The Minnesota Timberwolves have a petite problème on their hands in the form of one very big, now very absent, missing man.
Rudy Gobert will be away from the Wolves for their play-in tournament match against the Lakers, because Minnesota suspended Gobert for punching his teammate, Kyle Anderson, in the team’s Sunday evening game against the Pelicans. The punch came during a timeout with four minutes left in the first half when Gobert, who looked to be bickering with Anderson in a huddle around the Wolves bench, reached one very long arm over the head of the team’s crouching coach, Chris Finch, and struck Anderson in the chest.
Anderson sprung after Gobert and was quickly intercepted by teammates while Gobert, shoved backward by Taurean Prince, continued his retreat down the floor. Meanwhile, the kindest man alive, Mike Conley, looks on with the tired expression of someone who thought they’d seen it all and was just proven wrong by a Frenchman in a snit doing his best “hold my beer” (“tiens ma bière”).
When the half finally rolled around four minutes later, a frustrated Jaden McDaniels punched a wall in the tunnel on his way to the locker room. McDaniels came out after the half and sat on the bench with his hand bandaged, and a further examination revealed a fracture. Now, McDaniels will also be out against the Lakers and, ostensibly, whatever games the Wolves have left. That puts Minnesota out Gobert, McDaniels and center Naz Reid, who’s been out since March 31 with a wrist fracture and who the Wolves were already missing dearly.
If you’ve been following along all season you’ve probably picked up on this, but, the West is weird. Like three kids stacked on each other’s shoulders wearing a trench coat, the conference looked like a strange, lurching parody of the East all throughout the regular season. There were times when it seemed a team was ready to make a move — Utah's barrelling early-season run, Denver’s sustained mid to late-season run before they got bored of themselves — and pull out in front, forcing the rest of the conference to get it together. But all it takes is looking at the percentage difference between the West’s number one seeded Nuggets (.646) and the East’s top Bucks (.707) to see that while yes, both these conferences were playing basketball, they weren’t playing the same game.
To excel in a mess, a team (and its) roster must do better than wading through chaos; it has to revel in the rat’s nest — to find its footing in all-out anarchy. I think of the 2003-2004 Pistons barrelling into their Finals series against the Lakers who, so polished, so poised, nevertheless buckled under Detroit’s swarming defense and outwitting on the small stuff offense. Or the 2018-2019 Raptors who played, in the words of Steph Curry, a very particular kind of “janky” basketball — not beautiful, not elegant, but abrupt, functional and a little desperate — to win. Basically, a team has to not care about how bad they might look.
The Wolves are a team that’s been easily embarrassed. Before taking the big swing on trading for Gobert last summer, going all the way back to Jimmy Butler’s very brief tenure with the team, there was an underlying trepidation on the part of franchise star, Karl-Anthony Towns, to lead. Alongside Andrew Wiggins, the two young stars languished, and not for lack of trying by then-coach Tom Thibodeau or Butler, but it never seemed to be particularly clear what the plan was in Minnesota. It still isn’t.
Trading for Gobert initially looked like the Wolves, under Chris Finch and new exec Tim Connelly, had finally picked a direction (any direction!) and it was to go big. Towns and Gobert, on paper, could out-defend and out-size any roster in the West. Add Reid and the explosive, smirking edge of Anthony Edwards, and this was a team that could give the giant Cavaliers a run.
Instead, at the end of their season, the Wolves, for all that size, sit 26th in their defensive rebounding percentage, allowed 50.8 points in the paint per game (the Cavs, by comparison, allowed 46.3), and were giving up 13.7-second chance points. The size, in the end, hasn’t really mattered....
Injuries aside, games where Gobert, Towns, and Edwards operated on the same page, for a prolonged stretch of time, were rare. There’s a lackadaisical passing off of responsibility that’s clear in how difficult it’s been for the team to click and bear out in the smaller numbers and easier fixes — like Minnesota being 27th in league turnovers, letting their possessions slip away 15.3 times per game.
For all his antics off the floor, Gobert seems genuinely uncomfortable being the one getting his hands dirty when it counts. There’s a big difference between someone who’s willing to hurl themselves after a ball in play, or deploy their size with some control and targeted pressure, and a person comfortable hitting a teammate square in the chest and immediately hurrying away. Towns, for all his rebounding prowess and spot-up shooting, still seems to fade in big moments, and Edwards runs a mercurial risk in wanting more responsibility and the larger role of a leader while opting for showboat moments over team action (and honestly, how can you blame him?)
The Lakers, who’ve had their own share of existential troubles this season, can pull out a win on the Wolves if they simply let cooler heads — and LeBron James’ wealth of experience — lead.
There’s still some snarl left in these Wolves, that much was clear in their last regular season game. The real question is whether or not this group has the bearing and trust in each other to give up their exhausting, perpetual front and get comfortable with the chaos it’s going to take to nab a win.