Unleash Point KAT On the NBA

Photo Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski (USA TODAY Sports)

Since Chris Finch took over as head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves, we’ve seen the ball in Karl-Anthony Towns’ hands much more often. It turns out that when the offense runs through KAT, this team does not look like the worst team in the NBA. Under Ryan Saunders, the Wolves had an offensive rating of 106.7, which has left them as a bottom-five offense in the league. In the six games after the All-Star break — Finch’s first five games are a throwaway since the team had no practice time — their offensive rating has leapt to 117.4.

Yes, this is a small sample size, but it’s no coincidence that having the ball in KAT’s hands more often has led to better offense. It can be easy to forget just how talented Towns is when the Wolves are losing, but don’t get it twisted: Karl-Anthony Towns is one of the most talented offensive players in the league.

Every year, Karl seems to add a new element to his game. This year, he has moved beyond being an unstoppable scoring force. He shows signs that he can be a fulcrum in Finch’s offense, not only as the primary scoring option but as one of the lead facilitators. He has been given more opportunities to put the ball on the floor and make a play with Finch as head coach, and he has made the most of it. But this is just the beginning. If the Wolves are going to make it back to the playoffs next year, Finch will need to unleash “Point KAT” onto the NBA.

A couple of weeks ago, I unveiled my own personal passing metric CPER, a statistical measure of a players’ passing effectiveness. As I previously wrote, there aren’t very many ways to measure passing impact, so I wanted a simple number that I could look at to understand how much a player’s passing is affecting their team.

Here is a quick refresher on CPER:

  • Ast%: An estimate of the percentage of teammate field goals a player assisted while they were on the floor.
  • Tov%: An estimate of turnovers committed per 100 plays.
  • Usg%: An estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player while they were on the floor.
  • Minutes Played% (MP%): Total minutes played in a season, divided by 3,936 (48 minutes per game over 82 games).

The formula is ((Ast%/Tov%)*Usg%*MP%)/100.

Originally, it was a cumulative statistic. Upon reflecting, I decided that I wanted to be able to use the stat in real-time. It’s not as useful when I can only look back at seasons to see a player’s impact. Using pure minutes-played percentage, I was able to filter out efficient, high usage, low-minute guys like J.J. Barea and Minnesota’s own Jordan McLaughlin, but that had the unintended consequence of punishing players who had injuries.

I figure that even if a player could only play 60 games, that doesn’t mean that they didn’t have a great passing season. They just got injured. It was a simple fix as I added a minutes adjustment to extrapolate minutes-played percentage to a projection of those minutes over 82 games.

Here is how Towns ranks among the best passing centers in the league:

Okay, 2.98 may not look that impressive compared to Nikola Jokic, Nikola Vucevic, and Julius Randle, but his passing has been steadily on the rise since Finch took over. In 11 games under Ryan Saunders, Towns’ CPER was 2.33. In the 11 games with Chris Finch as the coach, that number has risen to 3.04. The number doesn’t scream “best passing big man in the league,” but as Finch continues to work with this team, I would not be surprised to see that number continue to rise.

Numbers aren’t everything, though. There is real on-court evidence that Towns’ passing is improving as he becomes more of a primary playmaking option. I am most interested in seeing Towns bring the ball up the court to initiate offense off the break and in the half-court. We’ve gotten an opportunity to see Karl bring the ball up the court a few times and it has been successful.

Here, Towns grabs the board and gets going in transition. Steven Adams meets him to try to stop the break, but Adams has no chance at moving fast enough to stop Towns running at full speed. He gets right by him for the easy lay-up.

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Again, Towns grabs the ball and brings it up the floor. He is facing a 5-on-4 and is able to see over the defense to hit Jarred Vanderbilt as he cuts to the rim.

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This type of pass over the defense is a huge benefit of having a huge point guard. We see Jokic make this type of pass all the time, using his height to whip the ball over the defense to a cutting teammate.

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When Towns has the ball in his hands with a live dribble, opposing defenses take notice. The threat of his scoring takes a lot of defensive attention, and as he starts to dribble the ball more often, it’s important that he continues to make reads to get his teammates wide-open shots.

In this play, we see Karl engage in ball-screen action with Ricky Rubio. Malik Beasley screens the screener, which forces Pat Connaughton to switch onto Towns. Karl keeps his dribble alive, and the entire Milwaukee Bucks defense begins to collapse around him at the elbow. As Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez try to help on defense, that leaves Anthony Edwards open in the corner and Malik open at the top of the key. This time, Karl chooses Beasley, and he hits the wide-open trey.

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Towns’ passing still needs some improvement. Oftentimes, he tries to make the flashy pass instead of the correct pass. His accuracy when he’s threading the needle between defenders needs work as he can’t quite always execute the difficul pass. If he wants to approach the level of passing ability that Jokic has, he’ll need to continue to work on that pinpoint accuracy.

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To me, it feels like Towns is just scratching the surface of his passing ability. If Finch continues to funnel the offense through Towns, we should see his assist numbers and CPER rise as the year goes on. Although, as the return of D’Angelo Russell approaches, I have to wonder how the offense will change when he is on the court. We saw Russell play a very ball-dominant and methodical brand of basketball without Towns in the court.

DLo’s playing style thus far this year is directly opposed to the way that Finch wants to play. Will Russell buy into Finch’s philosophy? Will Karl get enough touches with DLo, Beasley, and Edwards all healthy? If the Wolves want to reach the next level (next season, obviously), everyone will have to be on board and Towns will have to be the primary playmaker.

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Photo Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski (USA TODAY Sports)

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