This Minnesota Timberwolves season has already gone entirely off the rails. Never mind the notion that all of the team’s young talent will “take some time to gel,” the cold truth is that this team does not appear to have what it takes to win at a high level. The sloppy performances and inconsistent effort (at best) are emblematic of a problem far beyond any collection of individual “talent.”
Sure, they hung with the Phoenix Suns on Monday night. Karl-Anthony Towns had a monster game after a feeble effort against the Los Angeles Clippers. A loss is still a loss, though. “Moral victories” don’t cut it anymore.
I am not trying to dismiss the tremendous leaps that Minnesota has made on defense this season. The Patrick Beverley effect appears to be real, tangible, and sustainable. A young Wolves team has been flying all over the floor. Some early-season wins show the promise of what this team could be yet again.
However, the fallout of this defensive engagement has left the offense in complete disarray. The players regularly show up unprepared and are jacking up poor shots at an inefficient clip. Against the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday night, the team shot 36% of its shots from the midrange and only converted them at a 28.6% rate (per Cleaning the Glass). For an organization that is consistently preaching about the values of progressive basketball, analytics, and taking the most efficient shots, something is not coming together for this team.
Towns also isn’t clicking on a nightly basis. Instead, his supposedly vaunted and overhyped dedication to leadership is ringing hollow this season as the team continues to spiral. KAT appears content to sit back and let it happen.
Let’s break down this sequence here:
- The Wolves are down by 22 with a couple of minutes and some change to go in the third. The Clippers have the ball.
- Towns gets completely overpowered by Isaiah Hartenstein (career 4.4 ppg, 3.5 rpg) on the offensive glass.
- Hartenstein kicks out to Terance Mann, who hits the wide-open three to put the Clippers up 25.
- Anthony Edwards brings the ball up the floor for the Wolves. Towns lackadaisically wanders around the 3-point line near the right elbow.
- With 10 seconds left on the shot clock, Edwards appears to go iso.
- Towns gives up on the play and starts slowly walking to the opposite end of the floor.
- Edwards clanks another 3-ball.
- Towns gives up an oop and gets dunked on by Hartenstein at the other end of the floor.
I write this story on Towns’ 26th birthday. He has since exploded for 35 and 13 in a loss against the Suns. It is on this day that, like many other days spent following the Timberwolves, I am pleading with Towns to be less focused on saying the right thing all the time and to start doing it.
Completely giving up on a play where your 20-year-old shining star, prospectively franchise saving, endearing, second-year, budding superstar player is trying to get his shot going is a problem. The circumstances do not matter, whether you’re down by 25 or up by 50. You do not give up on a play like that in front of a young and impressionable roster. That’s especially true when you are hailed to be some sort of leader for this franchise that is perpetually mired in misery.
The result of his immaturity? Ant shot a paltry 2-of-11 for nine points against the Suns on Monday night. Regardless of his inefficiencies, it is irresponsible to shatter a young player’s confidence who, more often than not, is relied upon to give the Timberwolves a scoring spark and injections of energy. Edwards found other ways to impact the game against the Suns (12 rebounds, six assists in 39 mins), but taking away his scoring confidence isn’t doing the Wolves any favors.
Conversely, Towns appears more than content to let his buddy D’Angelo Russell keep clanking up bad shots. He finished the night with 22 points, but Russell shot 7-of-21 from the floor. Once again, he was a point of frustration for an offense failing to find a rhythm. Towns is the reason that Russell is on this team in the first place, and he needs to start keeping that same energy with a player who is undoubtedly hampering the team’s progress more than Edwards ever has.
Towns has always carried himself extremely well. He has blossomed into an insightful and candid person. He’s one of the most genuine personalities in the NBA. However, in this vividity, the frustration grows surrounding the consistently flat performances from the Timberwolves.
No question, Towns is the most talented player on the team, at least at this current juncture. He was the sole reason that the Timberwolves were even competitive against Phoenix on Monday night. One would think that the star player would buck up and continue to demand the ball from his teammates, but that has never been the case in Towns’ career. He has always played the role of deferential attention-magnet, and that passive indifference allows teams to capitalize on the inefficiencies of the rest of the roster.
If we continue to look at the Clippers game from Nov. 13 as an example, we see that Towns completely sinks into the void when the game doesn’t go the way he envisions it. Towns had eight points, eight rebounds, four assists in 31 minutes. He shot a miserly 3-11 from the field, which included 0-5 from 3. KAT only had one foul in the game, so his problems against Los Angeles cannot be blamed on foul trouble and failure to get into a rhythm. Towns played a passive game, and the team as a whole suffered because of it.
Per Cleaning the Glass, Towns’ usage rate against the Clippers was 15.3%, good for fifth out of nine players that played over 10 minutes in that game. It ranked just above Jarred Vanderbilt (15.2%) and far behind Edwards (33.3%) and Russell (29.2%). The notion that Towns is used to a similar degree of a player as Vanderbilt is abhorrent. It’s an indictment of many organizational facets of the team. It is also an indictment of his inability to demand the ball.
The chief criticism of Towns in the wake of the Jimmy Butler years is that he is soft. While I and many Timberwolves fans have thoroughly dismissed this notion, the reality is that Towns appears not to have that “it” factor that it takes to command and lead an NBA team fully. The “it” quality is intangible. The notion of “it” floats around in another dimension and only becomes fully apparent in those shining moments of cold-blooded play or bonafide motivational speaking. Towns came to life against the Suns, but it was once again not enough as the team lost yet another close game. Thus far, Towns has not demonstrated any pedigree in either of those fields.
Great players believe in their talents. They demand to be in the spotlight in moments that matter. Edwards has shown his affinity for the spotlight, but it may be a few years before his talent and consistency catch up to his bravado. Towns, in contrast, is the opposite. He has all the talent in the world. But he has yet to showcase that “killer” factor that so many successful players in the NBA possess. He shies away in crunch time and does not appear to have what it takes to motivate and mold a young roster chock full of talent.
It may be early in the year, but it appears to be the same old story for Towns and the Timberwolves this season. As the team stumbles its way to a sub-.500 record, a disappointing comparison is former Wolves player Andrew Wiggins. Both players possess all the talent in the world, and they looked poised to lead whatever franchise they landed on into the promised land. The Wiggins vision never came to fruition, and it would appear that a prospective future with Towns as the centerpiece will not produce prolific results. Thinking that Towns is a “good stats, bad team” guy much like Wiggins and Kevin Love gains more traction as the days go by.
Truthfully, these words are disappointing to write. I am someone who has been a staunch supporter of Towns during his entire career. Still, it may be time for the team to look into moving on. Edwards has demonstrated possession of the aforementioned “it” factor. Despite his inefficiencies, he is a player and magnetizing player worth building around. The liquidation of Towns (and Russell) could turn into a bevy of assets for a team that is sorely in need of as much young talent as it can get.
A culture change is needed. Beverley has helped, but his status as a role player puts a cap on how much impact he can have on the team. Towns is a leader and has not moved the needle past the losing culture of the Love/Ricky Rubio/Nikola Pekovic teams. The time has come for a change. As much as I love Towns, it is finally time to move on.