Mike Conley was no different from a lot of NBA people, whether fan, coach or a veteran point guard such as himself who had logged nearly 1,000 games across 15 seasons at that point.
When Conley heard the news last July that his Utah Jazz team had traded All-Star center Rudy Gobert to Minnesota to team with All-Star center Karl-Anthony Towns, he was puzzled. He was skeptical. He was intrigued.
“I admit my initial thought was, ‘Well, I can’t wait to see it,’” Conley said, smiling slyly. “Because I didn’t know how it was going to work, if it would work or how it would work. But I knew they got two of the best bigs in the league …”
At a time when the league was getting, or at least playing, smaller than ever. The burgeoning of the 3-point game, with the commitment to stretch and distort defenses while requiring switchability in so-called positionless basketball, had been conspiring against the game’s 7-footers for close to a decade when Timberwolves executive Tim Connelly decided last summer to team Towns and Gobert.
Mere weeks after seeing centers such as Gobert in Utah or Steven Adams in Memphis lose playing time in playoff games due to limited defensive mobility, Minnesota was doubling down. Or doubling up, given the size involved.
“We all thought that at first, but then you started thinking that KAT [Towns] was technically like a forward. He can stretch the floor and be a 7-foot shooter,” Conley said. “And with Rudy going to the rim, that’s dangerous. Then you started thinking about all the possibilities and there was a real chance that it could work quite well.”
What changed? Conley’s mind after reflecting on the X&O tactics that could be tapped into with a new-age Hakeem Olajuwon-Ralph Sampson configuration? Or simply his whereabouts?
Seven months after Gobert went to Minnesota, Conley was shipped to the Twin Cities as well, a secondary move designed to prop up the first one. As he spoke about the challenge of making work what previously had simply amused him – in the visitors’ dressing room at United Center late on St. Patrick’s Day – the veteran playmaker was a Wolf himself, Gobert a few stalls to his right, Towns in street clothes a couple to his left.
“I’m excited. I talked to [Towns] every day, trying to figure out how we were going to do this thing,” Conley said. “Because I know when he’s out there, he’s going to open up the floor even more for everybody.
“I’ve played with pick-and-pop bigs and guys who can roll. Marc Gasol is probably the closest comparison as far as offensive game. It worked pretty well [in Memphis]. … I’m very eager to play with all the pieces together.”
Twelve days after he said that, nearly six weeks after he arrived, Conley and the Wolves have had all their pieces together precisely once: the 99-96 victory over Golden State Sunday at Chase Center. If their preferred starting lineup now of Towns, Gobert, Conley, Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels opens against the Suns Wednesday night in Phoenix (ESPN, 10 p.m. ET), that will be twice – in 77 games.
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This no longer is a learning curve, it’s more of a learning lurch. What was intended to be a process long on preparation and innovation – probing the ins and outs of the Towns-Gobert tandem – necessarily has been fast-tracked to get the Wolves, ready or not, to a postseason berth come April 9.
It might be a Play-In spot like last year. Or at 39-37, riding a four-game winning streak, they might snag a full-fledged, top-six, best-of-seven situation this time, something the franchise has managed just once (2018) since 2004.
Either way, Minnesota will be trying to pass its spring exams through intense cramming and a lot of short-term memory. The season-long development of the two big guys playing together, with the other Wolves blending around them, never materialized.
Early, when Towns and Gobert did share the floor, their point guard was D’Angelo Russell and the results were mixed (9-10). Then the week after Thanksgiving, Towns suffered a right calf strain, an injury initially estimated to put him out for four to six weeks.
It wound up costing him, the team and the master plan 16 weeks. Never mind losing patience, the fan base was losing hope.
By the night of Towns’ return – against Atlanta last week at Target Center, his 22nd appearance in Minnesota’s 74th game – explosive wing Edwards was out, missing his third of three games due to a sprained ankle suffered in Chicago. It wasn’t until Sunday against the Warriors that Connelly’s and coach Chris Finch’s fave five lined up as one.
The next night, Towns again was in street clothes, his availability limited by caution in the back-to-back scenario.
Said Finch: “This season for us has been like a multitude of seasons already.”
The good news for the Wolves is that they enjoyed perhaps their best 24 hours of the 2022-23 season. After holding the defending champs under 100 points in San Francisco, Minnesota beat the Kings in Sacramento with seven players scoring in double figures. The offense coughed up only six turnovers, while the defense gave up only five 3-pointers.
Players up and down the rotation are humming right now. Towns came back with an urgency, less deferential to Gobert and playing more like his old self. He sank the Hawks with a pair of clutch free throws late and nailed 4-for-9 treys at Golden State.
Gobert picked up Towns’ slack Monday with 16 points and 16 rebounds against the Kings, giving him 31 double-doubles this season. Since All-Star weekend, he is averaging 15.6 points on 61.8% shooting with 11.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks – all at or near his career numbers.
“Offensively, Karl’s so gifted, the game comes easy to him,” Gobert said of their unproven partnership. “Defensively, it’s just about him and me learning how to be successful in that lineup. And understanding when I’m in there, he can be pretty much like a guard defensively. … He’s going to love playing with Mike.”
And if two bigs aren’t challenging enough for Finch and his staff to synchronize, the Wolves these days have three. Naz Reid, an undrafted 6-foot-9 role player the past three seasons, has been on the best run of his career, averaging 16.2 points since All-Star. He scored 30 against Golden State in late February, 23 more Sunday, with eight games of 20 or more.
Any configuration now that has Towns-Gobert stripping significant opportunities from Reid could be a step backward.
“It’s going to be a great different look to give teams, especially in the playoffs,” Towns said over the weekend. “If one thing’s not working, we can instantly go to another thing and another coverage.”
Edwards remains the team’s most potent scorer and the likely centerpiece of the team’s future. He leads Minnesota with 24.5 points per game, is as quotable as he is durable and he still is just 21 years old. In fact, among those who have scored 25 points or more – something Edwards has done 42 times so far this season – his 88 such games before age 22 trail only LeBron James (160), Kevin Durant (136), Carmelo Anthony (98) and Luka Doncic (91) in NBA history.
McDaniels became a full-time starter this season and, with his 6-foot-9 length and 7-foot wingspan, is the Wolves’ on-ball stopper/denier. He might land an All-Defense spot, even as his offensive contributions grow (11.4 ppg on 60.7% true shooting before the break, 15.3 and 62.6% since).
Then there’s newcomer Kyle (Slo Mo) Anderson, whose methodical mastery has him playing as well as in any of his previous eight seasons with the Spurs or Grizzlies. He stuffed the stats sheet at Golden State with 12 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists and five steals. He’s got 28 career double-doubles – 13 have come in 63 games with the Wolves.
The work of knitting it all together begins in earnest now. Conley’s playmaking and judgment are essential now, the biggest reason Minnesota considered him a needed upgrade from Russell. What needed to happen over 82 games now gets crammed into a fraction of that, and the point guard knows it.
“My time here is to try to make these guys, each individual guy, the best he can be on the court,” Conley said. “And make all five guys on the court be cohesive and work. If I can do that, I’m doing my job.”
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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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