The 17-44 Minnesota Timberwolves have 11 games left to play this season. It’s been frustrating, and at times miserable, but we are close to the finish line.
The hopes for this team making the play-in game were lost with Karl-Anthony Towns’ dislocated wrist months ago. As much as I like watching every minute of Timberwolves basketball, building up my reservoir of hope for next season, at this point I find myself investing a lot more time checking into other parts of the league. We are approaching the playoffs and, even though it seems like a foreign concept to Minnesota sports fans, some teams are actually good.
With the end of the season comes the season awards, and this year there is an MVP race unlike any I’ve ever seen before. The leaders of NBA.com’s Kia MVP ladder are Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid. This is remarkable because the last center to win MVP was Shaquille O’Neal, 21 years ago. It is surprising to see two centers atop this list in the “small ball” era. As a fan of a team whose best player just so happens to be a center, this isn’t just surprising; it’s downright inspiring. It got me wondering if KAT is anywhere close to as good as Jokic or Embiid.
Since Towns doesn’t even have a chance to get an All-NBA nod this year, let’s expand the field to the best centers in the NBA and see how KAT stacks up. There are four guys who I feel are a tier above other centers in the league: Jokic, Embiid, Rudy Gobert and Bam Adebayo. For simplicity, I’ll be referring to this group as “The Big Boys.”
First, let’s start with how KAT has looked playing these guys.
WARNING: We are about to enter into small sample size territory. The things you see while we are here may not be a reflection of reality. Nevertheless, these stats are interesting, so let’s take a look.
Here is a chart showing KAT’s head-to-head win percentage against the Big Boys:
As we know, the Wolves have dominated the Miami Heat in recent years, but Karl has gotten whooped by Embiid, Jokic and Gobert when they have played. Take note, however, of the other Big Boys’ career winning percentage. Towns is well below .500 because the Timberwolves stink and have stunk every year except for 2018 when they made the playoffs. That year, Towns led the Wolves with 14 win shares. Embiid, Jokic and Adebayo have never accumulated that many win shares in a season. Gobert has reached that mark twice.
In fact, Towns’ 50.4 win shares through the first five seasons career are better than any other center on this list. Towns just hasn’t played with the same level of talent as the other Big Boys.
This next chart shows the Big Boys’ box score numbers against Towns and the net difference from their career average:
Even though the Denver Nuggets have gotten the best of the Timberwolves over their last 17 meetings, Towns has far outperformed Jokic in their head-to-head matchups. Embiid has been a tougher match for Towns, but we’ve seen that he can struggle against really physical defenders.
Defense is hard to measure accurately. So much of what a player can do defensively is directly dependent on his teammates. Shooting luck can also make it hard to quantify defense accurately. To get the best picture of the defensive impact, I looked at several different metrics, ranked each player, and then found the average ranking. You can find a key to this chart here.
We all know that Towns isn’t the best defensive center in the league, but he certainly isn’t the worst. Of these stats, DBPM and DRtg are most dependent on team defense, making sense we see some of the largest margins defensively in those two categories.
Let’s just thank the heavens that teams don’t shoot 8.8 points per possession better when Towns is on the floor like teams do against Jokic.
This is where I thought Karl would really shine. However, I was a little disappointed with how the numbers bore out. His offensive box plus/minus, cPER, and true shooting percentage rank third, third and fifth among the Big Boys.
I had to take a step back and remember that Jokic and Embiid are having MVP CALIBER SEASONS. Of course, Towns isn’t performing at that level on offense this season. But fifth in true shooting percentage? There has got to be a reason.
Towns take 35.3% of his shots from 3-point range, which he converts at a 39.7% clip. The only center that has taken a higher rate of 3s this season is Toronto’s Chris Boucher, 41.5%. But Towns has taken more 3s, played fewer minutes, and shot a better percentage than Boucher this season. KAT’s 3-point attempt rate and true shooting percentage mirror that of LeBron James this season. The point is, Towns’ offensive game is unlike anyone else’s in the league. He’s a 7-foot, deadeye shooter whose off-the-dribble game and playmaking skills continue to develop.
Jokic and Embiid are pretty clearly a cut above Towns. But, again, Karl has played on one above .500 team his entire career. What Towns has lacked is stability. Adebayo has played for one coach since entering the NBA. Jokic, Embiid and Gobert have all played for two coaches over the course of their careers. Chris Finch is Towns’ fourth coach. That’s not including Flip Saunders, who was supposed to Towns’ coach his rookie year, died tragically three days before the season opener.
Karl’s career has been fraught with tragedy. Somehow, he has still been able to elevate his game to be in the conversation with some of the best players in the league. As it stands, the Wolves will soon have new ownership, and there is a new coach and a forward-thinking president of basketball operations in Gersson Rosas. Hopefully, the Timberwolves are entering an era of stability, and we can see Towns truly shine.