Once upon a time, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and the hardwood, NBA teams with multiple 7-footers in their starting lineups were the ultimate predators. Tim Duncan and David Robinson won multiple championships together, as did Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol.
Yet in recent years, the playoffs have in some ways proven that modern teams can succeed without 7-footers. When the dust started settling on the 2021-22 playoffs and four teams remained, only one 7-footer played close to 10 minutes per game — Dewayne Dedmon, who came off the bench for the Miami Heat. Successful teams these days prioritize shooting and versatility and skill. Size, while beneficial, is no longer a prerequisite to success. The Cleveland Cavaliers, for example, started three near-7-footers together last season yet lost in the play-in tournament to reach the postseason.
In trading for Rudy Gobert this past offseason, the Minnesota Timberwolves threw caution to the wind and sailed back in time. Gobert and Minnesota incumbent big Karl-Anthony Towns will become the Twin Towers of the modern era.
From the outside looking in, the Timberwolves may be eschewing precedent and courting failure by trading for a star center with one already on the roster. But in fact, the two could not project to be better partners. The Timberwolves are about to remind the league just how fearsome Twin Towers can be.
Addressing their weaknesses
Last season, Minnesota was a very good basketball team. It finished 46-36 and won the play-in tournament to enter the playoffs as the seventh seed. But it wasn’t without flaws.
In the regular season, the Timberwolves were the second-worst defensive rebounding team in the NBA, and they were even worse in the playoffs. Many of their issues revolved around the rim on the defensive end. They didn’t rebound well, allowed many opposing shots at the rim, and gave up a parade of free throws. And those leaks all became floods in the playoffs.
|Season||Opposing offensive rebounding||Opposing rim frequency||Opposing free throw rate|
|Regular season |
|28.1 percent (29th of 30)||34.1 percent (20th of 30)||22.8 percent (29th of 30)|
|29.3 percent (17th of 20)||38.4 percent (20th of 20)||26.5 (19th of 20)|
The Timberwolves were plucky, winning two games from the 2-seed Memphis Grizzlies. But a first-round out remains a first-round out. The issues that plagued the Timberwolves in the regular season doomed them in the playoffs.
The answer to their problems
The Timberwolves didn’t find a patch for their leak, throwing duct tape on top like so many NBA teams would; they paved over the issues with titanium-encased plating; in Gobert, they found the player most capable — across the entire NBA — of solving their problems.
The behemoth has finished in the top 20 in rebounds per game in each of the last seven seasons, including leading the league in 2021-22. Given all that, he’s third among active players in career per-game rebounding and 21st in history. There are few better rebounders the Timberwolves could have found to address the defensive glass. But Gobert does so much more than that.
As with rebounding, Gobert is a historic shot blocker. He ranks fourth among active players in blocks per game and 18th in NBA history. Arguably Gobert’s best strength on the defensive end isn’t forcing misses but discouraging any attempts at all. Since Gobert started playing real minutes in his sophomore year, he has never finished below the 90th percentile in discouraging opposing attempts around the rim. Over the last two seasons, he has been the single best player in the league at limiting rim attempts, with opponents in both years shooting 7.8 percentage points fewer attempts at the rim with him on the court versus him on the bench. He also doesn’t foul, with a foul rate above the 85th percentile in each of his last two seasons. Opposing free throw rates plummet when Gobert is on the court.
As long as we’re keeping track, Gobert is the best at making sure opponents don’t take high-efficiency shots, don’t get fouled, and miss the shots they do take. Oh, and he’s the best at snatching the rebound so they don’t get to shoot again. It’s like Minnesota designed the solution to its problems in a lab.
Enabling Towns to thrive
Fortunately for Minnesota, its incumbent star center is malleable enough that Gobert’s presence shouldn’t limit Towns’ effectiveness. Towns is no traditional center.
Drafted in 2015, Towns already is first in the history of the NBA for most 3-pointers made by a center. His accuracy is as impressive as his frequency, given that among players with 750 made career triples, he’s 31st in history for accuracy at 39.7 percent, just behind Ray Allen (40.0) and ahead of Reggie Miller (39.5). He’s not just a shooter, as Towns has finished with efficiency above average from every area of the floor in the majority of his seasons. He’s one of the best scorers in the league. As a result, he is one of three players in history with a career points-per-game average of 23 or higher and a true shooting percentage of 62 or higher.
While Towns will make the magic happen on the offensive end, Gobert can dominate the paint on the defensive end, sealing it off like a crime scene. But offensively, he is no slouch. He may not have the skill or ability of Towns, but he doesn’t need to; Gobert impacts the game in a very different way. Gobert is a masterful pick and roll screener, one of the primary authors of a league-defining offensive system in Utah over the past several seasons. He led the league in screen assists last year and finished 15th in accuracy at the rim among players with 100 or more such shot attempts.
The Timberwolves will hammer pick and rolls on the offensive end, at least more than the minimal rate they ran last year. Gobert’s gravity as a roller will create shooting space for the rest of his teammates as an easy path to pay dirt. Within that setup Towns can spot up, set screens, or even run the pick and roll alongside Gobert. With dynamic athletes and scorers at the point guard spot — D’Angelo Russell — and the wing spot — Anthony Edwards — the Timberwolves don’t need Towns and Gobert to do everything. But even though they play the same position, they thrive in different areas of the court. The fit offensively should be seamless.
On the defensive end, Towns will have to do more than he ever has. He’ll no longer play center for 30+ minutes a night, which means he’ll have to spend more time than ever scampering around the perimeter and keeping up with smaller players. His length will help him contest shots even if he falls behind. And he’s shown the quick-twitch athleticism to have some success. Even though he has spent little time over his career playing a forward spot, he has shown the ability to succeed in the diverse roles, including defending ball handlers in pick and rolls and guarding in space.
But even though Towns’ role on the defensive end will entail more tasks, the importance of those tasks will be less than ever. Gobert will be at the rim holding down the fort. If Towns makes mistakes and lets offensive players drive past him, the team can recover. Towns will no longer be the last line of defense. And if Gobert is pulled out to the perimeter, Towns can sink down to the paint and protect the rim like he has his entire career. The fit will be more difficult on the defensive end, and ask more of the twin towers, but Towns is adaptable and Gobert is one of the most impactful defensive players in NBA history. His presence on its own virtually guarantees success.
‘Big ball’ like never before
The Timberwolves aren’t the only team evolving backwards. The Atlanta Hawks start two pick-and-roll-oriented bigs in John Collins and Clint Capela. The Cavaliers start a current star in Jarrett Allen and a future star in Evan Mobley. But no team has an offensive talent like Towns or a defensive talent like Gobert. Frankly, no team ever has.
They are uniquely impactful bigs, and they are uniquely suited to cover for one another’s weaknesses. As the NBA races into the uncharted future, many teams are innovating in different directions. Shooting, passing, turnovers: Teams are prioritizing all sorts of different advantages. The Timberwolves are pulling lessons from the past and future. Ground-bound behemoths had their heyday, in theory, over a decade ago. Dual-big lineups are dead; long live dual-big lineups.