Rudy Gobert’s defensive regression should be cause for concern in Minnesota

One doesn’t want to conclusively deem a major personnel move to be a failure after less than half a season, but it’s safe to say the Timberwolves’ draft capital-depleting acquisition of Rudy Gobert from Utah hasn’t gone to plan. The struggles of both the Wolves overall but more specifically Gobert caused Jon Krawczynski to ask “Where have you gone Rudy Gobert?” just last week.

The agitation is understandable, even after Wednesday’s win over Portland, Minnesota was a very disappointing 18-21, 11th in the West.

In theory, the frontcourt shake-up would trade a little of the Wolves’ formidable offense — seventh in non-garbage time offensive rating in 2021-22 according to Cleaning The Glass — to stabilize the high-wire act defense that finished 13th overall a year ago, but did so by forcing enough turnovers (second in TO% forced) to offset the team’s propensity for fouling and inability to protect the defensive glass (29th in both FT Rate allowed and DREB%). Full disclosure, I thought this theory was largely how things would play out, at least until Gobert moved further along into his 30s. And to some extent, it has worked.

Through Wednesday’s contests, Minnesota was 11th in non-garbage time defense while performing at a top-5 level with Gobert on the floor. Unfortunately, the tradeoff has been steeper than expected. The offense has slumped to 20th in offensive rating according to Cleaning the Glass, and with Gobert on the floor, their 107.1 points/100 is 1.2/100 worse than Charlotte’s 30th-place offense. It’s been bad.

On some levels, the struggles aren’t unexpected. The preferred starting lineup of Anthony Edwards, D’Angelo Russell, Jaden McDaniels, Karl-Anthony Towns and Gobert has some clear spacing challenges, playing two traditional bigs, multiple non-to-limited shooters in Gobert and McDaniels and no one especially adept at breaking down the sort of compact defenses that such a grouping is likely to face.

But the degree to which these offensive struggles, particularly the lack of outside threat, have been pinned on Gobert might be excessive. The Wolves are shooting only 31.1 percent from 3, including an abysmal 28.7 percent above-the-break with Gobert on the court as compared to 38.8 percent (39.0 ATB), with the French center on the bench.

Public data is insufficient to demonstrate the degree to which those 3-point attempts might be more difficult with Gobert clogging the floor, taking away drive-and-kick opportunities. But it is all but impossible for the difference in shot quality to be that large. Sometimes makes and misses accumulate unevenly, with Towns being the most illustrative example.

On the season, Towns made a career-worst 32.5 percent of his 3s. But surely the presence of Gobert can’t account for a player who sported a career 39.7 percent accuracy entering the year making only 19.7 percent of his 3s with Gobert on the floor, compared to 45.6 without. Moreover, even to the extent Towns has been getting worse looks with Gobert than without, over his career, Towns has been very effective even on contested 3s, making 36.2 percent, well above league average.

And it’s not just Towns:

The bulk of the rotation is shooting worse, in some cases substantially so with Gobert on the floor. To reiterate, some decline in shooting with poorer floor spacing wouldn’t surprise me in the least, but the sheer magnitude of the drop-off cannot be reasonably attributed to the presence or absence of any one player.

So, if one were looking for good news, it’s that Minnesota is bound to shoot the ball better with Gobert on the floor, which on its own will do a lot to prop up the offense.

Now, the bad news.

Gobert’s claim to fame has been his rim protection. On my “Points Saved Over Average” metric (described in part here), which uses NBA.com tracking data to estimate how many points more or less an opponent would have scored at the rim with an unnamed average rim-protecting center standing in for a given player, Gobert has been in the top nine (of around 70 minutes qualifying centers) in each of his eight previous seasons as a full-time starter, including first five times and second twice. This year, he is 24th (of 61). Elite rim protectors generally average around two points saved/100 more than positional average. Gobert hit that mark seven times and has never been less than a full point saved/100 above average. This year he is down to 0.3/100.

A look at his per game numbers helps illustrate the apparent decline. In the below, each dot is a single player game, with Gobert’s enlarged. The red dots indicate the exceptional performances where he saved five or more points at the rim, orange are the instances where he reduced opponent output by at least a full bucket, while purple dots represent games where he was completely ineffective at the rim, with opponents scoring at higher than 70 percent clip against his rim contests.

He has already logged as many “negative” rim protection games in 2022-23 as he did all of last season, and more than twice as many as in the whole of 2020-21.

Some of the decline has come in terms of not being in position to contest at the rim quite as frequently. Since his first Defensive Player of the Year season in 2017-18, Gobert contested 38.4 percent of opponent attempts at the rim while he was in the game, among the very highest marks in the league, with only Brook Lopez and Myles Turner achieving higher marks in starter’s minutes so far this year. In Minnesota, this has dropped to a still very respectable 34.3 percent, which is to be expected for a player moving to a two-big system. Gobert himself only contested 32.8 percent of opponent attempts from 2014-15 to 2016-17, when the Jazz played the Gobert-Derrick Favors pairing most extensively.

Much more worrying has been the effectiveness of those contests. Gobert is allowing 60.2 percent at the rim, by far a career worst, and well off the 50.5 percent he allowed across his days as Utah’s starting 5. This is n’t the culmination of years of decline either. The past three seasons saw Gobert allow 50.2, 50.1, and a near career-best 49.3 percent last season. Minnesota’s rim defense has been propped up as much by Jaden McDaniels, who is saving nearly 1.9 points/100 more than average for a forward at the rim, as by Gobert. And while shooting variance has destroyed him on the offensive end, it should be noted that opponents have made only 31.1 percent of their corner 3s, and thus generally very open and uncontested, 3s with Gobert on the floor.

To me, the suggestions of defensive decline are far more worrying than the offensive struggles. Towns will make more shots once he returns from injury. Edwards has steadily increased his playmaking role in a manner that suggests he is becoming more comfortable in the new setup. This group probably doesn’t have an elite offensive ceiling, but they can be credibly effective. But none of that works in terms of setting Minny up for a deep playoff run if it isn’t paired by DPOY-level interior defense, and while defenders can go through slumps just like shooters, one has to worry that such a sudden diminution from a player just on the wrong side of 30 represents the beginning of the end, rather than a blip.

Gobert wouldn’t be the first offensively-challenged rim-protecting monster to go from All-Defense to unplayable in a shockingly brief time frame, as that’s exactly what happened to Roy Hibbert nearly a decade ago.

I haven’t given up hope for the player I’ve had in the Top 20 range in each of the three editions of annual Player Tiers I’ve produced for The Athletic. But I’m officially worried.

(Photo: Matt Krohn/USA Today)

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