houston’s Jae’Sean Tate for the league “lead.”
Doubling down on defense
Gobert’s arrival means Towns no longer has to be the go-to rim protector — Gobert is the best in the league at that — but Towns is also free from having to bang against opposing post presences.
That does mean there will be more instances in which Towns must defend on the perimeter — even in 1-on-1 instances — but he can do that knowing he has Gobert roaming behind him if he gets beat.
Yes, the concerns will persist about what may happen when playoff opponents play zero-big lineups throughout a series. But the number of teams with the depth to do that are slim, and it’s possible the Timberwolves — namely, Towns — can consistently make small lineups pay on the other end.
Offensively, Gobert is a supreme screener who is excellent at rolling to the rim to apply pressure on the defense. That’s exactly the type of big with which D’Angelo Russell excels, and who also will benefit Anthony Edwards.
Any two-man action not involving Towns in the middle leaves one of the league’s best 3-point shooters on the perimeter. Last season, Towns also showed his ability to attack closeouts for easy drives to the hoop, should defenders race out to contest a look from deep.
“Lucky to have a guy like KAT who is so versatile and gifted that you can use him in a lot of different ways,” Finch said. “That makes it easy.”
Minnesota also believes Gobert provides a solution to the Towns double-team conundrum. Last season, the Timberwolves effectively stopped posting up one of the game’s best post scorers because opponents initially would cover Towns with a wing, then immediately double him upon the catch with the center.
Towns never truly adapted to that defensive strategy, which led to a number of turnovers and not nearly enough easy looks for his teammates. But the Timberwolves seem confident the presence of Gobert will alleviate such issues, because Gobert will be difficult to keep off the offensive glass if opposing bigs are glued to Towns.
“Maybe we can draw up lineups now where they can’t do that as much, guard the way they want to,” Finch said, “and (we can) make them guard the way we want them to.”
And the fact Gobert can clean up more on the defensive glass should allow Towns — who previously was consistently the last player down the floor as the primary rebounder — to motor down the court either to get transition opportunities or establish early, prime post positioning.
The latter, Finch said, is “low-hanging fruit” for Minnesota. The coach even mentioned some “big-to-big” dynamics between the two apt passers. Perhaps some high-low actions will be in play?
“We feel we can operate out of the pocket with both of them and operate in the short roll with both of them,” Finch said, “and also just work on some dynamic spacing, moving them around.”
The options, apparently, are endless.
“We don’t think it’s an awkward fit at all. Every team is different as you put it together,” Finch said. “It might take 20 games to get it right, or to get the right rhythm. (In an) 82-game season, things are gonna happen along the way that we are going to have to come up with answers for. But we see, from a basketball perspective, no reason at all why it won’t work.”
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