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Why it’s time to cut KAT a little slack

Karl-Anthony Towns hasn’t been given enough credit for the accommodations he has made to change the way the Wolves have played this season. 

Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins, left, and Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns get tied up causing a jump ball call during the second half of Wednesday's game.
Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins, left, and Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns get tied up causing a jump ball call during the second half of Wednesday's game.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Apparently it is time to talk about Karl-Anthony Towns again.

The Minnesota Timberwolves were felled on the road in Atlanta Wednesday night in a game where they lost their composure due to some questionable decision-making by the officials and some baiting by their opponents. Both sources of friction are not unusual in the modern NBA, but the sparks are especially flammable for the Timberwolves and most especially for Towns. 

The Wolves were ahead by 16 points in the first quarter, and by 15 as late as five minutes into the second quarter. But for the second straight game, an opponent down at halftime launched into the third quarter with a physicality that the Wolves weren’t prepared to match. In less than four minutes, a nine-point lead was upended into a six-point deficit. As Minnesota belatedly battled back, KAT took issue with the refs on contact with a shooter, a decision that Wolves color commentator Jim Petersen labeled a “tough call.” Thirty seconds later,  KAT did not dispute his third foul of the night, bumping Hawks guard Trae Young in transition. 

But then, twenty seconds after that, Anthony Edwards thought he got fouled on a drive, went over to the ref and was immediately assessed a technical foul — and then was immediately issued a second technical officially ended his evening on the court. According to the postgame pool report from lead official Bill Kennedy (who did not assess the techs), Ant was given the first foul for “an overt gesture and use of profanity directed toward an official.” 

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Fair enough. But as the report continued, “The second was for aggressively approaching the official while continuing his use of profanity.” 

Nope. Ant never upped his aggression on his approach, and pretty much was just getting close enough to be heard as he finished what was, I’m sure, a profanity-laden sentence. The first tech delivered a warning. The second, far more consequential tech, was meted out as Ant was in the middle of processing his punishment. To avoid it, he would have had to suddenly turn on his heel and not say another word. That simply doesn’t happen in the NBA. By the common standards of the game, it was a one-technical situation.

Suddenly, the Wolves were without their second-leading scorer, while also being without another starter, having lost combo guard Patrick Beverley to an ankle injury earlier in the first half. But they gamely engage the fray as things get chippy, especially between KAT and second-year defensive-oriented center Onyeka Okongwu, who is listed as three inches shorter and 13 pounds lighter than Towns. With two minutes left in the half, KAT drove on Okongwu, drew some contact but had the shot blocked. As Towns pleaded to the ref, Okongwu blatantly barked at him in triumph, an obvious taunting call that was ignored. And on the very next possession, after the pair engaged in a lot of pushing and hand-slapping on their way down the court, Okongwu got the ball, absorbed about as much contact as KAT had on the previous play, and received the whistle as his shot went through the net. 

Their physical bickering continued for the next few possessions, until an out-of-bounds play with five seconds left in the third quarter. KAT received the ball and started to back down Okongwu with a crab dribble on the right block. He suddenly turned and shot a “Dirk fadeway,” named after Dirk Nowitski’s classic move where he saves time by pushing off with one leg while slightly extending the other. KAT’s leg extended forward and looked like it hit Okongwu in the thigh. Okongwu sold it, going down like a ton of bricks (albeit forward, not backward) as the ball went through the hoop. KAT stared down at him and unleashed his payback barking, for which he was assigned a technical for taunting. 

But that wasn’t the end of it. Because the basket occurred with less than a second left in the period, the officials reviewed the play to see if it had been scored before time elapsed. At that point they decided the kick they had ignored in real time was a flagrant foul. And because the kick happened before the basket was scored, the basket was wiped away. Ah, but even though the taunting also occurred after the now non-existent basket happened — in fact needed to happen to justify any taunting in the first place — the technical still remained. 

Bottom line: Instead of a two-point basket that would bring the Wolves within eight of the Hawks, who would get a free throw to try and make it nine, the Wolves lost those two points and the Hawks received one shot for the technical and two shots for the flagrant foul, plus possession of the ball for the nine-tenths of a second now remaining in the quarter. Atlanta made all three free throws and missed a heave on the last-second possession, ending the quarter with a lead of 13 points instead of eight. 

And that, in a very large nutshell, are the controversial events highlighting the Wolves’ 12-point defeat on Wednesday night.

An ongoing saga

All of this matters because it is another chapter in the ongoing saga of Karl-Anthony Towns. It is no secret that KAT courts melodrama on and off the court and likes to make himself the center of the story. That behavior can inevitably grate on people. To be clear, this is not to be confused with the grief, trauma and tragedy that COVID has visited upon KAT’s life. His response to that should be exempt from any interpretation other than empathy.  

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I have done my share of criticizing Towns for how this facet of his personality negatively affects his performance and his leadership, most recently in a Minnpost piece in late October of this current season. But it’s time to cut him some slack and provide some perspective on the strides he has made this season. 

There was criticism of KAT from friendly sources on Wednesday night. After Ant was thrown out of the game, Petersen said KAT needed to set a better example in his approach to the officials. “When KAT starts doing that [confronting and berating the refs over calls] it fuels other to start doing that,” he noted. 

And after the game, KAT’s friend and teammate D’Angelo Russell said of his combative approach to calls, “Karl like that shit. I’m saying, he likes that rah-rah. I realize he likes it, but it is a fine line between where it affects the game.” 

Later, asked if he’d talked to Towns about it, DLo responded, “You can say as much as you want but I can’t do it for him. He’s a smart guy, he knows what he’s doing, he knows what he’s saying. It might affect the team. Like I said, it is a fine line of being solid.” 

There is obviously some merit to what both Petersen and DLo are saying. But I would submit that KAT has a good rebuttal in each case. 

First off, folks applauded when Ant called out his teammates for selfish play two weeks into the season, with some going so far as to say it represented a slow but noteworthy changing of the guard in terms of team leadership. Ant is universally admired for his guileless, unflappable personality, his resilience, and for being a “breath of fresh air” on the Wolves. 

But now he’s an impressionable naïf being led astray by KAT’s example? 

What about Beverley, a player who blisters the officials and acts out on the court on a semi-regular basis, yet is almost universally lauded (including by me) for changing the culture and demonstrating leadership? Oh, and if the ref on Wednesday hadn’t wildly overreacted with that second technical, Ant’s acting out for the first technical foul would have been seen as a sign of a young player sticking up for himself in an environment where he rarely gets the foul call when driving to the hoop. 

Credit where it’s due

More to the point, KAT hasn’t been given enough credit for the accommodations he has made to change the way the Wolves play this season, adjustments that have exacted a physical and emotional toll on him. 

Granted, his inability to effectively protect the rim in drop-back defensive coverage compelled some of these changes, to the point where coach Chris Finch says they were enacted to “protect KAT in the pick and roll.” 

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But KAT never said that the status quo of drop-back coverage suited him. On the contrary, he agitated for more aggressive responsibilities, meeting the pick and roll at the point of attack and extending it out to the perimeter. Most of us (me included) thought this was another example of self-aggrandizement, and were dubious. But when Finch instituted that more aggressive, scrambling style of defense, KAT’s willingness to expend the energy has helped make it sing. 

Understand that the Wolves are quite likely the lightest, least brawny roster in the NBA. It was widely reported that KAT lost 15 pounds during the offseason while adding more muscle and quickness. If so, his still-listed weight of 248 lbs. is closer to 233. His most frequent and complementary frontcourt mate, power forward Jarred Vanderbilt, runs 214 lbs. Ant is a brick house at 225, but the other two starters, DLo and PatBev, don’t top 200 lbs., nor do the team’s three most important players off the bench, Jaden McDaniels, Malik Beasley and Jaylen Nowell. 

What that means is that opponents get physical with the Wolves. And aside from Vando, KAT has precious little help banging bodies. Naz Reid is listed at 264 lbs. but had his own dramatic weight loss program during the offseason. And in any case, he plays with the fiber of a small forward. McDaniels is frequently played off the floor by being forced to foul as his man bullies him on the way to the hoop. PatBev is gritty but small; Ant is game but inexperienced. 

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Consequently, KAT becomes, inevitably, the matchup with the opposing big at both ends of the court. Or teams put a wiry power forward on him and then double-team him with the big man leaving Vando. This happens at a time when KAT still has a reputation around the league of being soft, excitable and a prima donna. The word is, “rough him up and you can get in his head.” 

And it works. Even a smaller dude like Okongwu can make it happen.

Sure, KAT is sensitive — granted, oversensitive — to getting belted and baited and not earning an even whistle. But have you watched one or more of the many temper tantrums staged by the reigning MVP, 284-lb Nikola Jokic, when he believes he is being abused? Have you caught the thespian antics of the NBA’s most comical prima donna, Joel Embiid, when he is astounded that the refs don’t fall for his 280-pound flops and twitches? 

Yes, both Jokic and Embiid are far superior to KAT on defense. They are also much taller and much wider while performing duties where length and brawn are crucial to the task at hand. 

The ‘soft’ fallacy

Let’s lose the notion that KAT is “soft.” No question he is easily baited, clumsily pugnacious, and often too clever by half in what he thinks he can pull on an opponent with the refs watching. But the type of defense he is playing now involves him fighting through screens much more frequently and other kindred collisions, while still enduring a wealth of jousting. And at the other end of the court, it is common knowledge that stopping KAT from scoring easily is the cut-off-the-head-of-the-snake philosophy of most opposing defenses. 

Check the two previous games before the Wednesday night tilt in Atlanta. Against Golden State at Target Center last Sunday, KAT played through contact for five “and-1” opportunities before sitting the entire fourth quarter of the rout. That’s the converse of soft. Next up was the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. KAT drew the foul on Evan Fournier less than 90 seconds into the game. Later in the first period, he slid over and walled up to throttle a baseline drive and force a turnover that resulted in the Knicks making a “take” foul in transition. A couple minutes later, he drew the first of what would be three fouls in the game committed against him by the 7-foot shot-blocker Mitchell Robinson. 

As happened in Atlanta, New York came out in the second half determined to be brutally physical with the smaller Wolves. They succeeded to the tune of 40-25 margin. KAT missed all three of his shots, committed three fouls and turned the ball over twice. But to prevent even greater carnage, Finch played him more than anyone else in the period and he drew four Knicks fouls, three of them on centers Robinson and Taj Gibson. By the fourth quarter, both would foul out.

KAT finished the game — a comeback win thanks to a 26-19 fourth quarter advantage — with only a dozen field goal attempts. The next day, Finch explained the dearth of shots. “As that game was going on, I just didn’t feel like directing the offense to him because they were so physical; he wasn’t getting a whistle, they were double-teaming him in the post and handsy on the perimeter. I thought, we’ll use him more as a decoy and then obviously we were able to go back to him when the matchup favored him and they didn’t have as much beef on the floor to counter him.” In fact Finch called a play out of timeout that had KAT drive from the perimeter against forward Julius Randle, converting a tough layup with an and-1. The game report from the final two minutes stated that the proper call should have been an offensive foul on KAT, but it was clearly a physical play that could have gone either way.

“So I’m not really worried about KAT,” Finch continued. “He has been super-efficient (whether he) gets 15 shots or 25 shots, he is shooting at a high rate, finishing at a high rate and we know we can go to him. And a lot of times he is deferring. Like we’ll put the ball in his hands and he’ll kind of get off of it and keep the offense moving over. That’s important for us too because if you remember earlier in the season we had a lot of ball stoppage and we have asked everybody to pick up their ball movement. And he has been leading that charge.”

Creating the Wolves’ identity

Plenty of flaws remain in KAT’s overall game. Perhaps most notably, he has committed the most offensive fouls in the NBA by a wide margin, 44 in 38 games played, well ahead of Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has 30 in the same number of contests. Not only is this the highest rate of such infractions in his career, but they are not happening on screens so much as with leg kicks on jumpers and elbows making room in the paint. By contrast, it should also be noted that his and-1 rate is also at a career high, 39 in those 38 games, this despite the fact that his shooting percentage within three feet of the rim is at a career low of 65 percent. 

What all these numbers mean is that KAT is not going meekly, and that he is fully engaged in NBA combat, for better and for worse. A guy who is obviously a finesse player with limited athleticism in terms of quickness of leaping ability is the one consigned by default to do most of the dirty work — the NBA equivalent of the ground game — while Vando deploys the quick strike counters for a surprising, totally revamped defense that has become the identity of this improved team. 

At the same, as Finch noted, KAT has sacrificed shots for the sake of being a decoy and a willing passer. His usage rate is the lowest since the playoff season with Jimmy Butler. His shot frequency is third among the Big 3, despite the fact that his true shooting percentage is 62.9 — compare that to Ant’s 56.1 and DLo’s 53.7 — and that his career true shooting percentage remains seventh-best in NBA history. 

The melodramatic saga that is KAT’s abiding narrative will never go away — it is part and parcel of who he is. But while that may be cause to dock him points on natural leadership, it is also time to appreciate the grimy ways he has flexed to grease the improvement of this enjoyable Wolves squad. It is no coincidence that the team is 20-17 when he suits up and 2-5 when he doesn’t. 

Because of that selflessness, KAT has helped to create a Wolves identity, one that is more sound overall but also relies less on the things he does best. You don’t hear — “what will happen if KAT wants out and demands a trade?” — anymore. He is less of a star and more ingrained into the fabric of this team, an understated form of leadership from a loud personality. Don’t let the noise obscure the value.