Before we launch into a detailed criticism of the best player on the Minnesota Timberwolves, a few caveats and clarifications for context.
Karl-Anthony Towns remains a gleaming cornerstone that any pro basketball franchise would love to embed into its long-term future. He possesses a skill set of phenomenal versatility, an admirable work ethic fueled by a desire to win, and an ambition for quality leadership and personal accountability that will stand him and his team in good stead down the road of what should become a Hall of Fame career.
Towns is currently averaging 22 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 2.8 assists per game and is committing fewer turnovers than in his Rookie of the Year campaign last season. He is playing for a demanding coach on a team with hyped expectations that is dominated by youth and absent the leadership of iconic veterans such as Kevin Garnett and Tayshaun Prince from a year ago.
Most of all, it should be noted that Towns is 21 years and one day old as of Nov. 16, 2016.
All of this helps explain why, through the first 10 games of the Wolves’ 2016-17 season, he has been a valiant hero and a problematic teammate.
The Wolves came into this season with a bouquet of virtues that gave their long-suffering fans palpable hope that they were about to witness a team win more games than it lost for the first time in 12 years.
More than any other factor, that transformative optimism was fostered by the presence of Towns on the roster.
It wasn’t just the Wolves faithful and media who regularly cover the franchise who were totally smitten with KAT’s fantastic exploits during his rookie season. (Although some doofus from MinnPost did write that Towns “had the most complete skill set of any teenager who ever set foot on an NBA court,” forgetting that a fella named Lebron James averaged 27 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists for a winning team during the 2004-05 season that began when Lebron was 19.)
In the NBA’s annual survey among the 30 general managers and personnel gurus before this current season, the question was asked: “If you were starting a franchise today and could sign any player in the NBA, who would it be?” Towns was the player named most often, with 48.3 percent, ahead of Kevin Durant (20.7 percent) and Lebron (17.3 percent).
Given that the Wolves had also just added the most desirable head coach on the market in Tom Thibodeau and boasted the Rookie of the Year in the season prior to Towns’ arrival in swingman Andrew Wiggins, there was ample cause for the enormous hype over the performance ceiling for these Wolves heading into the season.
Towns bought into all of it.
On the day Kevin Garnett retired, Towns tweeted out his response to the icon of the franchise, universally regarded as one of the greatest players and most inspirational leaders in the history of the game. “Thank you for everything my brother … We talked. I know what I must do. I’ll take it from here.”
When I asked Towns at Media Day what specific skills he had worked on over the off-season, he replied, “everything,” and proceeded to recite a litany before adding that he had also searched out various NBA leaders to find out what made them great.
His remarks to Pioneer Press beat writer Jace Frederick the first week of the season provided a more extravagant version. “I do not know how it is to be a great player and a hall-of-famer in this league. I want to learn, though. So I was willing to ask the greats, the superstars, the legends, how it is they became great. How they made their legend. How are they becoming a hall-of-famer. I was willing to say, ‘I don’t know.’ ”
Those comments are barely more than two weeks old. When I first heard this hubris, I nodded in approval, having already thrown down my prediction of 46 wins and a playoff spot for this burgeoning ball club led by a generational talent hell-bent for greatness.
On Tuesday night, for the fourth time in the first 10 games of this young season, the Timberwolves blew a double-digit lead in the second half on their way to their seventh loss. A well-coached Charlotte Hornets club were clinical in the way they scrambled and dissected the Wolves’ feverish and disjointed defense, racking up 69 points in the second half to flip a 46-58 halftime disadvantage into a 115-108 triumph.
After the game, the gravel-voiced Thibodeau, who has been a profanely raving maniac on the sidelines during the game action but a surprisingly calm and circumspect analyst about his team elsewhere, finally bristled with anger and frustration.
“A big part of learning is trial and error,” he said. “So when you go through something and it doesn’t work, you should learn from it. The second time around, it shouldn’t be the same way. That has to change and it has to change fast.”
Four of the five Wolves starters provided their perspective after the game. Wiggins, Ricky Rubio and Gorgui Dieng all specifically alluded to the fact that members of the team try to be individual heroes instead of engaging in team play in the face of adversity. Each of the three used the word “hero” in that pejorative context.
By contrast, Towns may as well have had the word “hero” tattooed on his forehead as he addressed the media in the locker room. “All of these losses, they fall on me. It’s something I have to control. It’s something that I’ve got to be able to help us as much as possible. Third quarter, I’m just not doing enough for us and I’ve got to do better. It starts with me … I’ve got to do more than I am doing and I can’t make excuses.”
Maybe Towns needs to stop trying to figure out how to be a hall-of-famer and start working on how to be a reliable link in the chain of team defense — which, by the way, was the first step of Kevin Garnett’s phenomenal legacy.
According to basketball-reference.com, opponents score 115.7 points per 100 possessions when Towns is on the court and 94.4 points per 100 possessions when he sits. That’s a phenomenal difference of 21.1 points, overwhelming the positive contribution Towns makes on the offensive end, where the Wolves score 8.9 more points per 100 possessions when he plays compared to when he sits. Consequently, his net value in plus/minus per possession is second-worst in the Wolves ten-man rotation, behind only Zach LaVine.
Yes, there are mitigating factors. The Wolves starters in general score more and yield more than the reserves. Compared to last season, Towns is more often asked to guard opposing power forwards while Gorgui Dieng takes the opposing center on the front line — and Towns no longer has the occasional luxury of sharing the court with KG, who significantly bolstered his defensive prowess.
According to nba.com’s defensive tracking stats, KAT actually has the best mark among the starters in limiting the expected field goal percentage of the shots he does defend. But the eye test indicates that he too frequently deviates from the set scheme and contributes to the scramble mode, especially as the Wolves begin to watch yet another double-digit lead vanish in the second half.
On offense, it is a similar story. Sam Mitchell correctly proclaimed that Towns was the team’s most reliable shooter last season as a 20-year old rookie. This year, that designation belong to Wiggins, who focused his offseason work on improving his jump shot and his dribbling, and has dramatically enhanced his accuracy and offensively capability as a result.
While Towns has upped both the frequency and the accuracy of his three-point shot — he’s making 37.2 percent of 4.3 treys per game, compared to 34.1 percent of 1.1 long range attempts per game last season — his overall eFG% has declined because he is missing much more often from two-point territory — dropping from 55.9 percent to 51.9 percent inside the arc.
Get a little deeper inside that shooting data and you see that “hero ball” plays a factor in this decline. When the score is close, he frequently tries to take matters into his own hands, with negative results.
According to basketball-reference.com, when the two teams are within five points of each other, Towns’ field goal percentage plummets to 43.6, compared to 48.6 when the margin is 6-10 points and 52.4 when the gap is more than 10 points. More telling, the percent of his made field goals that are assisted by a teammate goes from 84.6 when the margin is greatest, to 64.7 when the margin is 6-10 points, down to just 52.9 percent when the score is within five points.
In other words, there is a correlation between the accuracy of Towns’ shot and the frequency with which he is assisted by his teammates — and both significantly diminish as the score gets closer. It indicates that Towns is relying less often on passes from his teammates in tight games and foolishly trying to do it himself.
Thibodeau is right: The Wolves repeat the same mistakes over and over at peril to their season and their ongoing development. Most of the players know this and see what is happening.
“Everybody is trying to be a hero,” Dieng said after Tuesday night’s game. “That’s not working. So we need to change it and play team basketball. Especially the guys that know the ball is going to go through their hands. Let the game come to you. Sooner or later you are going to finish with the ball, so you might as well be patient and when it is time for your shot, take your shot.”
On his 21st birthday, Towns was 9-for-23 from the field and 3-for-10 from three point territory in 37:06 of action. His team was minus 18 when he was on the court, and plus 10 in the 10:54 he sat. Later this week, he will appear on the cover of ESPN the Magazine, in a story heralding the revival of the do-everything big man in the NBA.
The people who gush about Towns’ future, including yours truly, are right when they say he can be as good as he wants to be. But it will apparently be a while before he figures out how to make that happen.