The Strange Case Of Karl-Anthony Towns And The Minnesota Timberwolves

The Good, the Bad, and the Weird of Karl-Anthony Towns and his fit with the Minnesota Timberwolves

Terrified optimism; after 20 minutes of struggling to find the words to start this piece, that’s the phrase the seems most appropriate. Terrified optimism. Because the Minnesota Timberwolves have all the reason in the world to be optimistic – Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns are stars, Andrew Wiggins is an athletic freak who can put the ball in the basket, and Tom Thibodeau is one of the most respected coaches in the game. They had the fourth best offense in the league last year. There’s plenty of room for optimism.

At the same time, Timberwolves fans have good reason to be absolutely terrified. They barely squeaked into the eighth seed and were gentleman-swept, their defense was terrible, and their off-court chemistry trouble is the worst-kept secret in the NBA. For all the basketball potential they have, their disaster potential is alarming.

That’s the thing with the 2017-2018 Timberwolves. They shattered a thirteen-season playoff drought one season before it would have tied the all-time NBA record. They had the ninth best net rating in the league and two All-Stars for the first time since 2004. You’d expect them to be the feel-good story of the year. Instead, Westgate is predicting they’ll win fewer games (44.5) than last year and tie for the eighth seed, and some call that generous.

They’re puzzling, and we don’t have time to get to every piece of the puzzle. Let’s zoom in on one: Karl-Anthony Towns, the potential face of the franchise moving forward.

The Offense

In terms of scoring, Karl-Anthony Towns might just be the most talented big man in the league today.

Big statement? Too much for a guy with one playoff series under his belt? Perhaps. But ponder these stats.

Using Basketball-Reference’s season finder tool, you can set basically any parameters your heart desires. Looking at players who are 6’9 or over (so we can zoom in on bigs), shot 37% or better from distance on at least one attempt per game, and who averaged 20ppg, all over their first three seasons, there’s only one name: Karl-Anthony Towns.

Let’s try another. If you want to expand that out to players who scored 20ppg at any age, with the same height and three-point shooting parameters, and who averaged 50% from the field, there are a couple players who have done it in specific seasons: Kevin Durant, Larry Bird, Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Webber, and Karl-Anthony Towns.

Let’s do one more, and let’s really get to the heart of what makes Towns special. If you want to look at players of any height, any age, any time period, who scored 20 ppg on 54% shooting from the field and 40% shooting from distance on three attempts a game, you get two names who’ve done it: LeBron James, and Karl-Anthony Towns.

People do a lot of funky things with stats, and I encourage you to play with the tool and make your own findings if you don’t like the parameters I set. But there are some real nuggets there within the stats. Karl-Anthony Towns is doing things on the basketball court we’ve never seen.

Nobody has ever shot the ball the way Towns did last season. He averaged 21ppg on 55% shooting and 42% shooting from deep. If you’re not a stats person, fine. Let’s just talk optics. Rarely, if ever, have we seen a big man who can shoot like that, attack closeouts, and score around the rim the way Towns does.

I mean, good lord, just watch this clip.

The Timberwolves love using him as a roll man. Among players in the top ten in possessions of this play type, Towns is third in FG%.

That stat is largely a function of the passers running the pick and roll; for instance, take Clint Capela. He is head and shoulders above the rest of the league in efficiency as the roll man. He obviously deserves credit for that, but having Chris Paul and James Harden throwing him lobs certainly contributes to his excellence in that playset. Towns, on the other hand, does not have elite passers finding him on the roll. Jeff Teague is fine, but not great, and Jimmy Butler and Andrew Wiggins just aren’t built to pass the ball at an elite level. Towns’ efficiency as the roll man (on pretty high usage) is a testament to his skill, strength, and surprising grace rolling to the rim.

He had a 64.7 eFG% on spot-ups, good for 6th in the league out of 134 players who played 60 games and shot 2 per game. That’s insane for a big man. He was 11th in post-up possessions per game, and had a better field goal percentage in the post than anybody in the top 19. He was also in the 84th percentile in isolation efficiency. He has the old-school post game, plus elite outside shooting and the finesse to drive to the rim. He has a freaking pull-up jumper, people. Some Minnesota observers also call him an underrated passer, too. There isn’t much else that you want from your center on offense. He has the whole package.

Here’s the weird part. So, Karl-Anthony Towns is a unicorn, an elite scorer whose level of efficiency is untouched by teammates, right? He scored 1.29 points per shot attempt (PSA), which is fantastic. The uninformed observer would guess that he’s the focal point of that offense, but actually has the fifth-highest field goal attempt per minute average on his team. The players ahead of him in shots/minute just can’t rival his 1.29 PSA. It’s Jimmy Butler (1.19), Jamal Crawford (1.04), Andrew Wiggins (1.01), and Derrick Rose (0.95).

Why is a historically efficient offensive weapon shooting less often than Derrick Rose?

Some disparage Towns for this. They call out his lack of desire/killer instinct or even go so far as to say that he’s worried about his efficiency stats more than winning. Others say he’s 22, and he’ll grow into a bigger role.

Others call out forces on the team.

The Timberwolves’ offensive construct works, obviously. They were fourth in the league last year, and they didn’t just stumble into that. But it doesn’t change the fact that their offense is exceedingly…weird. However good they were last year, you have to ask some questions, if not because their offense could improve (which it could) then because they can’t afford to regress, and because all the regular season success in the world doesn’t matter if their formula is too flawed to work in the postseason (cough cough Raptors).

Why, for instance, is Andrew Wiggins (who was all the way down in the 24th percentile among wings in PSA) leading this team in field goal attempts? Why is Derrick Rose, who is in the 12th percentile (!) among wings, leading the team in shots per minute?

They’re 23rd in the league in passes per game and 23 in pace. They were dead last in three-point field goal frequency and 20th in three-point percentage. Those stats are not, generally, the makings of an elite offense. Yet somehow, they were one.

How, precisely, they manage to have such an elite offense in spite of those metrics is a topic for another article. But at least in part, you have to credit Towns. The Timberwolves score 10.5 more points per 100 possessions with Towns on the floor; the 2nd biggest difference-maker, Jimmy Butler, is only at 5.6. Whether the Timberwolves make maximum usage of him or not, his impact on the offensive end is humungous.

It’s worth noting that it’s not a lack of touches that’s the problem for Towns; he averages the 2nd most touches on the team, right behind point guard Jeff Teague. Part of that is because he is a big part of their offense with his creation and handoffs, but it still (rightfully) fuels the narrative that he needs to get more aggressive looking for his shots.

The Defense

The defense is rough. Karl-Anthony Towns was projected by some to be a big difference-maker on the defensive end of the court in the NBA; that has not materialized yet.

At the 1:30 mark of the above clip, Towns was in a position to contest Westbrook’s drive to the lane, but simply didn’t bother to. Westbrook is very quick, but Towns was right there and just watched Westbrook score. Opponents shoot 0.4% worse at the rim than they normally do when defended by Towns, so it’s not like he’s this god-awful rim protector. But there are certainly a good amount of moments where he either displays his poor reaction time or displays that he doesn’t give a damn on defense. Neither makes Minnesota fans happy.

His rebounding numbers are elite, and it sometimes seems like he’s dominating the boards. He also has a nasty habit of not boxing out and allowing opponents to beat him on the glass. Part of that might be laziness, part of that might be focus. Sometimes he simply goes block-chasing when it’s not needed or helpful, and that leaves his man with an easy putback.

From the 2:08 to the 2:25 mark of this clip, you can see Karl-Anthony Towns twice getting switched onto Donovan Mitchell. Both times, Towns just couldn’t stick with him, and he got off easy mid-rangers. Towns isn’t slow; depending on who you ask, his lateral quickness can be considered a strength. But he does struggle to stick with the more talented shot creators in the league, which will be a problem in the playoffs if they make it.

Jake Paynting of Bball Breakdown delved into the stats and argued, “He isn’t a game changer on that end whatsoever, but the defensive narrative about Karl-Anthony Towns was blown way out of proportion last season.” Towns was in the 61st percentile guarding pick and rolls, 43rd percentile guarding spot-ups, 62nd percentile guarding post-ups, and 44th percentile guarding isos, per Paynting. That’s the profile of a pretty average defender.

Not many people would seriously try to make the case that Towns is a horrible defender; he’s not. When you watch his pick and roll coverage, for instance, there are a lot of moments where he gets beat or gets confused, but a lot of the time, he is in a good position and makes a good contest.

Part of the frustration is just how much of his defense looks fixable. The mental mistakes are simple, and his defense around the rim looks like it’s an extra ounce of effort away from being actually impactful. His defense doesn’t need to be as good as his offense, but it needs to improve if this team is ever gonna reach its ceiling.

The Chemistry

As I wrote in my Western Conference preview, Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic and Matt Moore of The Action Network went into the chemistry issues plaguing the Timberwolves in a July episode of Spread the Floor. It’s worth a listen if you want to hear about their off-court issues in depth. Here’s a brief summary of what they covered:

  1. The base conflict at the bottom of everything is the old Bulls guys and their seriousness vs. the young guys, who are less intense about winning.
  2. Andrew Wiggins is an aloof airhead.
  3. Very basic communication (literally just college intramural-level communication) does not happen at all.
  4. Nobody is happy. The bad vibes are permeating up and down the roster.
  5. Communication between coach Tom Thibodeau and ownership is not good right now.

A lot of this is pretty standard for teams that have large generational gaps. When Chris Paul showed up in Los Angeles, he was entering his prime and wanted to win. But Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan were kids, and Griffin was spending time enjoying the distractions of Hollywood. Minnesota doesn’t have those distractions, but you see a very similar age-gap issue. Butler and Gibson are intense as hell, and the kiddos don’t seem to have the same fire yet.

Adding Luol Deng doesn’t help; the Timberwolves don’t need more guys who’ll deepen the schism in the locker room. That’s not a knock on Deng as a teammate – by all accounts, he’s stellar. But there’s already a dichotomy in the locker room, and Tom Thibodeau just added another guy who very clearly aligns with one of the groups.

Karl-Anthony Towns has yet to sign a contract extension. Multiple reporters have used the word “weird” to describe his not signing it. The Timberwolves have made the offer, and Thibodeau has said he’s very optimistic Towns will sign it. But Towns has said there’s a lot he wants to discuss with Minnesota. In the Dunc’d On Basketball Podcast’s preview of Minnesota, Jon Krawczynski said that Towns is likely holding off to send a message that he’s doing it on his time, not theirs, and so he can exert some extra leverage in those conversations.

Another thing worth noting: the Timberwolves let go of Vince Legarza, a development coach who Towns was reportedly close to. Jon Krawczynski said that he thought Towns hadn’t been consulted before the move. This isn’t gigantic, but if Towns was already unhappy, this is the kind of thing that could make him sour on the team even more.

So, Where Are We?

So, Karl-Anthony Towns is a transcendent offensive talent. He is not maximized in Minnesota’s offense, and their strategy borders on archaic. Inefficient players are taking more shots per minute, and as good as their offense is, it could be significantly better with Towns in an increased role. Part of that is probably that he needs to be more aggressive. Yet it’s all working so far anyway.

His defense is confusing. Some instances where he has looked very bad have morphed his narrative (I am now coining the phrase ‘James Harden Effect’), but he is at best a slightly above average defender who at times morphs into a liability.

The team as a whole is very bad on defense, though a big part of that was the bench. The starting unit actually defended quite well while they were on the floor together; they had the same defensive rating as the Golden State Warriors (9th), and Minnesota’s starters had a defensive rating only one point off of the starters for the Portland Trailblazers, who were 8th in defensive rating, but it’s not as if the starters never play with the bench. As the team’s starting center, Towns has to take some responsibility for how weak they are at that end.

The team’s chemistry is a flaming wastebasket, and Towns’s lack of intensity might play into it. It doesn’t seem unfixable, but it’s definitely impacting things now. Towns probably isn’t on his way out the door any time soon, but he’s probably not happy right now, either.

Part of what’s upsetting about both Towns and the team as a whole is just how inept they looked in the playoffs. Towns struggles against high-energy, high-effort bigs, and Capela is exactly that. He made Towns fight to get to his spots and just outworked him. And ya know how I said earlier that Towns has decent footspeed, but struggles against elite offensive weapons? Well, Chris Paul and James Harden are elite offensive weapons. He really looked bad for large stretches of that series. If he doesn’t take a step forward, you wonder if he can lead this team to playoff victories.

Meanwhile, the Timberwolves didn’t seem to have any kind of game plan to score against the Rockets. Some observers speculated that this was in part the result of them having to devote so much mental energy to just making the playoffs in the first place, but Thibodeau’s squads have long been known for underperforming in the playoffs.

The Timberwolves might have the largest range of possible outcomes in the NBA. If things go really well, Towns will show up with a renewed defensive intensity, take more shots, and earn a place in the MVP conversation; Andrew Wiggins will adapt more to his role as the third option and become more efficient as he takes smarter shots; and Jimmy Butler will stay healthy and be the two-way stud and leader Minnesota needs him to be. They could be in the top half of the Western Conference.

If things go south, the team will struggle to turn around their defense, Thibodeau will continue making strange personnel and strategy decisions (perhaps on his way to a firing), and the chemistry will implode. They could be out of the playoffs very easily.

This is a big season for the Timberwolves, and how they execute here will determine the whole trajectory of the franchise. They’re in that precious time period where young, exciting teams have to put up or shut up. They could fail miserably, but there’s an executable path towards being a legitimate power in front of them. Much of that rests on the shoulders of Karl-Anthony Towns.karl anthony towns

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