Timberwolves

Is Karl-Anthony Towns a Dark Horse MVP Candidate?

Photo Credit: Craig Mitchelldyer (USA TODAY Sports)

With the regular season quickly approaching, it’s time to trot out the second-most annoying continuous basketball-centric conversation: Who will win NBA MVP? (The most annoying being the constant Michael Jordan vs. LeBron James GOAT babble.)

The 2021-22 preseason MVP odds are out, and the usual suspects are all there. Luka Doncic is the early favorite at +470 on FanDuel. The Slovenian is followed by last year’s Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo at +700. Kevin Durant, Joel Embiid, and Stephen Curry round out the top five at +800 each. Scrolling down the list, you get LeBron James in seventh place with last year’s MVP Nikola Jokic just behind him. Down in 23rd place is a name that many fans might dismiss immediately, but someone who could become a dark horse MVP candidate by season’s end.

Karl-Anthony Towns.

I know what you’re thinking; there’s no chance in hell KAT can even get a single vote, let alone win the damn thing. “KAT sucks,” you say. He’s a “good-stats-bad-team guy.” He’s “7’0” Monta Ellis.” He “doesn’t drive winning.” The narrative around KAT being “soft” has been set in stone ever since he blew everyone’s minds during his historic rookie season. Since then, “shit hasn’t been easy” for the former unicorn who twice was voted the player general managers would most want to build around.

Flip Saunders, the man who drafted Towns first overall in 2015, died of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma days before KAT’s rookie season began. Tom Thibodeau brought Jimmy Butler in to ruffle some feathers, which is exactly what he did before uppercutting the franchise on the way out. Andrew Wiggins never became a serviceable sidekick. COVID, injuries, personal tragedy, and constant franchise instability are just the tip of the iceberg of what KAT has dealt with before his 26th birthday.

Through the constant stream of negativity that encircles the Minnesota Timberwolves, it’s easy to forget how different things were just two years ago. In the early weeks of the 2019-20 season, KAT was still seen around the league as one of the best big men in basketball, and for good reason.

Through the first 18 games of the season, Towns was averaging 26.3 points, 12.6 rebounds, and 4.1 assists per game on a 51/44/79 shooting split. More importantly, the Wolves began the season 10-8, signaling that maybe Towns could lead a playoff team without Butler. Even the late, great Sekou Smith had Towns in 10th place in his MVP Ladder on NBA.com.

KAT had the attention of the league and was finally ready to ascend to superstardom. Unfortunately, he plays for the Timberwolves, so things quickly spiraled out of control. Minnesota immediately began an 11-game losing streak. Towns missed 15 games with a knee injury. Another 13-game losing streak led to Towns not suiting up in a win between Nov. 27 and Feb. 8. Gersson Rosas finally traded Wiggins for Towns’ buddy D’Angelo Russell, but KAT immediately injured his wrist and missed the rest of the season thanks to the COVID stoppage.

In three months, Towns went from MVP hopeful to NBA punching bag and has not recovered since. But KAT is up off the ropes, healthy and in the best shape of his life, with a young talent surrounding him and a head coach who might be able to maximize his otherworldly talents.

If you’re looking for a statistical case for MVP, Towns might be the player most uniquely suited to put up eye-popping stats across several categories. Since his rookie season in 2015-16, KAT ranks 14th in the league in points per game (22.9), fifth in rebounding (11.6 a game), and 8th with 1.4 blocks per contest. His three assists per game are only good for 46th in that span, but it shoots up to sixth among traditional bigs.

These stats are all great for a player in his first six seasons, but the real game-changer for Towns is his 3-point shooting. He’s established himself as the greatest long-range center in league history and ranks 14th in the NBA in 3-point percentage over the last six seasons.

Chris Finch’s offense looks to run more through Towns at the elbow and in the post, giving him a more prominent role as a playmaker. Towns averaged 25.6 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 4.8 assists per game in 39 games under Finch last season. Given a full offseason and training camp with the same team that finished 9-7 down the stretch last season and had a 116.1 offensive rating, it’s reasonable to think that KAT could put up the best statistical season of his career.

Season averages near 28 points, 12 rebounds, and five assists with a 50/40/90 shooting split would put KAT in Giannis and Jokic territory. Towns will also have to improve his defense to give himself a shot. Jokic won the award last season based mostly on his offensive prowess, with voters ignoring his defensive shortcomings. The same could be true for Towns. If he can get himself into historical offensive efficiency, MVP voters may be willing to overlook mediocre defense.

The most significant variable standing in KAT’s way is team success. Let’s face it, as optimistic as some Wolves fans are about the upcoming season, the Wolves are still one of the worst teams in the league until we see it on the court for an entire year. KAT can put up Wilt Chamberlain-like numbers, but if Minnesota finishes 33-49, he has no chance to win MVP.

Since the NBA began handing out the award in 1956, only one player has ever won NBA MVP and missed the playoffs. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar led the Los Angeles Lakers to a 40-42 finish in his first season in 1976, his first season in Tinseltown. It was the fourth-best record in the West, but because of seeding rules, the Lakers missed the playoffs in place of the 38-44 Milwaukee Bucks and the 36-46 Detroit Pistons.

The Timberwolves must make the playoffs to give KAT any shot at taking home the hardware. Beyond making the playoffs, they will also need to finish as high as possible in the standings for Karl-Anthony Towns to get serious MVP consideration. Forty-eight of 66 MVPs led their teams to the top seed in their conference, with another eight on second-place teams. Only Russell Westbrook in 2017 and Moses Malone in 1982 were on teams outside the top four seeds in their respective conferences (both were on sixth-place teams).

The Timberwolves are all but guaranteed to finish outside the top three in the West because of the star-studded Lakers, the returning Phoenix Suns core, and a healthy Utah Jazz roster. After the top three, the West begins to decline rapidly. A dozen teams with injured stars, continuity issues, and a lack of depth could open the door for a team like the Wolves to rapidly rise the ranks of the Western Conference. A resurgent Towns leading an upstart Timberwolves team to a surprise sixth-seeded finish in the West could be all the narrative he needs to garner legitimate MVP attention, especially after everything he’s been through in the last two years.

Towns is currently a long shot at +6500 to win the first MVP in Minnesota since Kevin Garnett put the Timberwolves on the map in 2004. I’m not saying bet your rent on KAT to win today. But with a redemption narrative in place, a small statistical jump, and a Suns-esque surprise team improvement, KAT could find himself as a feel-good dark-horse MVP candidate that the people could get behind as the season goes on.

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