Twin tower lineups are coming into fashion after former Denver Nuggets lead-decision maker, Tim Connelly, pushed nearly all of his trade assets in for Rudy Gobert, pairing the 7’1″ defensive big man with the 6’11” offensively-focused Karl-Anthony Towns. But what lessons can they learn from past lineup experiments with Nikola Jokic?
The Minnesota Timberwolves aren’t the first team to pair two traditional centers with one another, just scroll through any starting lineup before the break of the century and you’ll find several, but they’re ambitious to be doing it in the pace-and-space era.
It’s Connelly’s first major move as the president of basketball operations for Minnesota, but we’ll never know whether he always wanted to pair two centers together or whether KAT’s defensive shortcomings motivated the trade.
What is fascinating to think about is how Nikola Jokic would fare playing next to a rim protector like Gobert.
This past season, the Denver Nuggets barely employed a backup center. The front office found a solution mid-season when they brought in DeMarcus Cousins and Jokic had such a high workload, it was unavoidable for Michael Malone to play Jokic’s primary backup alongside him.
Side note: a lineup with Jokic and Cousins did play eight possessions together, they were negative 83.9 per 100 via Cleaning the Glass.
Pushing back on the twin towers theory, the Jokic and Aaron Gordon pairing has worked wonders for the Nuggets. In just under 2,000 minutes together, the two boast a +9.2 net rating, the best high-volume Denver combination. Additionally, it passes the eye test, watching Jokic go to work while an agile finisher and spot-up shooter flanks him in the frontcourt is magical.
Going back to the COVID-shortened 2019-20 season, Jokic spent much of his time next to Jerami Grant or Paul Millsap, two faster, stretchier bigs. Again, it was hyper-efficient and all of those lineups passed the eye test with flying colors, especially after fans had to suffer through some seasons with a Jokic-Mason Plumlee pairing.
In the 2018-19 season, the Denver Nuggets ran with Mason Plumlee next to Jokic a bit too much for my taste. The pair played just over 500 minutes together in the regular season and had a +5.9 net rating.
The pairing had an excellent defensive rebounding rate and a slightly higher field goal percentage compared to most Denver lineups but it took a lot away from the team’s 3-point shooting and wasn’t even crashing the offensive boards more than other lineups.
While an old-school coach like Malone probably reveled in the contested rebounds and rim protection, it ended up taking too much away from Jokic on the offensive end. When The Big Honey is surrounded by four shooters, he has more room to operate down low, and additional targets to find behind the 3-point line.
Plumlee brings his own element of vertical spacing, the ability to pull defenses towards him with the threat of a lob or lead-ahead pass at the rim, but it wasn’t enough to truly unlock this Nuggets offense. If another player was trying to score in the paint, they’d either meet two additional defenders at the rim or waste a possession with Jokic spacing the floor instead of running the show.
The following offseason, Connelly provided the best example of addition by subtraction, taking the Plumlee card out of Malone’s deck and letting him walk to the Detroit Pistons in free agency.
Since then, Jokic has taken on a higher offensive load and won two-straight league MVPs. Correlation doesn’t necessarily lead to causation here, but I don’t think it should be ignored.
One of the reasons Denver was pairing Plumlee and Jokic was to paper over Nikola’s defensive concerns, but he has taken huge steps in getting better in that area.
The Gobert-KAT duo has asked the NBA commentariat to reach deep into their bag of takes. KAT is in a similar situation to a young Jokic right now: he has just been the top option on a playoff team but questions about his defense cap his team’s ceiling.
Is it the job of the front office to build around their star player’s strengths (and weaknesses)? Or is there some level of defensive progression to be expected? Building on that, is there some sort of defensive progression that should be demanded of a superstar?
Connelly put Millsap, Grant, and Gordon in the frontcourt with Jokic and while they’re about as good an offensive fit as possible, their defensive versatility lets the Serbian rest on that end, saving his energy by just worrying about the paint on defense. Luckily for Connelly – and credit to Jokic – the star player simply grew on that end of the ball and now the Nuggets are in the title conversation. Talk about having your cake and eating it too.
In a hypothetical sense, is the offensive fit between KAT and Gobert better than a KAT and Millsap-Grant-AG fit?
The latter would give Towns more space to work with on offense while opening up the floor for drivers like Anthony Edwards and D’Angelo Russell.
The former is somewhat unproven in the modern NBA and might push KAT further out into more of a shooting role. After dubbing himself the best shooting big man of all time, maybe he’d prefer that.
Based on the Jokic example, Connelly would be better off playing to his star big’s strengths instead of making up for weaknesses, but that’s also assuming there are stretchy, 3-and-D forwards on the market right now. Then again, if you’re trading away the Gobert haul, surely there were options, Tim just picked this one.
This was what one of Vogue’s recent runways looked like. It’s just fashion. I highly doubt that wearing a flower that’s twice the size of your body works in the real world, and while twin towers might look good on show, maybe they are the exact same thing?
The Timberwolves have made an ambitious bet on an atypical pairing, there’s every chance it doesn’t work. If it does happen to work, Connelly might’ve set the fashion for years to come.