Timberwolves

Exactly How Far Will Karl-Anthony Towns Lead a Team?

Photo Credit: David Berding (USA TODAY Sports)

Five years ago on Oct. 25, the Timberwolves lost arguably the most important person in the brief history of their franchise. Twenty years before that, in 1995, Flip Saunders was hired by former Gophers teammate Kevin McHale to serve as general manager and, soon after that, coach. He made his first major roster move by drafting a young man who would go on to become the first high school draftee to be enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Fans will always thank him for taking the “risk” on Kevin Garnett with the fifth pick in the draft.

The following year, Flip drafted Stephon Marbury. Evidently Steph and KG were already buddies (like a certain current Minnesota Timberwolves duo), and they were billed as the next John Stockton and Karl Malone. But as with all Wolves point guard draft picks, a Hall of Famer was drafted a pick later. This time it was not Steph Curry but Ray Allen, who the Wolves technically drafted and traded on draft day for Marbury.

Coincidentally, it wasn’t until KG teamed up with Allen on the 2008 Celtics that he delivered his championship as the best player. KG led that team for the whole regular and postseason in VORP, WS and BPM, but Paul Pierce wheelchaired his way to a Finals MVP.

Saunders was relentless in trying to find the perfect point guard to pair with KG, and for various reasons, he was early on some (Marbury, Chauncy Billups) and late on others (Terrell Brandon, Sam Cassell). But despite delivering 17 of the Timberwolves’ 18 playoff wins, he never found the perfect match.

One could say he squandered one of the greatest talents the NBA has ever seen. In an era where Tim Duncan ruled, KG always seemed to be missing just that one extra piece (Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, David Robinson, Bruce Bowen, Michael Finley, Brent Barry, Steven Jackson, Sean Elliot, Steve Kerr, Robert Horry).

It’s the proverbial Bill Simmons “what if?”: What if Kevin Garnett got drafted by the Spurs? What if Flip found a better supporting cast than 33-year-old Latrell Sprewell and 34-year-old Sam Cassell (with three of their six best players in Troy Hudson, Wally Szczerbiak and Cassell all banged up during the 2004 playoffs)?

In 2005, immediately following the only good 10 years of Timberwolves basketball, Saunders was relieved of duty. Despite having Garnett for the next two seasons, the Wolves were abominable. Saunders, though, would go on to have success with the Detroit Pistons, immediately winning a franchise-record 64 games and taking them to three-straight six-game Eastern Conference Finals Series from 2006-08. He was thwarted by Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’Neal, LeBron James and that aforementioned 2008 Celtics squad. Let’s skip his Washington Wizards tenure.

But then the prodigal coach/GM returned. And in a perfect bookend moment, with his first pick upon returning, he chose, yup, you guessed it, Shabazz Muhammad. (Wait, I can’t write my first article about Muhammad, no matter how much Chelanga has begged.  I’ll save that for the next one.) Let’s skip again to 2015.

Fortunately, as we all know, Karl-Anthony Towns (NOT Shabazz Muhammad) is Flip’s legacy, and he would be so honored that the torch has been passed down to his son Ryan. If you add in D’Angelo Russell, we finally have our KG-Marbury do-over – total serendipity. After swiftly shooting up and down during the Tom Thibodeau era as if riding the blue Power Tower back to the bottom of the Western Conference, here we sit with a green POBO, a storybook coaching hire and a possible core for the future.

Unfortunately, I’m about as skeptical of KAT-DLo as I am in hindsight of Starbury-Big Ticket. But since Dr. Chelanga has now told us to reframe our minds, I have decided to listen for once and ask the hard-nosed questions like:

Will KAT ever be a dramatic wheelchair away from a Finals MVP?

To answer this fundamental question, I had to crunch some numbers. I am known around The Coast 2 Coast NBA Podcast campus as the “stat guy.” The reality is that I merely makeup fun, predictive, ridiculous stats that have nothing to do with modeling or professional statistics. I’m just a guy who happened to longboard to his 1 p.m. stats class with a pubescent mustache in sweats and a signature tie-dye Luther College hoodie. As JC says, “I’m like that.” No mom, not Jesus Christ — Jarrett Culver. He’s like the basketball opposite of Jesus. Jesus Shuddersworth?

First, I created a set of four parameters to choose player comparisons or comps for Karl, and I’m calling them “KOMPs.” These KOMPs must have played at least 49% of their minutes at center or power forward, shot at least a quarter of their FGs from 10 feet or more, made at least one All-Star Game and been the best player on at least one team. You can see my method in determining this below:

If you’d like to follow along with the spreadsheet as you read, check it out here. In total, I found 41 KOMPs (excluding Jokic and Towns, who both have no data after Year 5). Then, I organized them by VORP from their first five years. For those wondering, KAT was seventh in VORP and sixth in WS despite his “injuries.”

The next piece of information I needed to collect was how far each of these KOMPs took their teams in the playoffs as the best player on the team (they must qualify for the fourth credential in the given year). I counted how many wins away from winning a championship each player was in their closest season.

I call this stat Wins Away or “WA.” For example, Jimmy Butler would’ve had a WA of 2 this year. If you were the best player and did not make the playoffs, then you would be 16 games plus however many wins away from the eighth seed you were. For example, Kevin Love was only 25 wins away from a championship in 2014. The Wolves went 40-42 and were nine games behind the feisty 49-33 eighth-seeded Mavericks. So in my system, the 25 WA equals those nine wins plus the 16 playoff wins required.

For those wondering, the amount of playoff wins required to win a championship (14 if a player played from 1976-1983 vs. 15 from 1984-2003 vs. 16 from 2003-present) was negligible for several reasons:

  • Most KOMPs got past the first round anyway (the only round this affects).
  • Most KOMPs played the majority of their career after 2003.
  • And most KOMPs played within one of those eras (I am looking for how much their WA improved, so the data is self-isolated by player).

The only player whose numbers this affected was Jack Sikma, who played his first five years with 14 wins to the finals, rather than 15 for his last seven years. This equated to a .04 win increase difference (for KAT’s average “Improvement” quotient) and no change in the results of my model either way.

Next, I found the WA for each KOMP’s first five years in the league. I then subtracted the first five years WA from their overall WA to get a player’s “Improvement” number. For players that won multiple championships (Tim Duncan and Hakeem Olajuwon), I subtracted the amount of wins each subsequent championship required from their wins away. The rationale behind this is that winning multiple championships is remembered the most. KG is not remembered for going to four Conference Finals or two Finals — he is a one-time champ.

Now let’s check in on Karl-Anthony Towns’ WA. In what is a surprise to some, I have KAT as the best player on the 2017-18 Timberwolves — KAT led the Wolves in VORP and WS during the regular season.

Now, imagine if Jimmy Butler would have been healthy all year, playing enough to lead the Wolves in at least one of those categories. They were 37-22 with Butler, which equates to 51.4 wins over a full season, and that would have catapulted Minnesota to the 3-seed with 2.4 games of comfort over the Portland Trail Blazers.

I bet that healthy Wolves team with home-court advantage would have gotten further in the playoffs than they did. BUT, that didn’t happen, and Towns struggled in Round 1, 2018 against the Rockets. Because he did not lead the team in that series in VORP or WS, KAT does not get credit in my model for the Wolves’ lone playoff win since 2004. He therefore has a first five years WA of 16.

So what if KAT can’t improve on his Wins Away? As you might imagine, some players might not improve their Wins Away after Year 5, and those KOMPs receive a 0. There are several reasons for this:

  1. There is what I call the Chris Bosh scenario, where a player will leave their team to become the second or third best player on a much better team. Bosh had a WA of 14 in his 4th year (2007 R1), but he was later traded in his prime to the Miami Heat, where he won two in a row. This is why I chose to not include Kristaps Porzingis as a KOMP.
  2. There’s the Amar’e Stoudemire scenario, where a player will suffer some sort of injury or multiple nagging injuries. This is also why I didn’t include Kristaps.
  3. And there’s the Antawn Jamison scenario, where he shows flashes but ultimately ends up being a good-stats bad-team guy, or he just doesn’t have what it takes to take his game to the next level. Oh, and haters will hate for this, but KP might fit into this scenario as well.

KAT is not No. 3 (of the top 15 KOMPs in VORP from first five years, KAT would be the only one to not improve his WA), he’s hopefully not No. 2 (fingers crossed that the rest last year was mostly a tanking effort), and that leaves us with No. 1. Leon Rose can pry Karl from my cold, dead hands. Karl-Anthony. Timberwolves Manifesto. Dylanpedia.

In the opposite way, there were other players who were never the best player on their team in their first five years, but then they improved a ton. Since Karl Malone was one of these players and ended up being two wins from an NBA championship as the best player in 1998, I thought he would still be useful as a KOMP to see how often players comparable to Towns ended up improving.

Out of the 41 players, 28 of them improved their number of WA after five seasons. That means 68% of these guys, including the Antwans, Amar’es and Bosh’s, ended up carrying teams further into the playoffs. Furthermore, this includes 100% of the top 13 KOMPS in terms of their first five years of VORP (KAT is smack dab in the middle of that list despite being injured for most of his best season).

So cut to the chase. How many “wins away” does Karl get us? After finding the Improvement in WA from their first five years to their career, I averaged the KOMPs’ improvement, and I calculated 6.52 games of improvement. This would mean that Karl will get within 9.48 or 9 wins of delivering a championship as the best player. That’s a Western Conference Semifinal Game 7 loss. As a tortured fan with an expectation level similar to Kanye’s PR team, I’ll take that!!

But then I made a frightening discovery. There were four KOMPS who led their team in regular season, and yet never led their team in WS or VORP in the playoffs — Brad Miller, Sikma, Shawn Kemp and Bill Laimbeer (who led the Pistons in the regular season of BOTH championships!). Three of these four KOMPS are prime examples of early stretch 5s.

Is this KAT’s destiny? The 2018 playoffs certainly did not help. The Barkleys and Shaqs of the world argue that this is the case against stretching the floor with centers, but I eventually came to understand that this helps illustrate why Towns was so misused in 2018.

The offense for these other stretch 5s was limited to mostly spot-up and post-up turnaround jumpers, but Towns isn’t special because he can shoot. He is special because he can shoot, post up, pass, catch, beat guys off the dribble, step back, dunk with ferocity and play either side of a pick-and-roll. He is the most versatile offensive player on this list (yes, including Jokic).

The reality is that there is no KOMP for KAT because he is completely unprecedented. I honestly believe that the combination of his versatility with today’s style of play might be seen as an inflection point similar to the likes of Steph Curry, and that’s why, despite my dumb math, I still believe Towns will break the mold.

If Ryan Saunders and Gersson Rosas can put the right team around KAT, he is more special than any comparison/KOMP can illustrate. I just hope we can do that because my heart can’t handle losing another KG-Duncan big man rivalry, and Nikola Jokic is already knocking on the door of the Finals.

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