Jim Souhan
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Even if the Timberwolves thrive for years because of Rudy Gobert, their trade for him will never be considered thievery. They gave up too much in the deal for that. They'll settle for Gobert playing well, as he is now, even if the long-term price they paid proves to be high.

The Wolves made another deal involving the Utah Jazz last year, a deal requiring no such patience or qualification.

On Feb. 9, 2023, the Timberwolves engineered a three-way trade. They dealt point guard D'Angelo Russell, who was shooting extremely well at the time, for veteran point guard Mike Conley and reserve Nickeil Alexander-Walker, and also got three second-round picks.

Initial reaction, in some quarters, especially the regions of Minnesotan fandom who felt burned by the Gobert trade and preseason hype, was skeptical at best. Why would you trade a 6-foot-5 point guard who can shoot the lights out for an old, beat-up, undersized point guard?

Then Russell got benched in a second consecutive postseason, by a different team, and now Conley and Alexander-Walker are two-ninths of the Wolves' primary rotation, and Conley has excelled in just about every way you would want a point guard to excel.

As a leader. An offensive organizer. A fierce defender. A thinker. A unifier. And a clutch shooter.

Wednesday night, the Wolves finished off a 4-0 homestand with a victory over New Orleans, a homestand that included a victory over the defending champion Nuggets and the previously undefeated Celtics. Gobert was excellent as a rim protector, a scrambling defender and a rebounder.

Alexander-Walker played strong defense and, offensively, proved he can be a valuable part of the Wolves' backup point guard by committee going forward — especially with Jordan McLaughlin out a month or more.

Conley hit big shots, when necessary, and got out of the way, when advisable, and should be given much credit for helping this group mature.

He has 30 assists and only one turnover this season.

"If you heard the reports about Mike Conley before he came here, you'd have thought he was broken down and had to be wrapped in bubble plastic everyday,'' Wolves coach Chris Finch said. "That has certainly not been the case. I think he's exceeded our expectations by a long mile — on and off the floor.

"Off the court, his leadership is impeccable, and sorely needed for us. And he's really a big brother for the whole team. On the floor, he knows when to step up, make timely baskets, when to take control of the ball on offense, he communicates defensively at a high level.

"He's been way more than we thought. I joke about his age, but we knew we were getting a good player. He has a lot left in the tank.''

Nowhere is Conley's influence more evident than in the improved play of Gobert. The two played together in Utah. Russell seemed offended by Gobert's presence and, in particular, Gobert's hands. Conley knows how and when to get Gobert the ball.

"Mike has plenty left,'' Gobert said. "I mean, that's one of the things I'm really grateful for, Mike coming here, and the presence he has not just on the court but in the locker room. The way he carries himself. We all kind of overlook it, but for Ant [Edwards] and Jaden [McDaniels], it's invaluable, what he brings, and they're going to carry that over their whole career.''

Conley is 36. Backup point guard Shake Milton is 27. "I love playing with Mike,'' Milton said. "He's so unselfish. I always go to him and ask him about the different things that he sees, his reads, and you can just come in and see the way he works. He's someone I want to mirror."

If anything is proved in the NBA in November, this Wolves team has established that it is more mature than last year's squad, that it won't need a roster overhaul or a new point guard at midseason, that Gobert can be exactly the force in Minnesota that he was for so long in Utah, that this might be the best defensive squad the Wolves have ever had without Kevin Garnett on the roster, and that basketball boss Tim Connelly and Finch know how to put together a team.

Four-ninths of their rotation are players they acquired from Western Conference rivals: Gobert, Conley and Alexander-Walker from Utah.

Conley isn't merely justifying the trade that brought him to Minnesota. He's also justifying the Gobert deal, by helping the big man return to his dominant ways.