Gobert Punch Underscores Timberwolves Failed Experiment

Apr 10, 2023, 3:33 PM

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SALT LAKE CITY – Even before Rudy Gobert tried to punch teammate Kyle Anderson in Sunday’s season finale, the Utah Jazz looked like the early beneficiaries of last season’s trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

But after his latest debacle, the Jazz are the clearcut winners.

In the waning minutes of the first half of the Timberwolves’ must-win game against the New Orleans Pelicans, Gobert and Anderson got into a heated argument in the huddle.

Reportedly, Anderson offered choice words toward Gobert, soliciting the attempted punch.

After the game, both the players and the Timberwolves organization tried to downplay the altercation, but their response fell on deaf ears.

Less than 12 months since the marriage began, it’s plain to see the Gobert experiment in Minnesota has been a failure.

Gobert Trade Bad From The Start

From the moment the July trade was agreed upon, there was a strong chorus of critics that predicted the Timberwolves had overpaid for Gobert.

Minnesota sent the Jazz four future first-round picks, all of them nearly fully unprotected, plus a pick swap in 2026.

In addition, Minnesota threw in veterans Malik Beasley, Patrick Beverley, Jarred Vanderbilt, Leandro Balmaro, and then-unknown rookie Walker Kessler.

By all accounts, the Timberwolves had mortgaged their future to win now, betting that Gobert would shore up the weaknesses of last year’s team.

Instead, Minnesota got off to a rocky start, opening the year at 5-8, and struggling to find a rhythm with Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns sharing the frontcourt.

Star guard Anthony Edwards complained about the lack of spacing with Gobert stuck in the paint on offense, while D’Angelo Russell never built a cohesive two-man game with his pick-and-roll teammate.

Though they climbed back above .500 in the ensuing weeks, they never fully righted the ship.

The Timberwolves remained in the bottom half of the Western Conference Playoff race throughout the season, peaking as the fifth seed for just one day in January before dropping back into play-in territory.

They struggled against the worst teams in the NBA, finishing with a 2-6 record against the Charlotte Hornets, Detroit Pistons, and San Antonio Spurs.

Despite winning the season series against several Western Conference playoff rivals, the tiebreakers never mattered as Minnesota finished the season in the eighth seed with a paltry 42-40 record, four games worse than their 2021-22 campaign, and one spot below last year’s finish.

Timberwolves Failures Aren’t All Gobert’s Fault

Before examining Sunday’s punch, it’s worth pointing out that the Timberwolves’ shortcomings don’t lie solely on the shoulders of Gobert.

Minnesota President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly made the decision to acquire Gobert by any means necessary.

Despite the Jazz reportedly rebuffing the Timberwolves’ early offers for the All-Star center, Connelly and company continued to up their offer until it became too rich to refuse.

In retrospect, he gave up more than Minnesota could recoup.

On paper, the veteran players sent to the Jazz in the Gobert trade weren’t remarkable.

Beasley now fills a reserve role on the Los Angeles Lakers, while Vanderbilt provides energy to an aging starting lineup.

Beverley was likewise rerouted to the Lakers for Talen Horton-Tucker, while Bolmaro was waived by the Jazz midseason.

But while the production lost in the trade wasn’t a major setback for the Timberwolves, the culture lost was.

Beverley was never Minnesota’s best player, but his scrappy play helped reinvigorate a stagnant franchise. Vanderbilt doubled down on the yeoman’s work that cleared a path for Towns and Edwards to carry the roster to the postseason.

When the Timberwolves moved those players for Gobert, though they got more talented, they lost the cultural spark that propelled them to the postseason.

Additionally, it was clear from the beginning that Minnesota had set false expectations for the veteran entering his 10th year.

Gobert’s Timberwolves coaches and teammates talked about tapping into an offensive skillset that the Jazz never utilized. Some believed that playing alongside Russell would unlock Gobert further as a threat in the pick and roll, while others saw the Timberwolves’ supporting cast easing the burden on the three-time Defensive Player of the Year.

Minnesota’s defense did improve, jumping from the 13th-best in the NBA in 2022 to the 10th-best this season. That growth couldn’t overcome the collapse of the Timberwolves’ offensive which cratered, falling from seventh last season to 23rd this year.

Much of that decline can be attributed to the loss of Towns who missed all but 29 games this season with a calf strain. But even in his absence, Minnesota couldn’t capture the offensive efficiency that was routine for the Jazz when they had Gobert in uniform.

And even without Towns in the lineup, Gobert still saw his numbers decline across the board in Minnesota.

The French big man averaged his fewest points per game since 2016. His rebounds dropped by more than three per game, while his shooting percentages dropped dramatically.

Gobert’s fit on the floor was so ill-fitting that the Timberwolves had to make a trade for former Jazz teammate Mike Conley at midseason just to steady the ship.

Gobert Does Deserve Criticism

While many of the Timberwolves’ failures aren’t fully Gobert’s fault, he clearly deserves some blame for the team’s issues, and it was never more clear than in Sunday’s punch-throwing debacle.

Throughout his career, Gobert has formed a habit of making ill-timed mistakes, both on the floor and off.

The long-limbed center has repeatedly overextended himself on the offensive end in key moments, rather than defer to his more competent teammates.

He’s also made culture-stirring complaints about his role, and his team’s shortcomings.

With the Jazz Gobert often remarked on his lack of touches within the offense. Last season, he took a not-so-veiled shot at his teammates’ defensive effort, despite the fact that he’d been sidelined with an injury.

And that came before his worst offense yet, attempting to punch Anderson in the most important game of the Timberwolves season.

It’s clear Gobert has had a frustrating season in Minnesota and has caught an undeserved share of blame for their problems. But as the highest-paid player on the roster, and the third-most veteran player in uniform, the Timberwolves needed their star offseason acquisition to step up when the team needed him most, and instead he’s become their biggest headache.

Gobert was sent home from the team’s must-win game at halftime and has subsequently been suspended for game one of the play-in tournament against the Lakers on Tuesday.

Regardless of the outcome, Gobert has put himself in a lose-lose situation.

If Minnesota beats LA, Gobert will be viewed as the hurdle the team overcame to reach their true potential. If they lose, it will be because Gobert forced the team into suspending him due to his own selfish actions.

Barring a miraculous run in the playoffs which would have to include winning a play-in tournament game, then beating either the top-seeded Denver Nuggets or the second-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, the Timberwolf’s season will end in disappointment.

Going into the summer, Gobert’s future will be the number one most discussed issue among Timberwolves fans.

Again, not all of the Timberwolves’ problems are Gobert’s fault, but his latest selfish outburst has made it easy to focus the target squarely on his back.

The Trade Will Likely Get Worse

Unfortunately for both the Timberwolves and Gobert, there isn’t a high likelihood that their blockbuster gamble ever rebounds in their direction.

On top of the first-year failures, the assets the Jazz acquired in the trade continue to look better by the day.

Walker Kessler is a shoo-in for the All-Rookie first team and will has the makings of a high-level starting center for the next decade. Worse yet, he’s doing all of the things Minnesota hoped Gobert would offer, at a fraction of the cost.

In addition to the $38.1 million the Timberwolves paid Gobert this season, he’s owed $131.4 million over the next three years.

Kessler earned just under $2.7 million this season and will earn a total of $10.6 million over the next three years.

To make matters worse, the picks the Timberwolves owe Utah are already falling higher in the draft than anyone expected last summer.

At best, the Timberwolves’ 2023 pick owed to Utah this season will sit at number 16 in the first round, firmly in a position to add a quality player to the Jazz’s roster.

At worst, the pick could climb to 12, depending on what happens in the play-in tournament over the next week, giving the Jazz a true shot at a high-level lottery selection.

Now, with very little cap space to work with in the coming seasons, and even fewer first-round draft picks, the Timberwolves are trapped between a rock and hard place and will have to find wiggle room anywhere they can get it.

While the Jazz enter the offseason brimming with confidence in their first-year post-Gobert, the Timberwolves will soon find themselves in a similar position, sitting on the sidelines, but without the same optimism.

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Ben Anderson is the Utah Jazz insider for KSL Sports and the co-host of Jake and Ben from 10-12p with Jake Scott on 97.5 The KSL Sports Zone. Find Ben on Twitter at @BensHoops or on Instagram @BensHoops.

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Gobert Punch Underscores Timberwolves Failed Experiment