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New Year, Old Gobert
Gobert is back to his paint-protecting ways, and it couldn't have come at a better time for Minnesota
Writing several basketball articles per week, I’ve come to appreciate the finer things in life — like easily sortable statistics.
I draw numbers from a dozen websites or more for any given article, each of which has varying degrees of filtration and UX design ranging from decent to unusable. So it’s always a delight when a player or team conveniently decides to get hot exactly at a month’s start, and I can filter stats by a month instead of a random date. It’s the best!
The Internet was very happy to smash the Wolves for their objective overpay in trading for Rudy Gobert last summer. Pundits and peanut gallery alike were quick to pat themselves on the back after a brutal December stretch left the Timberwolves at 16-21, 11th in the Western Conference and outside the play-in game. The play was often worse than even the poor record would indicate. Karl-Anthony Towns looked out of sorts (and then got injured), Anthony Edwards was having issues with the limited spacing on the court, and Gobert, tired after a long summer playing for the silver-medal-winning French team in the EuroBasket, looked like a shell of himself.
But a fresh calendar was a shot of epinephrine straight to the veins. The Wolves have sprinted into the new year like Jason Statham out of an elevator:
After splitting a series against the Kings to round out the month, the Wolves finished January with an 11-5 record. Major victories against Denver, Memphis, and Cleveland are noteworthy, but there were also several wins against teams Minnesota will be jockeying with for playoff position the rest of the season, like Portland, Phoenix, New Orleans, and Sacramento.
The offense, led by Anthony Edwards and D’Angelo Russell, has made a massive turnaround. But, quietly, the defense (which was never terrible to begin with, despite what you have been led to believe) has become elite.
During Minny’s opening 16-21 stretch, they had the 12th-best defense in the league. Average-ish was disappointing, given Minnesota’s investment in Gobert. Since New Year’s, however, the Canines are up to fourth, and to my eyes, Gobert’s increased activity level has been the driver.
Prime Gobert was never the quickest of cats, but he scuttled along, tentacles waving, like some prehistoric octopus, lurching back and forth between ballhandler and rolling big to shut off both options simultaneously. It often felt like he had eight arms when he contested shots at the rim, altering and blocking everything in sight.
We hadn’t seen much of that cephalopod to start the year. He wasn’t on the same page as teammates defensively early in the season, as you can see by all the confused finger-pointing on this drive:
Even in straightforward, one-on-one drives, Gobert looked slow and ineffective:
Now, he’s moving with more alacrity and challenging shots more effectively. Part of being a defender is playing great defense and still seeing the ball go in, unfortunately, but contrast the layup he allows Jrue Holiday above with this clip of Gobert forcing De’Aaron Fox into a difficult, wrong-footed floater:
Rudy’s contesting nearly one more shot per game now than in 2022 (10.5 vs. 9.7 contests per game), and that’s despite a dramatic drop in contested threes — a sign that coach Finch and staff are determined to keep Gobert closer to the hoop, where he’s most effective. He’s also averaging 2.2 deflections in January (up from 1.4 previously), more than Jaren Jackson Jr. or Bam Adebayo. Although Gobert’s block rate is at career-low levels, his steal rate is at an all-time high — and both are better in 2023.
Through 2022, Gobert allowed 60.2% FG% at the rim — not a bad number, but far from the elite stopper the Wolves traded for. Since Jan 1, 2023, that number has fallen to 52.2%, a superb mark (although still behind Walker Kessler, one of the players the Wolves traded away for Gobert. Gobert is a much better all-around player than Kessler right now, but the optics aren’t always great!).
However, Gobert’s worth isn’t just in his mid-air dogfights against opposing dunkers. It’s also in creating no-fly zones in the first place, something Gobert remains the best in the world at. The Wolves allow 7.6% fewer shot attempts at the rim when Gobert is on the floor compared to when he’s off, the highest difference in the league. Similarly, Gobert leads the league in Bball-Index’s Rim Deterrence % metric, which calculates how a player’s presence impacts opponents’ frequency of attacking the rim.
This is what that looks like in real-time:
De’Aaron Fox is one of the league's quickest and most aggressive drivers. When he runs this pick-and-roll with All-Star center Domantas Sabonis, however, Gobert adeptly slides over and causes Fox to hesitate long enough for Jaden McDaniels to recover onto him. Before Fox can react, he’s caught in no man’s land, and nearly turns it over. He gets the ball back soon after and drives baseline on Gobert but doesn’t even glance at the hoop before launching an absurdly difficult fadeaway jumper that Gobert nearly blocks. Rudy shut this possession down with his mere presence.
When Gobert is not in the game, backup Naz Reid becomes a target. I’m on record as a big Naz Reid fan… but not for his rim-protection skills. Here, he hugs too close to Sabonis instead of cutting off the driving lane, leaving the middle exposed for an easy Malik Monk layup:
It’s hard to imagine that happening with Gobert’s better positioning and condor wingspan.
Put it all together, and the Wolves allow fewer than 110 points per 100 possessions when Gobert is on the floor, an excellent rating that is trending positively. When Gobert is off the floor, the number rises by 7.7 points, one of the starkest differences in the league. This has been one of the best teams in the NBA in 2023, something impossible to imagine with a sub-Gobert replacement (even Kessler).
Certainly, this Wolves team still has issues going forward. For one, there are still too many defensive mistakes on the perimeter. We’re nearly at the All-Star break, and yet at least twice a game, it seems as though the Wolves aren’t sure what basic defensive coverage they are in. The offensive fit with Gobert is still a work in progress, too. January featured big wins against great teams, but the Timberwolves still showcased their frustrating inconsistency with bad losses to putrid Houston and Detroit squads.
The biggest looming issue, however, literally looms: this turnaround was sparked during seven-foot Karl-Anthony Towns’ absence. The lumbering sharpshooter remains a defensive liability, and his presence could thrust the team back into turmoil. This season has proven it takes time for Gobert and his teammates to adjust to each other, and Towns hasn’t had that time.
That said, the team defended quite well with KAT and Gobert on the floor together in their limited time, and that was with Gobert at his worst. The offensive struggles were more notable, which will hopefully be easier to fix given the renaissance of guards Anthony Edwards and D’Angelo Russell.
It’s unknown when KAT will return from his calf strain. But that’s a problem to solve another day. For now, at least, the Wolves can rest a little easier knowing the Stifle Tower they’ve been waiting for is rounding into form. The West is in an absurd traffic jam: the Timberwolves were fifth coming into last night’s rematch with the Kings and fell to ninth with the loss. Nothing is guaranteed, but everything is possible, and the Minnesota Timberwolves are eager to show that their big-ticket acquisition can still make the playoff impact they hoped for.