Boston Celtics, Minnesota Timberwolves, NBA

How good does Rudy Gobert make the Wolves?

The Wolves’ acquisition of Rudy Gobert shifted the NBA landscape in a way no modern NBA team ever has, but is he worth the price Minnesota paid for him?

As the rest of the NBA world waited for the summer’s biggest shoe to drop, the Minnesota Timberwolves aggressively proceeded according to plan by shifting the Western Conference landscape — and potentially the NBA title race — in a way no team has dared to in the modern era of basketball. Double-center lineups have swung back en vogue around the NBA, and Minnesota committed to that approach as fully as reasonably possible by giving up one of the most substantive trade packages in recent memory for Rudy Gobert, one of the most valuable — if somewhat divisive — centers in the NBA. The Wolves sacrificed Patrick Beverley, Jarred Vanderbilt, Malik Beasley, Walker Kessler, Leandro Bolmaro and five first-round picks for the 30-year-old Gobert, betting not only on the immediate impact he’ll have on the franchise, but also on the long-term viability of a roster construction that cuts sharply against the grain. That Gobert is still under contract for at least the next three seasons (with a player option for 2025-26) at over $40 million per year can be viewed as a help or a hindrance for the Wolves, who signed their other center, Karl-Anthony Towns, to a four-year, $224 million extension this summer — and which side of that discussion you fall on likely informs whether you believe Gobert is worth the haul Minnesota gave up for him.

The decision to pair two of the game’s best centers together was likely precipitated, at least in part, by Karl-Anthony Towns’ defensive limitations, which have created problems for the Wolves throughout his career. Towns has struggled protecting the rim, containing the pick-and-roll, communicating with teammates, securing rebounds, avoiding foul trouble and the myriad other defensive responsibilities that come with being an NBA center, and Minnesota might have concluded that it would never be able to defend well enough to win a championship without a sturdier anchor. Enter Gobert, a generational defensive force perfectly suited to not only fulfill the responsibilities Towns couldn’t, but mask Towns’ deficiencies in a way few players can.

Gobert has mastered all of the defensive reads that have long vexed Towns, and his ability to practically eliminate quality looks for opponents at the rim might make him the most valuable regular-season defender of the last half-century. That kind of dominant interior presence all but assures an elite defense, and the Wolves should be able to introduce more conventional defensive principles to a system that relied heavily on forcing turnovers and poor opponent shooting luck to scrape by last season.

The Wolves’ pressure on the perimeter allowed them to hold opponents to an average number of shots at the rim last season, but surrendered over 66 percent shooting on those looks. Utah, by contrast, has been one of the best rim-protecting teams in the league throughout Gobert’s prime, and even with severely limited personnel on the perimeter, had the equivalent of Boston’s top-ranked defense with Gobert on the floor last season. That mark exceeded the Wolves’ defensive rating with Towns on the court by nearly six points per 100 possessions.

With Gobert in the fold, Towns’ deficiencies should become less damaging as he slides into a more ancillary defensive role, and it’s even possible that playing alongside the game’s best defensive center sharpens Towns’ positioning and discipline to the point that he even becomes a serviceable secondary help defender. (At the very least, having two seven-footers in the frontcourt should make it exceedingly difficult for Minnesota’s opponents to score at the rim.) Gobert will also help cover for some of the Wolves’ inevitable foibles on the perimeter, and his presence on the defensive glass will be a welcome addition for a team that ranked 29th in defensive rebound percentage last season.

Towns and Gobert should also forge an even more symbiotic partnership on offense, where Towns is among the most skilled and versatile big men in NBA history. Gobert plays within a narrow offensive lane, but if any center in the NBA is equipped to fit alongside a traditional pick-and-roll center, it’s one who perennially shoots 40 percent from 3, can put the ball on the floor and sets up teammates with his passing. Gobert, in turn, can play off of Towns’ multifaceted game by putting pressure on the rim and cracking open holes in the defense with his screening, while head coach Chris Finch ties it all together with one of the league’s most creative offenses.

The Wolves posted one of the most efficient shot profiles in the NBA last season, ranking seventh in rim attempt frequency and third in 3-point rate, and Gobert’s ability to collapse defenses as a roll man should create even more high-value shots. Minnesota won’t have the on-ball perimeter weapons recent iterations of the Jazz did, but Gobert will still demand attention every time he rolls or cuts into the paint, which will widen driving lanes for Edwards and D’Angelo Russell and open up kickout passes to spot-up shooters — including Towns. His new teammates may need time to adjust to playing with a more conventional screen-and-dive center, and Gobert’s inability to create for himself or shoot outside of the paint could occasionally create clunky floor spacing when Towns works out of the post or when Gobert plays with poor-shooting bench units.

Yet Towns, Gobert and Edwards all put enough pressure on defenses to avoid giving opponents easy hiding spots, and Gobert does far more on the offensive end than the non-shooting Vanderbilt did a season ago. The Wolves cracked the top 10 on offense and top 15 on defense leageuwide last season, and it’s hard to see how adding an elite two-way center makes them worse on either end. Minnesota’s biggest questions will arise in the playoffs, where both Towns and Gobert have seen their effectiveness wane to varying degrees in the past. The bigger variables, however, are those around the Wolves’ twin towers: Will Jaden McDaniels make enough outside shots to earn the respect of opposing defenses? Is D’Angelo Russell a dynamic enough pick-and-roll creator to bring the most out of his two big men? Most importantly, can Edwards take a full-on leap into stardom, or will he continue progressing along a more modest trajectory?

Ideally, Towns would have made the requisite defensive strides to play as the lone big man in ultra-skilled five-out lineups. Minnesota was rightfully skeptical of that scenario ever coming to fruition, so it bet everything it could on the next-best thing.

How much will Malcolm Brogdon move the needle for the Celtics?

By the end of the NBA Finals, it had become abundantly clear that the Boston Celtics needed some sort of offensive jolt, and that no one on the current roster was fit to provide it. As the Warriors tightened their grip on the series, Boston’s lack of a single, undeniable offensive creator became increasingly noticeable, as did the limitations of every Celtic that tried to play that role. Driving lanes grew narrower, easy looks got harder to come by, and any kind of rhythm or flow became almost impossible to create until Golden State eventually coasted to a championship.

The addition of Malcolm Brogdon won’t solve all of the Celtics’ offensive issues, but he may be as close to a solution as the team could have reasonably found. I posited earlier this summer that a combo guard who could shoot, attack the rim and facilitate would be difficult — if not impossible — for Boston to acquire without either compromising its elite defense, sacrificing a key rotation player, or both. That clearly wasn’t the case, and the Celtics found the right partner in the Pacers to swing a deal that could benefit both teams. Indiana shed one of its heftiest contracts, lowered its injury risk, and cleared room for younger players to assume control of the team. Boston, meanwhile, gave up a (likely) late first-round pick and exactly zero players who contributed on the court in the last two rounds of the playoffs for someone who, if healthy, could become an indispensable member of its playoff rotation next year.

The health caveat is an important one for Brogdon, who has missed 133 regular-season games since the start of the 2018 season and dealt with recurring injuries to his lower body throughout his career. The risk that a player like that could miss a substantial part of the coming season is baked into the trade calculus, which explains why the price for Brogdon was so low. Yet for a team within arm’s reach of an NBA championship, this was a risk worth taking. If he can stay on the court, Brogdon provides exactly the kind of balanced, assertive offensive play the Celtics could have used in June. He’s quietly been one of the NBA’s most prolific drivers over the last three seasons, and his ability to attack the basket gives the Celtics a much-needed downhill threat who can pierce elite defenses and create advantages. Brogdon is also a capable passer out of both drives and pick-and-rolls, and though his overall 3-point shooting dipped as a Pacer, he’s been mostly reliable on catch-and-shoot 3s throughout his career, which bodes well for his fit alongside on-ball creators like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

Defensively, Brogdon isn’t the on-ball stopper he was in Milwaukee, but he still possesses the length, strength and quickness to guard multiple positions on the perimeter. At 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, he can theoretically play as a third guard alongside both Derrick White and Marcus Smart, yet he’ll also spearhead bigger, wing-heavy units as the smallest Celtic on the floor. That — along with Boston having no weak defensive links in its rotation — should unlock even more switchable lineups for Ime Udoka and, once again, make the Celtics one of the NBA’s stingiest defenses.

That’s the best-case outcome of this trade. It may be equally likely that injuries rob Brogdon of another productive season, and Boston is left searching for the same answers it couldn’t find six weeks ago. But even that downside still leaves them in the same place they were last season: a viable championship contender whose weaknesses only matter in the late rounds of the playoffs. The chance that Brogdon turns them into something even incrementally more than that is worth the price Boston paid to get him, and the risk that comes with it.

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