The dead-end heroism of Karl-Anthony Towns

MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Karl-Anthony 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.

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.

Great expectations

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.

A comeuppance

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.”

Unkind data

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. 

Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 11/16/2016 - 02:11 pm.

    Tale of 2 ends of the floor

    Defensively, he’s being asked to guard the 4s. This has seemed strange to me because Dieng was disruptive last season on the perimeter, averaging more steals per possession than anyone but Rubio, KG, and Jones. It’s not a bad learning tool, but it takes Towns away from the rim in ways he wasn’t last season. Also, when Towns isn’t on the floor with Dieng, he’s usually with Aldrich.

    Offensively, it bugs me how they’re using him. So many possessions start with him on the block, and he’s often used as a prop to get the wings an open jumper. Only Rubio passes to him when he rolls off a screen. Because Dieng’s much more effective at the elbow running the 2-man game with LaVine, they put Towns either near the rim or behind the arc. Post ups are the easiest play for a team to defend with the current rules, yet the only plays they seem to run for him are post ups. It’s clear he has a comfort zone near the elbow and shoots well enough that it’s not an inefficient shot; this season, only 14.8% of his shots come from 10 feet out to the 3 point line, down from 36.1% last season. I get why they’re taking fewer shots from there in general, but I’d much rather get him a few more easy ones there than have him mostly take contested post shots. He’s a Nowitzki-type scorer and they’re mostly using him like he’s Moses Malone.

    It’s clear that the staggered rotation minutes would work best this way: Wiggins, LaVine, Dieng, and role players; Towns, Rubio, Bjelly, Muhammad, and someone to fill in the cracks. Obviously, the starters and finishers stay the same, but what they’re doing now isn’t using Towns, Bjelly, or Muhammad (when healthy) correctly.

  2. Submitted by Mark Gisleson on 11/16/2016 - 02:33 pm.

    Love when you do these critiques

    I’m just not BB savvy enough to see why things are going wrong, but now that you say this stuff, yeah, that’s what I’ve been seeing, too.

  3. Submitted by Anton Schieffer on 11/16/2016 - 04:39 pm.

    Team

    One of my favorite lines from Allen Iverson’s “practice” rant is at the very end: “Now how the hell can I make my teammates better by practicing?” I actually think the entire rant is just a carefully orchestrated and complex comedic setup for that one single punchline.

    It’s obvious that KAT’s defensive abilities last year were bolstered by his veteran teammates mentioned at the outset of this article. When KAT was playing with KG and Tayshaun Prince, he not only knew what was expected of him, but also didn’t have the leadership role he does now since he was only a rook.

    But the flipside to that Iverson quote is that he, like KAT, can really only account for himself. KAT’s the franchise player and is supposed to lead by example, so how can I be upset that he’s too aggressive or trying too hard? Yeah, he’s going to make mistakes. He’ll need to learn to correct those without KG’s help (which is new for him). He just turned 21, has a knack for the game at both ends of the court, and is playing basketball at an elite level under a new coach and system. If he wants to shoulder the blame for our losses to motivate himself, that’s fine. He’ll figure it out. R-E-L-A-X

  4. Submitted by Robert Garfinkle on 11/17/2016 - 10:25 am.

    Leadership

    Britt, this is good. Something about his game and his talk hasn’t seemed quite right to me; you described it well. It makes me think about leadership, what makes for good leadership. He looks like he’s trying to lead like he’s supposed to, some image of leadership that he has. But effective leadership comes in many forms; the one characteristic they all share, imo, is authenticity. You have to lead from some place that’s authentically you. KG led by a kind of raging intensity, and that flame burned very bright in him, and it worked for him. I don’t know what will work for KAT, and neither does he; he’s only 21. I do have faith he’ll find it. He wants to lead, he’s smart, he’s accountable, all those prerequisites to earn the respect of your peers. But right now he looks, both on an off the court, that he’s trying to “take it from here” without really knowing what that means yet, and what his own authentic voice and practice will be. I like when Thibs talks about going through the process, you can’t skip steps–neither can KAT. He’ll figure it out.

    One quality of this team that I see when they’re at their best and most authentic, and would like to make sure doesn’t get suppressed is their joy, their sense of humor. Thibs is a serious guy and we want these guys to take it seriously but the personality of this team seems to center around LaVine and Wiggins’ laughter, having fun together, and other guys being part of that. I hope that doesn’t get squeezed out in the grind and the rush to professionalism and all. They are taking it seriously but they like to have fun with each other, and if they build camaraderie that way it’ll bode well for their long-term success.

    And, yes, their defense is still a mess. It’s not too surprising; Wiggins, LaVine, Dieng, and Shabazz are playing for their 5th coach in 5 years; KAT and Jones, 4th in 4. The defensive system is different with every coach, and it takes time, it takes repetition, learning to move instinctually and know what your teammates are doing–you can’t just be thinking through it every time. It’ll probably take half a year (and more time with Ricky on the floor) but when they put it together they will be good. We focus on the troubles with the offense in the 3rd quarters but when the defense gets better they can grind through stretches like that. If you lose the 3rd quarter 23-16 instead of 31-16, you give yourself all kinds of chances to win.

  5. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 11/17/2016 - 10:31 am.

    Real leaders lead by example…

    …and that’s why they aren’t always the biggest star on the team but the most selfless. I haven’t been comfortable with KAT appointing himself “the leader”. Who died and made you Pope, kid? Too many times I’m yelling at my TV in the third quarter as Wig or KAT attacks a group of opposing jerseys under at the rim or Townes launches a three right after they get down the court. Maybe Gorgui is the real leader: plays hard, makes the plays that come to him, didn’t go hard at contract time. Townes is awfully young to have to deal with all this HOF talk.

    I have often complained about the egos of LBJ and KG but especially these last couple of years that I have paid more attention to Cleveland I see how these guys are great partly because they play a team game and make their team mates better. Launching threes with 15 seconds left on the shot clock isn’t playing a team game. I expect these problems to pass and I hope it happens soon.

  6. Submitted by Django Zeaman on 11/17/2016 - 12:53 pm.

    I feel relatively calm about the season so far

    When a team I care about has poor leadership or is missing the talent they need to succeed my analytical mind goes into overdrive. I start to think about what kind of players they’re missing and how to get them or how the coach/GM needs to do things differently.

    But I don’t feel that way this year.

    The GM (or coach/GM) avoided overpaying for modestly talented players in the new marketplace, then made a few nice signings like Aldrich and a great re-sign at a good price for Dieng.

    We obviously have the talent and it’s very young. Sure, we need a few more pieces, but there is no point in Wolves history where I would take the players we had then over the players we have now in terms of talent/contract/age (the young Steph/KG/Googs era would be the closest contender).

    And finally, I believe in the coach. He puts in the time, he’s sharp as hell, we know he won’t back down on players doing the fundamentals, and he has demonstrated expertise and achievement at the one thing we’re struggling with most: defense.

    One can argue that the coaching is the one thing that hasn’t shown up yet this season. The personnel moves are done, the talent and flashes of really special talent have been happening despite our 3-7 record. But where is the magical defensive “Thibs dust”? I trust it’s coming, but I wonder if someone who covered the Bulls in their first season under Thibs could comment on the approach he took there.

    It almost seems like he’s taken a somewhat gentle and cautious approach with the Wolves so far. He has not been the screamer-demander-commander I imagined he would be.

    Thanks for the analysis as always, Britt. The data on KAT was interesting and revealing.

  7. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/17/2016 - 06:47 pm.

    It’s a young team

    and a long season.
    Too early for conclusions.

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