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Zulgad: Big-time move: Wolves’ new boss pays steep price to pair Rudy Gobert with KAT

Karl-Anthony Towns. Rudy Gobert
Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns, left, and Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) battle for a rebound in the first half during an NBA basketball game Saturday, April 24, 2021, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Tim Connelly was named the Timberwolves’ president of basketball operations in late June, a move that came as a surprise given the well-respected NBA executive had been serving in the same role with the Nuggets. The Wolves’ brain trust — namely owners-in-waiting Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez — thought enough of Connelly that they gave him a five-year, $40 million contract, a significant increase from what he was making in Denver.

The hire created the question of how long Connelly would wait before he looked to make changes to a team that was coming off a 46-36 finish and first-round playoff loss to Memphis? The answer came Friday in the form of one of the biggest deals in Wolves’ history.

Connelly acquired veteran center Rudy Gobert from the Utah Jazz for a price so steep that Minnesota fans immediately began comparing it to the infamous Herschel Walker deal that Vikings executive Mike Lynn made in October 1989. That trade sent five players and what turned out to be eight draft picks to Dallas for the running back. It is considered to be one of the worst (if not the worst) trades in NFL history.

This deal reportedly will send Malik Beasley, Patrick Beverley, Jarred Vanderbilt, Leandro Bolmaro and Walker Kessler to Utah, along with unprotected first-round picks in 2023, 2025 and 2027, as well as a top-five-protected pick in 2029. The agreement can’t be made official until July 6, when the NBA’s moratorium on announcing free agent signings and trades expires.

It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that new Jazz CEO Danny Ainge — the same man who acquired Kevin Garnett from the Wolves in a one-sided blockbuster deal in 2007 for Boston — got the best of Connelly. It’s not so much the players Connelly traded as it is the picks. But Connelly also didn’t deal one of the key pieces of the Wolves’ young core, as Tom Thibodeau did in the 2017 offseason when he sent Zach Lavine to Chicago in the Jimmy Butler deal.

The key to Friday’s trade is how close one thinks the Wolves are to making a playoff run and just how effective Gobert can be playing alongside the 6-foot-11 Karl-Anthony Towns. It was no secret that Connelly and coach Chris Finch wanted to add a big man to pair with Towns and landing Gobert accomplished that. It’s worth noting that at least one sports book moved the Wolves’ title odds from 40-1 to 25-1 following the trade.

Gobert, who turned 30 last Sunday, is listed at 7-foot-1, 258 pounds and provides the type of interior defense the Wolves have been lacking. He won three Defensive Player of the Year awards in nine seasons with the Jazz and six times was a first-team All-Defensive selection. Gobert also has been named to three All-Star Games and is a four-time All-NBA selection.

The Wolves will lose a good defensive player in Beverley, but gained a quality defensive wing in Kyle Anderson, who had been with Memphis before reportedly agreeing to a two-year, $18 million contract with Minnesota as free agency opened Thursday.

Gobert averaged 15.6 points, led the NBA with 14.7 rebounds and added 2.1 blocks per game in 2021-22 as the Jazz made a sixth consecutive playoff appearance. Utah lost in the first round to Dallas and appears to be entering a rebuild with coach Quin Snyder stepping down in June.

For once, there is no rebuild going on at Target Center. Connelly, Finch, and most importantly, the incoming owners, who are scheduled to take over in December 2023, have no interest in remaining a hard-working team hoping to make the play-in game as a lower seed.

Putting Gobert on the floor with Towns, young star Anthony Edwards and the still-emerging Jaden McDaniels, among others, means the Wolves will be expected to finish among the top six seeds and advance directly to the playoffs. That wouldn’t be a big ask for many organizations, but the Wolves postseason appearance this spring was only their second in 18 seasons.

The price Connelly paid for Gobert isn’t the only expense the Wolves were willing to accept. Gobert will be entering the season season of a five-year, $205 million contract that will pay him $38.172 million in 2022-23. The Wolves already made a huge financial commitment to Towns earlier in the day when the sides agreed on  a $224 million, four-year supermax extension that means he’s now under contract for $295 million over the next six seasons. That’s a lot of salary-cap room taken up, that figure is always growing thanks to the NBA’s success.

Is it surprising Connelly moved this quickly and boldly to make a deal that likely will define his tenure with the Wolves? Perhaps. But the fact he arrived in Minnesota with an extensive NBA resume in a leadership position means he needs to be given a level of trust that a new executive wouldn’t get.

There also is a case to be made that fans and media are never happy. Make a bold move and we are likely to point out that it has the potential to blow up — much like the Walker trade did. Fail to make moves and we complain that the team doesn’t really want to win and is happy with the status quo.

Connelly looked at the Wolves’ roster and thought the status quo was a losing play. He’s convinced that not only can Gobert and the extremely talented Towns play together but that they can thrive as a 1-2 pair, with Gobert now doing much of the dirty work that Towns previously had been asked to do.

If Connelly is right, he will be celebrated as a basketball genius worth every penny of his rich contract. If he is wrong, there will be a long line of fans willing to say, “We told you so.”