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NBA

Either Way, Rudy Gobert In Minnesota Will Be Big Fun

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Last week’s trade between the Minnesota Timberwolves and Utah Jazz, which saw Rudy Gobert exchanged for a mountain of first-round picks and some other guys, requires us to do two things. The first is to offer all praise to the god Brian Windhorst, whose mind palace houses more deductive abilities than is possessed by the country’s entire intelligence apparatus. The second is to engage in the most satisfying of summer pastimes: trying to figure out how the heck this is all going to work out.

Some players make this game much more fun than others. Tell me that Seth Curry has been traded, and I will simply say, “OK cool,” and quickly move on in the understanding that no matter where Seth Curry plays, he’s going to be running around, catching the ball off screens, and shooting threes. But tell me that Rudy Gobert has been traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves, and I begin to yelp something like, “Oh baby! Mama mia!” The reason for my enthusiasm is fairly obvious: Gobert is a spectacularly and idiosyncratically talented center who is perhaps the league’s most reliable argument-starter among NBA fans. That he is joining a Wolves team anchored by Karl-Anthony Towns, a star big man who divides plenty of opinion on his own, and Anthony Edwards, a granite young guard who looks on the cusp of superstardom, drums up just as much promise as it does precarity.

First there is the question of how Gobert and Towns will play together. I am going to assume that the Wolves are not planning on committing over $70 million per year to two big men who will rotate at the center position, which means that next season we should see Minnesota commit to a true Two Towers lineup, which is quite a novelty in the pace-and-space era. The results of recent experiments with the form have been mixed—the Anthony Davis-Boogie Cousins partnership was a rollicking good if short-lived time; Al Horford and Joel Embiid crashed and burned; The current Cavs’ “all huge guys all the time” lineup has shown promise; Giannis and Brook Lopez won a damn championship, if we’re counting them as an example here.

On the one hand, it’s easy to imagine this upcoming season going quite well for both Gobert and Towns, as neither is all that interested in doing too many things that would require getting in the other’s way. Gobert can continue to be a one-man elite defense while showing little to no interest in developing many offensive skills, and Towns can continue pursuing his ambitions of becoming the best and most talented stretch 4 in the history of the NBA. I am picturing a future in which Gobert is busy erasing shots at the rim while Towns is making five three-pointers a game and finishing dribble-drives from the arc to the rim with ferocious dunks and the Wolves are winning a lot of games by 20 points, and what I am seeing feels like a lot of fun.

On the other hand, I am also envisioning another possible future, in which Towns and Gobert only make it easier for each other to sink further into their worst tendencies—maybe Gobert should actually try to learn some new methods for putting the ball through the hoop; maybe Towns should actually try to figure out how to stay in front of his man—and end up stagnating as a result. What was so fun about the brief period in which Cousins and Davis hooked up in New Orleans is how generative the experience was; both guys seemed to draw out new skills and proclivities from the other simply through their presence. It’s possible that Gobert and Towns will have a similar effect on each other, but it seems much more likely that they will lean on each other’s strengths for the sake of ignoring their own weaknesses. There’s a good chance this all ends with Gobert once again getting attacked and played off the floor in a playoff series, Towns once again having one or several postseason meltdowns, and everyone in a Wolves jersey yelling at each other as they get punted out of the second round.

To be clear, this outcome would also be thrilling to me. For as much as I admire Towns and Gobert as players and enjoy watching them deploy their skills during a basketball game, I also get a real kick out of watching them lose. There is no other pair of teammates in the league who will enter the season as constantly poised to throw a shit fit as soon as things start to go wrong for them, and the potential for meltdowns feels extremely high. What’s going to happen the first time Gobert has to spend an entire game doing nothing but cleaning up his teammates’ defensive mistakes on the perimeter? How will Towns react when he tries to drive to the rim and only finds Gobert standing in his way? How many fingers are going to get pointed after Nikola Jokic takes turns humiliating both of them in the post and hangs 47 points? How will Anthony Edwards’s penchant for total honesty interact with Gobert’s sensitivity?

All of which is to say, this is the best kind of NBA trade. Not only do we have a young, rising team making a push to become immediate contenders (good!), we have both the potential for rousing, outside-the-box success (great!) and spectacular failure (the best!). If we’re lucky, we’ll get all possible outcomes packed into different parts of the same season, and potentially some tears.