There is something inherently numbing when it comes to Karl-Anthony Towns’ massive offensive performances these days. The fifth-year big man has begun to so routinely devastate the interior of opposing defenses that a 35 point, 22 rebound (nine on the offensive glass) and six assist game, like Saturday’s against Chicago, doesn’t sound off any alarms.
But it should — big, loud, look-at-what-we’ve-got bells. Towns’ performance in the team’s seventh game without Jimmy Butler was almost unprecedented. A 35-20-5 game had only happened three times since 2005 prior to Towns’ explosion Saturday, according to Alan Horton — radio voice of the Minnesota Timberwolves. DeMarcus Cousins has had two such performances in his career, and David Lee dropped a 37-20-10 triple-double in 2010 with the New York Knicks. This means that when compared to previous Timberwolves big men — like Kevin Garnett and Kevin Love — Towns is putting up offensive numbers that exceed even those lofty thresholds.
And just 23 years old… pic.twitter.com/1dYbQtlLf0
— Alan Horton (@WolvesRadio) November 25, 2018
Yet in the locker room after that performance Saturday, Towns wasn’t showered in dumpings of water bottles like Derrick Rose was after his 50-point game. And his teammates weren’t huddled around Luol Deng’s iPhone watching replays of Andrew Wiggins’ game-sealing dunk against the Pelicans like they were earlier this month. Nope, on Saturday night, only Robert Covington was left in the locker room when Towns surfaced from the Minnesota training room. This wasn’t KAT’s teammates slighting him; rather, dominance has just become the expectation. Controlling the post, on offense, is just business as usual for Towns.
That is what star centers do. When you sign a max contract extension worth $190 million, you’re expected to kill it. When that ink dries and the dollars indicate that the team has become yours, there is a baggage that comes along with that. A responsibility.
Namely, there was the Jimmy Butler anvil in Towns’ suitcase. Butler’s antics were, in part, motivated by the notion that Towns (and Wiggins) were now being paid far more than he was. Towns had to persevere through that. And he did. But there is more. The next load comes from the more pressing weight of a question: Karl, Can you drive winning?
For Towns, next to the gaudy offensive stats, that question still looms. And this is because of the defense. The assumption stands that the tentpole of the Wolves defense will never become anything above average on that end of the floor; making even his greatest offensive stat lines carry a certain hollowness.
But that isn’t totally fair.
Towns just turned 23 years old in mid-November, and that isn’t even the biggest reason that some of the litigation of his defensive game is unjust. Patience is wise not because of his youth but because of his contract that will keep him in Minnesota through his 28-year-old season and because history tells us that transcendent players progress. Towns isn’t going anywhere anytime soon and to roll with the assumption that a great deal cannot change in two… three… four years is at best short-sighted and at worst close-minded.
That said, tons has to change about the way Towns functions in an NBA defense. His demerits are clear: the Wolves have been a bottom-four defense in the league each of his four seasons, and Towns plays the most important defensive position. To ignore KAT’s role in the defensive dysfunction is to akin to blaming the running back on a football team for having an awful passing attack. Towns is the quarterback of the Wolves defense and has never been good at that job.
But so much is changing. The real question to ask: How will Towns evolve amidst the change?
That question comes with three pressing subplots:
- Can the defensive scheme change for the better?
- Does the presence of Robert Covington, Dario Saric, and other defensive weapons — those on the roster currently (perhaps Josh Okogie) and those yet to be acquired in future trades/signings — shift the weight on KAT’s shoulders?
- Will Towns dig in and sacrifice to improve his greatest flaw?
What If Towns Defended The Way Opponents Defend Him?
The Wolves don’t defend like a “modern NBA” team, Jeff Teague has said numerous times in a pejorative sort of way since joining Tom Thibodeau and the Wolves a season ago. This is not only a point of contention for Teague but many basketball intellectuals around the league. On the simplest of levels, Teague and those others would like to see more switching on that end of the floor. With the frequency of switching exploding in the NBA, and happening on some of the league’s best team defenses, the logic is sound.
But Thibodeau has long resisted leaning into the movement. There’s a belief of Thibodeau, and many others from the NBA’s old guard, that persistent switching can perpetuate laziness. Which is true in some cases. Look at the Cleveland Cavaliers from recent seasons (and this one). They have switched everything and stunk at defense. Even with LeBron James, the Cavs had the second-worst defense in the NBA last year.
But for Thibodeau, and specifically, his Timberwolves roster, his pushing back on the notion of switching pointed to a particularly weak defensive bench unit that just couldn’t do it. That group’s personnel was so limited in their volume of “switch partners” that Thibs stayed away from the strategy almost entirely.
When incessantly asked what went wrong with the Wolves 27th ranked defense a season ago, Thibodeau — as he so frequently does — accentuated the positive. The Wolves coach points to the 2017-18 Wolves starters who carried the 7th best defensive rating amongst starting units — a pretty harsh, but just, subtweet of the Wolves’ 30th ranked bench defense.
Still, there’s more to the dysfunction than those bench pieces. The scheme is sub-optimal in 2018. The modern NBA pokes holes in Thibodeau’s once steel curtain of defensive tactics. Since he arrived in Minnesota, opponents stretched and broke the string of the Wolves D by targeting the Wolves in pick-and-roll action — namely Towns — while lining up shooters around the perimeter. Even if Thibodeau hot-tub-time-machined his 2010-11 Bulls into 2018, logic suggests the scheme likely wouldn’t work as well as it did back in the day.
So Thibodeau has begun to enact change. The results this year haven’t all been glossy but for those pinning against his antiquated scheme, those cries’ merits have hollowed as well. Change is happening. The frequency of off-ball switching — the key utilization of switch partners — has grown immensely, particularly since adding Robert Covington and Dario Saric.
In turn, the small sample size likes what it’s seen. Minnesota has the second-ranked defense in the NBA since the Butler trade.
Timberwolves before and after the Jimmy Butler trade …
Before — #28
After — #2
Before — #17
After — #21
Before — #25
After — #8
Before — .308
After — .714
"You can't win without me."
— Aaron Gleeman (@AaronGleeman) November 25, 2018
But the off-ball stuff is only one piece of the puzzle, and arguably a smaller one. Defending the pick-and-roll was, is and likely will be the defining characteristic of defense going forward — not only for the Wolves but every team in the NBA.
We’re beginning to see the Wolves bigs peek out beyond the pick a little more frequently, and it’s working sometimes. But largely the big man duties have remained status quo against the pick-and-roll: stay home, don’t switch.
This is a major departure from the way in which opposing bigs defend the Wolves. Towns’ presence, as one of the premier offensive weapons at all levels of the floor, is a big part of this opponent adjustment. But for many teams, this freedom of movement is the norm.
Take the Denver Nuggets, for example. In years prior, Nikola Jokic was asked to drop back in defensive coverage consistently — the Thibodeau-style of pick-and-roll D. This year, however, Denver’s coach Mike Malone has instituted massive defensive changes. Malone is a coach who cut his teeth as a defensive-minded coach in the league, yet wasn’t too proud to admit that how his team was schematically defending wasn’t best practice. (Nick Kosmider of The Athletic details Jokic’s utility shift excellently here.)
In these two plays, against two of the league’s most dynamic pick-and-roll ball-handlers, you can see the difference in how Jokic used to be asked to drop all the way back to the basket (against Houston) and how he is now being handed the challenge of switching out onto the ball-handler (against Portland).
However, it’s not all about how you defend the ball-handler; defending the popping big is also a critical element of affecting pick-and-roll defense. Here, you can see the liberties Paul Millsap — who drew the Towns matchup last Wednesday, not Jokic — is alotted in both showing and recovering.
Despite strides in a new direction, Thibodeau is still not asking Towns (or any other center on the roster) to be as frivolous with their ball-screen defense. Again, the center’s duties have remained largely the same. Here you can see Nikola Jokic punishing the Wolves on the pop in Game 82 of last season, and the following clip is Marc Gasol doing the same earlier this month.
“They was dragging [Gasol] out a little bit and then hitting him,” Covington said of Gasol and Mike Conley punishing the Wolves defense consistently in that fourth quarter. “They was baiting… They knew [Towns] was just showing. So they made the right plays.”
As Covington alludes, the Wolves defense is predictable against ball-screen action. But it doesn’t have to be that anymore.
New Pieces Means New Defensive Possibilities
It “took time” in Philadelphia, Covington said of the Sixers defense when I asked him how long it will take for he and Saric’s defensive influence to sink in.
“It wasn’t just last year, it was the year before — before [Joel Embiid] got hurt. We was one of the best teams defensively. And it just came from [Embiid and me] being the head of the snake and other guys built off of that. It was very contagious.”
Covington, who clearly has a budding bromance with Towns, says that it is now Towns’ job to be the head of the snake with him. He says he needs Towns to “be the guy communicating with him.” And he believes that will happen with time because he is going to hold his friend and teammate accountable.
“You have to tell ’em,” Covington said in the locker room after the Wolves Saturday night win. “You can’t sugar coat things. That’s one thing we had back in Philly and the same thing I’m bringing here. Tell guys if they fuckin’ up that they fuckin’ up.”
The language is harsh but the sentiment is true if this team wants to win. If Towns — and the rest of the Wolves roster — doesn’t meet those Philly standards, the glass ceiling on this team cements itself.
However, that glass is already cracking. Not only have the Wolves defensive numbers seen a positive progression, the defensive work as a group is also showing up on the tape. It’s Covington and Towns at the head of the snake but the other pieces are breaking the status quo as well. Namely, Saric has been a positive cog in the second step of pick-and-roll defense: the tag.
Tremendous defensive play by Saric, tags Towns, then stays with him after Towns fails to recover fast enough, then great verticality against the driver (got there early) pic.twitter.com/PBCVjkMSxU
— Liam Doyle (@LiamDoyleNBA) November 18, 2018
Not only is this an ideal tag (the limiting of a free roll to the rim by the strong side wing), it is also a good example of having a switch partner. A big physicality surprise, for me, since the trade is that Saric is the tallest player on the team. With this size, the Wolves don’t lose a beat on his switches with Towns.
Saric isn’t quick, per se, but he is decisive. Because of this, his presence in passing lanes is organic. This was a great reaction that turns into a steal against a ball-screen
The play of Covington and Saric has been an encouraging trend. However, it is a trend that needs to continue if the Wolves are to raise up Towns. What I mean by that is this team needs the players currently on the roster to insulate Towns, sure, but the real trend needs to be that all future acquisitions are players whose largest impact is that they enable Towns’ progression.
With Towns and Wiggins’ massive contracts; Covington’s cost-effective but not small deal (four years, $48 million); Gorgui Dieng’s big-time money and Dario Saric’s free agency coming in 2020, the Wolves will be limited as to what they can acquire going forward. Still, every draft pick or middling free agent signing (using the mid-level exception) should cater to Towns. To Thibodeau and Scott Layden’s credit, their most recent impact acquisitions all have:
- Josh Okogie and his tireless defensive motor.
- Anthony Tolliver’s team-defense aptitude (with floor spacing around KAT to boot).
- Robert Covington and Dario Saric, for the reasons laid out above.
The Final Frontier Is KAT Himself
The biggest question that looms for the Timberwolves future is this: How much of Towns’ commitment to defense is lip service?
Towns does know the team needs to defend better, and he knows that he is a part of that. However, the degree to which he is willing to break himself down, admit fault and enact true and meaningful change on that end remains ambiguous. Yes, the scheme can shift to highlight Towns’ strengths and hide his weaknesses. Yes, his teammates can help there too. But he has to help himself.
There has to be a move from Towns away from craving the block or steal the way he does. St-ocks, as the combination of steals and blocks are often referred to, will not determine KAT’s success. Being in the right place, and doing so consistently, will.
But Towns gets lost in the game. He’ll tell you as much. The play swirls by him and he exponentiates his first folly by desperately trying to paint over it by being overzealous.
“Sometimes, when you’re in the game you lose yourself so much in the game in doing your own responsibilities that you tend to forget to talk to tell everyone else what to do,” said Towns Saturday of the breakdowns he can contribute to.
Blocks are pretty great, they help a lot when they happen. Consistency will help Towns more. Understanding that is the thing that eventually boosts the Wolves into being a top-tier defense.
The most enticing words I have ever heard in regards to this came from Towns after he talked about occasionally getting lost.
“I think that a lot of times I’ve been playing off of pure athleticism,” said Towns. “But it’s the NBA, you can’t make it up no matter how athletic you are. Just being more like a vet, being in the spot, being where you’re supposed to be in the beginning, it takes all the athleticism out. You’re just there.”
Man, if Towns can just be there… Look out.
The video game numbers are going to be there on offense. To doubt that seems silly; if anything the frequency of this 30-point, 20-board games are only going to go up as Towns enters his prime.
But do you want to drive winning? How important is that?
Thibodeau always says the most important stat is “the winning.” Though the Wolves currently sit under-.500 this season, the possibility of winning — like real, long-term, well into the future winning — is in sight more than it has ever been. The Butler cloud is gone and there is reason to look fondly on the days (and years) to come. Towns is so much of that hope. Yes, much more needs to happen but finally, through Towns, that potential is there. And what an enticing potential that is.