The Minnesota Timberwolves Are Betting Big On Large Ball

Laocoon came screaming down from the temple, the priest begging his fellow Trojans to burn the mysterious gift horse that they were looking in the mouth. Something very strange is happening, very strange. He was mocked, ignored and then eaten by snakes; his pain—and prophecy—immortalized as public spectacle.

Jack Tien-Dana’s Eight Years of Latin Class in High School And College

And so the Utah Jazz, with the eyes of Brian Windhorst and the rest of the NBA world upon them, traded Rudy Gobert to the Minnesota Timberwolves, kickstarting a rebuild—or maybe rejiggering—of a kinda-stale kinda-contender. Since the start of free agency last Thursday, the Jazz have entered the deal zone twice, swapping two long-time starters for six-ish first round picks. But while all the dot connecting and Pepe Silvia-ing has been focused on the Jazz, Minnesota is now actually the NBA’s most interesting team. Having emptied their cache of draft picks to pair Gobert with fellow All-Star center Karl-Anthony Towns, the Timberwolves are placing a big bet on Large Ball. 

Way back in 2015, the Golden State Warriors upended the NBA and basketball at large by playing their five best players, regardless of said players’ size. Installing Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala as the nominal bigs in their vaunted “Death Lineup,” the Warriors boat-raced the rest of the league and birthed a dynasty. Here was a brave new world where center was less of a position than a frame of mind; if the 6 ‘6 Draymond Green could be a credible five, similarly proportioned guys like PJ Tucker or PJ Washington or Robert Covington or Jeff Green or Marcus Morris could too. As such, skill took precedence over size and yadda yadda yadda—if you’re still with me, you know this all already.

Lost in all the eulogizing of big men, though, a counter-revolution has formed: the rise of Large Ball. Paradoxically, the birth of Large Ball is the result of small ball’s undeniable success—teams targeted a certain kind of lubberly big so precisely and effectively that it excised them almost entirely from the NBA. Now, though, small-ball represents a solution to a problem that no longer exists; the motivating force for its creation (to attack Jahlil Okafor-types) has evaporated now that there are barely any Jahlil Okafor-types left to attack. 

Instead, all that shooting and skill has trickled up into tomorrow’s—and increasingly today’s—crop of big men. For evidence, just check last month’s NBA Draft; the top four picks were all power forwards with perimeter chops. Similarly, the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers buffaloed their way to titles in 2021 and 2020 respectively by being massiver than any team they faced.

Alongside low-waisted pants and Oakleys and Brittney Spears, towering frontcourts are yet another naugthy aughties mainstay that’s come back in style—the Boston Celtics snapped out of their early-season funk once they turned Robert Williams loose on the rest of the league; the Memphis Grizzlies won 21 of their 27 games without Ja Morant in large part due to their big man depth; the resurgent Cleveland Cavaliers went 26-14 when Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley played together. Now is the NBA’s age of monsters, a place where unicorns are bred like thoroughbred stallions. 

Or at least that’s what Minnesota is hoping for. Anchored by Towns and Gobert, the Timberwolves are suddenly the biggest and spookiest team in the league. The average wingspan of their projected starting lineup of D’Angelo Russell, Anthony Edwards, Jaden McDaniels, Towns and Gobert is over seven-feet long. 

Crucially, the addition of Gobert should fortify a defense that was undone by their downy rim protection last season. While last year’s Timberwolves had to rely on a frantic scheme to compensate for Towns’ interior shortcomings, Gobert is the most dominant defensive player of the last 20 years. During Utah’s recent postseason crap outs, Gobert has earned an unfair and counterfactual reputation as a bootless drop coverage merchant who annually gets unmasked as a fraud like a Scooby Doo bad guy in the postseason. With the Timberwolves, though, Gobert will be fully unleashed, supplementing his usual shot-blocking with shifts as the low-man or blitzing pick-and-roll ball-handlers as Minnesota is wont to do. Playing alongside another center in Towns and another defensive genius in McDaniels, Gobert can be a proactive destroyer rather than a reactive crisis manager. 

If his permissive rim protection is what makes trading for Gobert necessary, Towns’ scoring is what makes Minnesota’s new elephantine set-up feasible. The best big man shooter of all time, Towns grants Minnesota the spacing to absorb Gobert without sacrificing any oomph. Beyond the fact that he doesn’t miss jump shots, Towns is the rare big who can attack closeouts and get frisky off the dribble. Cherry-pick the right stats and Towns is as flawless an offensive center as there has ever been. Last year, Towns was a better three-point shooter than Kevin Durant, a more prolific driver than Lebron James, a more efficient isolation scorer than Devin Booker, and a better roll-man than Bam Adebayo

Averaging 23.9 points on 64 percent True Shooting, Towns is a purely additive offensive presence. Although he lacks that certain physical charisma to be Him, he’s amongst the best at headlining a cast of thems. He does nearly everything and excels at nearly everything despite handling the ball less than Patrick Beverley; this is how he can accommodate a pick-and-roll specialist like D’Angelo Russell and a bucketeer like Anthony Edwards.

And yet, the Towns-Gobert partnership isn’t necessarily the most natural on-court pairing, even divorced from the team-building implications of trading away three unprotected future first round picks (and then another very lightly protected one for good measure). Defensively, it’s hard to imagine Towns and Gobert vacuum-sealing the paint because Towns just isn’t that level of a defender—in fact, McDaniels will probably inherit the low-man/free-safety role that Robert Williams pioneered in Boston while Towns decamps to the worst player on the other team.

Offensively, neither of them truly necessitates opponents to match their size; the Clippers defanged Towns in the play-in game by guarding him with mobile big wings while Gobert famously struggles to punish mismatches. In this sense, the two of them don’t so much amplify each other’s strengths as much as they mitigate each other’s fatal flaw. Think: less peanut butter and jelly, more peanut butter and life-saving epi-pen. 

Still, the Timberwolves are an undeniably better team now than they were last week; there’s a world where they muscle their way to 55 wins and a Western Conference Finals berth, if not a Finals one. Boxed in by the fact that no superstar would ever brave a midwestern winter by choice, Minnesota swung the most ambitious and ideologically outré trade in years. By doubling down on their gigantitude, the Timberwolves have ripped away their sheep’s clothing. 

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Jarred Vanderbilt is the Next Dennis Rodman

Players with Jarred Vanderbilt’s pedigree don’t usually play with his manic intensity. A top 15 recruit in 2017, Vanderbilt was festooned with the traditional trappings of five-star stardom. Beyond simply being a McDonald’s All-American, Vanderbilt was a minor-scale celebrity through puberty—”The TOP 9th Grader in the Country?” asks/shouts a BallisLife video from 2014 and his junior year mixtape has 138k views and declares that he’s “6’8 with Lamar Odom handles!”. It’s gauche to compare any high schooler to Lebron James, but, with the way that Vanderbilt’s guard skills and size were touted, the implication wasn’t subtle. Naturally, he committed to Kentucky. 

In Lexington, though, Vanderbilt fell victim to the fact that college offenses don’t have the bandwidth to support more than one or two ball-dominant players. With Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Kevin Knox at the helm, Vanderbilt struggled with injuries and couldn’t find a comfortable fit in the rotation and fell to the 41st pick in the 2018 NBA Draft as a result. 

Now, though, Vanderbilt has proven himself as one of the NBA’s elite defenders.Even if the top of the Defensive Player of the Year ballot is typically the bailiwick of rim-protecting big men, Vanderbilt is building an increasingly strong down-ballot case. Advanced metrics like EPM, DARKO, LEBRON, DRIP, RAPTOR and FARTS (guess which one I made up!) universally hail Vanderbilt as one of the league’s best stoppers. 

But defense isn’t statistics: it’s Vanderbilt howling in from the weakside corner to blow up an offensive set. As an integral cog in the Minnesota Timberwolves’ rotation, Vanderbilt is the key-man of Minny’s aggressive, 11th-ranked defense.On a bifurcated roster that consists of three scorers and 10 rabid, obnoxious defenders, Vanderbilt is the most rabid and obnoxious. Put him in a pick-and-roll, and he’ll hedge a point guard to the outer edges of the universe; challenge him in space, he’ll poke the ball loose; try to dunk on him and, actually, don’t try to dunk on him.

But outside of his physical gifts, Vanderbilt is special because of his mind. He plays with the focused, unceasing thrust of an amphetamine high, processing and instantaneously responding to stimuli. It’s not just that Vanderbilt can physically do things that less athletic players can’t; he does things no other players would even think to do. This side of Dennis Rodman, his motor is unparalleled—Vanderbilt moves faster on defense and snags more contested rebounds than any other high-minute forward.

Against spaced-out, decentralized offenses, the instinctive, protean Vanderbilt is the ideal player, canvassing and patrolling the whole court. While he never replicated the world-destroying dominance of his adolescence in the NBA, he regained his status as one of basketball’s most promising young players by refashioning his game into something equally singular and valuable.

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Anthony Edwards Is Living Up to the Hype

Since the Minnesota Timberwolves hardly capture the public imagination, Anthony Edwards is most often seen through Twitter or Instagram highlights. Perhaps already the NBA’s preeminent dunker, Edwards collects skulls like they’re NFTs. His press conferences showcase his unforced charisma; in an era where nearly every basketball player is media-trained into PR-speak fluency by the time they’re 16, Edwards talks and acts like a real person and not an automaton. But what separates Edwards from the likes of other NBA Twitter darlings like Jamal Crawford or JR Smith is that he’s not just a fun oddity; he’s really fucking good.

Before he spent the weekend toiling in Covid quarantine and, presumably, watching Selling Tampa and trying to figure out if he can still smell, Edwards became just the seventh player in NBA history to score 2000 career points in his first 100 games. Too, he became the youngest player ever to make 10 three-pointers in a single contest and his 22.3 points per game put him on pace to have one of the most prolific age-20 seasons ever. Even as the league adopts a more holistic approach to player evaluation, Edwards represents the primacy of bucket-getting. The 2020 #1 overall pick plays with a sudden muscularity, all coiled strength and vectored momentum. Switchability and manipulative passing are important, but Edwards’s explosive scoring ability inherently simplifies the game the same way that playing on rookie difficulty simplifies Madden. 

If the fundamental goal of NBA defenses is to make offense harder, Edward guarantees his opponent’s failure. The most striking aspect of Edwards’ game is its ease. Slashing to the rim seems elementary because no defender is fast or strong enough to stay in front of him and step-back three-pointers appear improbably wide-open because defenders garrison themselves in the paint to stop his drives. If there’s a proper positioning from which to guard Edwards, one where you can contest a jumper without being dusted by his drives, it’s yet to have been discovered. Despite his hefty volume and less-than-sparkling efficiency (his true shooting percentage is a touch below league average), nothing about Edwards feels forced—he’s not chucking shots as much as he’s capitalizing on opportunities to shoot. Notably, he’s emerged as a fastbreaking terror—his 6.0 transition points per game are third most in the NBA and his 1.32 points per possession on those attempts puts him in the 85.7 percentile, according to Synergy Sports.

In this sense, Edwards is part of the revitalization of the shooting guard position. Whereas athletic, scoring shooting guards once ruled the NBA, this archetype has kind of fallen out of fashion. In recent years, players who traditionally would be considered shooting guards have either been entrusted with primary ball-handler duties (James Harden, Bradley Beal, Donovan Mitchell) or shunted out towards forward-dom (DeMar DeRozan, RJ Barrett, Jimmy Butler). 

Conversely, Edwards—alongside Devin Booker and Jalen Green—is a traditional shooting guard within the lineage of Kobe Bryant or Vince Carter. Like his predecessors, Edwards is an offensive force who demands heavy usage and touches but has such clarity of purpose as a scorer that he operates best next to another ball-handler. Early 2000s nostalgia has gripped popular culture: baggy jeans are in style, Britney Spears is in the news, Spiderman (nay, Spidermen) dominates the box office, and shoot-first shooting guards are putting up numbers.

For the possibly-good Timberwolves, Edwards’s continued development is the key to them dropping that pesky possibly qualifier. After years of wandering around the NBA’s endless middle, the Timberwolves have designs on breaking into the bottom of the top. This year, the Timberwolves have positioned themselves as a probable play-in team, with a 15-15 record and a slightly positive point differential through 30 games. With Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell soaking up most of the offensive responsibility, the T’Wolves have surrounded their star trio with rabid role players who can execute the frenzied defensive scheme that was installed by new head coach Chris Finch. So far, so good—Minny has the 11th best defensive rating in the NBA and has forced more turnovers than any other team. 

Still, the ultimate success of this two-tiered roster construction (three scorers and umpteen hustling role players) is contingent on what kind of player Edwards can become. Towns is the greatest big man shooter of all time—according to him and also, like, stats— but big men generally struggle to be the engine of potent offenses; Russell is a stylish point guard, but his drives to the rim are rare and noteworthy, like an eclipse. Edwards, though, is still years from rounding into his final form; the difference between the Timberwolves wallowing in years of seventh seeds or them vaulting up into home-court contention is whether Edwards becomes an All-Star player or an All-NBA one. It’s undeniable that he’s a good player—the exciting part is discovering just how good he can become. 

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NBA Highlights From November 22nd-28th

Even amidst unusual change, there’s a tendency for things to return to normal; the chaos of the day-to-day of the NBA season eventually smooths away with time. The Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns, last year’s NBA Finals matchup, appear to be on an early track for a Finals rematch. Joel Embiid made his return to action and picked up where he left off. And lastly, we witnessed another example of how arrogant fans can be. Down below are my four takeaways from the NBA’s latest week in action!

The Suns’ winning streak is now at 16!

While pundits and fans may harp on aesthetics and style points, true contenders are content to win by any means necessary. The Phoenix Suns are a proud member of the latter group, given the wide variety of recent victories that comprised ongoing 16-game winning streak.

Whether it’s blowing out teams (Knicks) or winning in the last minutes (Spurs and Nets), the Suns aren’t apologizing for how they win and are more focused on what’s ahead of them: a huge primetime matchup against the 18-2 Golden State Warriors on Tuesday night.

Anthony Edwards is on track to become a superstar

Although most fans would expect a No. 1 overall pick to have the potential to become a superstar, it doesn’t make it less exciting when their potential is producing at a high level. The 2020 No. 1 overall pick, Anthony Edwards, is becoming a nightly highlight reel for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Alongside averaging 22 points, six rebounds, and nearly four assists per game in his second NBA season, Edwards offers energy and gamesmanship, which have helped drive the Timberwolves’ improvement this season. And besides his magnificent dunks, Edwards provides valuable intangibles—such as his leadership and clutchness—that were overlooked before he arrived in the league.

Joel Embiid’s absence didn’t bother him during his return

Before missing nine games because he tested positive for COVID-19, Joel Embiid was beginning to find his rhythm as he lead the Philadelphia 76ers to a 7-2 record to start this season. And while a three-week absence would harm most players, last season’s MVP runner-up didn’t miss a beat in his return to action last Saturday night.

Despite the 76ers’ double-overtime loss to the Timberwolves, Embiid posted 42 points and 14 rebounds, reminding the league just how dominant he can be. Even at Embiid’s level of stardom, few players possess his combination of impact and production that can vault their team into contention.

Once again, fans cross the line for no other reason than being selfish

Even though most interactions between players and fans aren’t harmful, there are times where a line gets crossed. Last Wednesday, during the Los Angeles Lakers and Indiana Pacers game, LeBron James asked for two fans to be removed from their courtside seats due to offensive comments they made towards him.

And while there hasn’t been confirmation of what the fans said to James, the fact they got removed (and almost received a lifetime ban from attending NBA games) proves the need to improve fan behavior further. Regardless of who you are and the location of your seats, fans must remember they have to abide by the high standard that’s in place for spectators at these events. It’s an embarrassment to everyone involved when situations like this happen.