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Rudy Gobert Was Supposed To Take The T-Wolves To The Next Level. Why Isn’t It Working?

After making just their second playoff appearance in nearly 20 years, the Minnesota Timberwolves entered full win-now mode with a blockbuster trade during the offseason — sending five players and four first-round picks to the Utah Jazz in exchange for superstar center Rudy Gobert. The expectation was that pairing Gobert with fellow All-Star big Karl-Anthony Towns would form a dominant frontcourt duo and allow the franchise to continue its ascent. 

While there’s still a chance that could happen, that has yet to be the case for Minnesota (24-25). Just past the midpoint of the season, the team sits ninth in the Western Conference and has hovered around .500 practically all season. While competing in the middle of the pack was viewed as a sign of progress for this team last season, that’s no longer the case after last season’s success and the acquisition of a player as decorated as Gobert.

In an interview after the trade, Gobert said his goal was to compete for a championship with this team. But how has the trade affected his play on the court? And has his addition to the team actually made the Timberwolves any better?

At first glance, Gobert’s performance this season appears comparable to what he did with Utah in the past. He’s averaging a double-double in points (13.3) and rebounds (11.6) while also recording over one block (1.3) per game. He’s also shooting 67.8 percent from the field, which ranks second-best in the NBA. But with a closer look, you’ll find that this has been one of the worst statistical seasons of the big man’s 10-year career.  

Gobert’s 13.3 points per game are the second-fewest he’s averaged since taking over as a full-time starter for the Jazz in 2014-15. And his 1.3 blocks and 0.8 assists per game are the fewest he has posted since his rookie season. If that holds up, this would be the only season since his rookie year that Gobert didn’t average at least two blocks per game. (It also would be the first year that he didn’t finish among the top 10 in the league in the category.)

Moreover, Gobert’s on-court impact has been surprisingly limited. After posting a career-best RAPTOR plus/minus of +7.8 in 2020-21 and following that up with a strong +6.9 mark last year, his RAPTOR is down to +1.7 this season — the second-worst performance of his career (again, ahead of only his rookie year). And according to NBA Advanced Stats, we’ve never seen a more porous Gobert-led defensive effort. Minnesota’s defensive efficiency rating with Gobert on the court, 108.7, is the worst that he’s ever had, and his team’s -1.2 net rating while he’s in the game is the lowest since his rookie season. 

Those are not exactly the results a team would expect when trading for a three-time defensive player of the year, particularly given what the T-Wolves’ needs were coming into the season. 

Last year, Minnesota had one of the best offenses in the NBA, leading the league in points per game, and the team also posted a top-10 offensive efficiency rating (114.3). But it was also among the worst defensive teams, giving up 113.3 points a night — the seventh-most in the NBA last season. One of the main goals of the Gobert deal was to improve at that end of the court.

Since trading for Gobert, Minnesota has taken a step back offensively, which — to an extent — was to be expected. The biggest knock on the French big man has been his limited offensive game. Although the team is scoring nearly the exact same amount of points per game this year (115.3), which would have been tied for the fourth-most last season, the league has caught up. This season, Minnesota is ranked 11th in points per game, and the team has fallen to 20th in offensive efficiency (113.6). But the surprising part is the lack of improvement Minnesota has shown on defense. Even with Gobert playing 40 out of a possible 49 games, the team is allowing the league’s 11th-most points (115.6), only a four-spot improvement from last year. And its defensive efficiency rating is actually worse this season, rising from 111.2 to 113.4.

With the addition of Gobert, the thought was that pairing a defense-minded big with a skilled, shooting big like Towns would allow both players to make up for each other’s deficiencies, but that simply hasn’t been the case so far. Before Towns was forced to miss time due to a calf injury, the two weren’t even among the Timberwolves’ top two-man lineups. Of the 19 pairs to log 400 or more minutes on the court together this season, Gobert and Towns have the worst offensive rating (106.6) and the seventh-worst net rating (-0.7).

Minnesota’s new big man hasn’t been much better with the team’s other young star, Anthony Edwards, either: The pair also has a -0.7 net rating when sharing the floor. And in the limited time that all three stars are on the court together, the production has been mixed. While it has been one of the team’s better defensive combos, posting a 106.6 defensive rating (second-best among three-man units on the team this season), the Gobert-Towns-Edwards trio has been the second-worst offensively of any three-man lineup with more than 350 minutes together this season (with a 107.4 offensive rating). That has led the trio’s overall net rating to just barely break-even (+0.8 points per 100 possessions) despite its abundance of talent.

It’s still too early to tell whether this newly formed Timberwolves core can eventually be good enough to play at the championship level Gobert referred to before the season. But it is clearly off to a bad start, and it is concerning that the big-ticket acquisition of Gobert has yet to make the team much better … if at all.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Andres Waters is a freelance writer based in Connecticut. He is a data analyst at ESPN.


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