Like the champion Golden State Warriors, the Minnesota Timberwolves are trying for a repeat.
The Wolves were one of the league’s most improved teams last season, seeing the biggest jump in winning percentage (+.242) and the second-biggest jump in point differential per 100 possessions (+8.0) from 2020-21. With the offseason addition of Rudy Gobert, the Wolves are hoping to be one of the league’s most improved teams again. They went from bad to good, but there are certainly a few more rungs on that ladder.
The Wolves were the fourth-most improved defensive team last season, climbing from 28th to 13th in points allowed per 100 possessions. But that’s still the end of the floor where there’s more room to get better. And acquiring a three-time Kia Defensive Player of the Year was certainly done for the sake of continued defensive improvement (though with a different defensive scheme).
Gobert’s Utah Jazz teams ranked in the top three defensively in four of the last six seasons. They fell to 10th last season, but allowed 7.8 fewer points per 100 possessions with Gobert on the floor (104.5) than they did with him off the floor (112.3). That was the seventh biggest differential among 261 players who played at least 1,000 minutes for a single team last season.
The Wolves are one of two franchises — the New Orleans Pelicans (even when you include the original Charlotte Hornets) are the other — that have never had a top-five defense. Minnesota has ranked in the top 10 just once in its 34 years of existence, finishing sixth in 2003-04.
Might this be the year? Here are some notes, numbers and film regarding Gobert and the impact he could make in Minnesota.
1. Rim protection
Gobert’s impact begins with his ability to protect the rim. His standing reach (9-foot-7) is the fifth highest in 23 years of official Draft measurements, and he’s certainly more coordinated than a couple of guys who reached higher.
Last season, Gobert ranked third with 2.1 blocks per game, and opponents shot just 49.3% at the rim when he was there to protect it. That was tied for the second-best rim protection mark among 90 players who were there for at least 250 opponent shots at the rim.
Gobert is generally going to play “drop” coverage, hang in the paint, and keep ball-handlers from getting to the bucket…
When his man isn’t involved in the play, he’s also able to get from across the floor to erase a shot attempt…
2. Deterrence and foul avoidance
Opponents still shot 64.3% (1.3 points per attempt) in the restricted area when Gobert was on the floor last season. But where his impact is most felt is preventing those restricted area shots (the most valuable shots on the floor) from being attempted in the first place.
With Gobert on the floor last season, Jazz opponents took 22% of their shots in the restricted area. With him off the floor (though he was backed up by a seemingly reasonable facsimile in Hassan Whiteside), that rate was 29%.
Gobert forces opponents to shoot from further out than they would prefer…
… or just kick the ball out and reset their offense…
Put the blocks/contests and the deterrence together and the Jazz allowed 8.6 fewer points per 48 minutes in the restricted area with Gobert on the floor (25.7) than they did with him off the floor (34.2). That’s a huge difference. For comparison, the Sixers allowed only 1.6 fewer per 48 with Joel Embiid on the floor (33.4) than they did with him off (35.0).
League-wide, players shot 65% in the restricted area and 43% elsewhere in the paint last season. So preventing opponents from getting all the way to the rim is worth a lot of points over 82 games.
So, too, is avoiding fouls. Trips to the free throw line are more efficient than layups and Utah opponents registered just 19 free throw attempts per 100 shots from the field when Gobert was on the floor. That was the lowest on-court mark for anybody in the Jazz’s rotation and Gobert’s presence on the floor had a much bigger impact on how often their opponents got to the line than it did on how often they grabbed offensive rebounds (even though he ranked second among individuals in defensive rebounding percentage).
As a team, the Jazz led the league in opponent free throw rate (21.6 attempts per 100 field goal attempts). The Wolves, with one of the league’s most aggressive defensive schemes, ranked 29th (29.1 per 100).
3. Defending in space
Gobert is primarily an interior defender, but he can also handle himself on the perimeter. Among 207 players who’ve defended at least 250 isolations over the last three seasons (including playoffs), Gobert ranks 15th in points per chance allowed (0.84), according to Second Spectrum tracking.
He’ll use his hands a bit, but his size isn’t easy to shake. So he can recover to block a shot even when it seems he might be out of the play…
… or contest a step-back when the ball-handler has tried to put him on his heels…
4. Playoff issues
The playoffs were a different story this year for Gobert. In their six-game series in the first round, the Mavs scored an amazing 1.48 points per chance when they isolated (25 times) against Gobert, according to Second Spectrum. They were able to beat him off the dribble a couple of times, but mostly hit some tough shots.
Over the last four seasons, Gobert’s rim protection numbers have been consistently worse in the playoffs (61.4% over those four seasons) than in the regular season (50.8%). Teams have been able to space the Jazz out with five shooters on the floor and attack from there…
In the regular season, Gobert defended 7.8 shots at the rim per 36 minutes on the floor. In the Dallas series, he defended just 4.2 shots at the rim per 36.
The Wolves, with less mobility at the four (with Karl-Anthony Towns) than the Jazz had (Royce O’Neale), will have similar issues against teams that can put five shooters on the floor. But the Wolves would probably love to get to where the Jazz have been (the West’s best regular season record over the last five seasons) with Gobert.
Minnesota hasn’t had a disappointing exit from the playoffs in a long time, because it has made the playoffs just twice in the last 18 seasons — both times as a No. 7 or 8 seed. Playoff issues will be something to worry about eight months from now, and the first key to success in the playoffs is being good enough in the regular season to get a high seed. Gobert, with how much he can impact a defense over 82 games, can help the Wolves get there.
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