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The massive new chapter in the Grizzlies, Timberwolves dynamic

Shockwaves were sent through the NBA when Rudy Gobert was traded to the Twin Cities, and we now see a new wrinkle in the budding rivalry between the Memphis Grizzlies and Minnesota Timberwolves

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Minnesota Timberwolves v Memphis Grizzlies - Game Two Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

The first-round battle between the Memphis Grizzlies and Minnesota Timberwolves was so many things: thrilling, awesome, and chaotic.

The Minnesota Timberwolves caused even more chaos at the start of the NBA offseason when they traded away Patrick Beverley, Malik Beasley, Jarred Vanderbilt, Leonardo Bolmaro, and five first-round picks (including 2022 first-round pick Walker Kessler) for All-Star center Rudy Gobert.

To be fair, the Timberwolves could’ve kept what they had going for them. After all, they led in every game of the first-round series against Memphis, which serves as the basis of an argument they should’ve won. The Timberwolves could have taken the playoff series as a learning experience and ran it back with their talented young core (21-year-old supernova Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns entering in his prime, and D’Angelo Russell in his prime) and their slew of gritty role players.

However, they made an all-in move for Rudy Gobert, one of the best rim protectors the league has ever seen.

There are plenty of reasons why the Timberwolves made this move, and some of those points have to do with their series against the Memphis Grizzlies. From the reporting of The Athletic’s Jon Krawczynski, the Timberwolves wanted to address their faults in the interior with this deal, particularly with Ja Morant’s downhill attack and Brandon Clarke’s tenacity rebounding the ball.

The biggest element of this rationale, the basis of Krawczynski’s column, was one question: why wait? They have two All-Stars — one who's a big guard with the potential of becoming a dynamic offensive engine, and the other who’s building an argument (and a self-promoted campaign) of being the best shooting big man of all time. In addition, they have Edwards on his rookie deal for two more seasons. When teams are identifying a window in the midst of those financial realities, they see it as an avenue to strike on an all-in trade. While the league seems as wide open as ever, the Timberwolves decided to expedite the Anthony Edwards era and open its championship window right now.

I could get into the early returns on the Rudy Gobert trade, but I’ll let the good people over at SB Nation’s Canis Hoopus handle that front. Since this is a Memphis Grizzlies blog, I want to break down how this new dynamic with the Timberwolves impacts the Grizzlies — a team largely connected to the rationale of this decision.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Memphis Grizzlies - Game One Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

Because of this trade, the Timberwolves generated a massive size edge with Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns. While the idea is sound, it perhaps takes away a clear mismatch it had with Towns as the full-time starting 5. Before, they could run Towns at the 5 and create numerous offensive advantages — opening up driving lanes for guards, drawing Towns’ man (typically a center) out to the perimeter, and spreading the floor in pick-and-roll situations.

Through Towns’ offensive strengths, the Timberwolves (and COVID-19) were able to make Steven Adams a non-factor in their playoff series, forcing Taylor Jenkins to make the adjustment of removing him from the rotation. Early in the series, the Timberwolves capitalized on the speed mismatch with Towns and Adams and placed the Grizzlies' big man in dicey situations from the perimeter. He simply couldn’t keep up with the amount of space created and ground gained from Towns on the perimeter.

While his omission from the rotation didn’t cost the Grizzlies the series, they lost a glue for their system. He doesn’t shoot the ball outside the paint, but he creates space for his perimeter players as a high-post hub with his screening and his playmaking. His elite rebounding, especially offensive, gives the Grizzlies an edge in the possession battle.

After those strengths evaporated in the last postseason, the Timberwolves just gave the Grizzlies an avenue to play Steven Adams.

Rudy Gobert is not a stretch big man in any sort of capacity — he might have proved so in this hilarious 3-point attempt last week. Since he doesn’t bend defenses with his floor spacing, Adams is way more playable in this matchup. Sure, Adams will have to go out and defend in the pick-and-roll, since Gobert is one of the most frequent (and best) screeners of the past 5 years. While he’s not Jaren Jackson Jr. or Draymond Green, Adams’ problem isn’t pick-and-roll defense; it’s the perimeter prowess of the player setting the screen.

And with Adams playing, it should bode better for Jaren Jackson Jr. The First Team All-Defense big man struggled to stay on the floor in this series due to foul trouble, which was a snowball effect on his overall impact. Jackson fouls less frequently with Adams next to him, because he can serve as a roamer with rim protection — as opposed to being the primary anchor. That component of the pairing will be mightily interesting. Will Jackson continue roaming for help defense with Towns’ outside shooting? It’ll likely depend on how well D’Angelo Russell is playing, and on any sort of leap Anthony Edwards makes as a decision-maker.

So with Gobert and Towns on the floor, it should lead to more minutes with Adams and Jackson, and the latter is the most equipped player on the roster to handle Towns’ elite inside-out game.


2022 NBA Playoffs - Grizzlies v Timberwolves Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

Making Ja Morant uncomfortable was a primary objective for the Minnesota Timberwolves in their playoff series. It arguably was the cause as a scorer, as the All-Star guard scored 21.5 points per game on 38.6% shooting from the field. However, the blitzes and traps thrown as Morant allowed him to showcase his elite playmaking, dissecting the Timberwolves’ defense with his riveting playmaking chops.

I’m bringing this up, because the Timberwolves traded away their primary Morant defender, Patrick Beverley. In the postseason, Beverley spent the most time defending Morant than any other player by a mile — logging 36 matchup minutes and 177 partial possessions in the series. Morant also scored 29 points on 9-21 (42.9%) shooting and generated 10 assists against 5 turnovers in that span, per the NBA’s matchup data.

So now, who becomes their primary defender on Ja Morant? It surely won’t be D’Angelo Russell — a pick-and-roll with Morant and Jackson might shred the flawed defensive duo of Russell and Towns. Do they want to expend Anthony Edwards’ energy on that end of the floor? It’s likely Jaden McDaniels, a player who was prioritized in this trade package according to Krawczynski’s aforementioned column. Nonetheless, the Timberwolves want to throw more size and length at Morant — whether it’s McDaniels, Edwards, or perhaps former Grizzly Kyle Anderson.

With the Gobert trade, their interior defense became a focal point for this system. They weren’t getting nearly the same presence, or the desired level of impact, with Karl-Anthony Towns, Jarred Vanderbilt, and Naz Reid. Gobert shores up this facet of this game, and while it totally won’t deter Morant’s paint scoring, they want another roadblock. It won’t take away from his drive-and-kick attack — and Minnesota’s acquisition of Anderson shifts a better floor-spacer in his “backup 4” role. In fact, Morant’s playmaking and the swarming Timberwolves' defense opened up windows for Desmond Bane — a top-5 shooter in the NBA — to bury them in the series.

Nonetheless, the Timberwolves clearly wanted to add more layers of protection when stopping the Grizzlies’ drive-and-kick attack powered by offensive dynamo Ja Morant. Will it fare for them this time? Regardless, it’ll be interesting to see how Ja Morant and the Grizzlies navigate this aggressive, gambling strategy with Gobert as the backline of their defense.


Minnesota Timberwolves v Memphis Grizzlies - Game Two Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

The Minnesota Timberwolves are poised to crash the Western Conference’s upper echelon with their massive bet on Rudy Gobert, their huge frontcourt, and Anthony Edwards. For the Memphis Grizzlies, it’s just another team vying for playoff positioning and for a chance at NBA immortality.

Even with a huge shakeup from one of those teams — and the new expectations and unknowns surrounding this matchup now — the fireworks from the playoff series should remain. Ja Morant and Anthony Edwards are two of the most electrifying young players in the NBA, both possessing a blend of elite athleticism and a bull-that-sees-red approach to the game. Jaren Jackson Jr. and Karl-Anthony Towns are two modern big men co-starring their dynamic guards. Desmond Bane is creeping into the same tier of “rising young shooting guards” as Edwards.

Friday’s matchup should be a scene in many facets. It’s going to be a fascinating game that serves as the first barometer for the Timberwolves’ rationale behind their all-in move, and it’s the start of a new chapter for the dynamic brewing between the Memphis Grizzlies and Minnesota Timberwolves after a wild first-round series.

You can also check out the latest ‘GBB Live’ with Minnesota Timberwolves podcast Kyle Theige (@KyleTheige) to discuss the new wrinkle with the budding rivalry between these two teams and more.

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