The Minnesota Timberwolves are off to one of the hottest starts in the NBA, winning 8 of their first 10 games while firmly establishing themselves as a team to watch out for in the Western Conference. They currently have the best defensive rating in the league by a considerable margin. The Wolves have slowed down some of the best offenses in the NBA and beat contending teams, including the Boston Celtics, the Denver Nuggets, and the Golden State Warriors. They have been so good that several prominent national media members have started to stick their flags in the ground and say that the Wolves are a team that’s a true threat to win the West. That includes Bill Simmons (who ranked the Wolves fifth in his NBA power rankings), Zach Lowe, and The Mismatch podcast’s Kevin O’Connor and Chris Vernon.
The Wolves have put the national media spotlight on themselves this year due to their success, which has been a stark contrast from last year. It has been enjoyable to listen to big-name analysts primarily praise the team’s growth, recognize the team’s talent as a defense, and shout out Anthony Edwards‘s ridiculous highlight plays. However, Minnesota’s stellar play has not made them immune to criticism or hot takes, which come with the territory of having higher expectations.
Unfortunately, most people are directing their hot takes and criticisms toward Karl-Anthony Towns. KAT had gotten off to a somewhat slow shooting start this season before being a primary force helping the Wolves win in the last 4 games. That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to hardcore Wolves fans. Towns has historically been a lightning rod for criticism, much of which he doesn’t really deserve, given the lack of talent on the teams built around him in the first several years of his career. A vocal portion of the Wolves’ X/Twitter community has been trying to trade KAT for what feels like years. Every trade deadline, someone writes an article saying that a new team is “monitoring” KAT, even though he’s an All-NBA level center who has expressed no interest in being traded.
However, it’s no longer just pessimistic fans of the team who want the Wolves to trade KAT. Last week, The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor joined the KAT discussion on The Mismatch with a very strong opinion. As a fan of the show, I must mention that this take came out before KAT’s two outstanding games against the Warriors. Therefore, I will briefly explain the context in which O’Connor presented his opinion. During their self-proclaimed “most important game in podcast history” titled “That’s true, that might be true, that’s ridiculous,” host Chris Vernon lofts O’Connor intentionally hot (and sometimes humorous) takes. Vernon forces O’Connor to respond to them with one of the three answers in the title of the game. For example, the first statement of the segment was, “The Lakers offseason was overrated,” to which O’Connor responded, “That might be true.”
Later during the game, Vernon presents the statement, “Minnesota can win the West.” O’Connor responds, “That’s true, but they need to trade Karl-Anthony Towns.” Vernon responds, “I don’t think so, it’s actually going well with him,” and then asks, “Why?” O’Connor responds:
Because he’s not the reason you have an elite defense. The reason why you have an elite defense is because you have the world’s best interior defender in Rudy Gobert and the world’s best perimeter defender in Jaden McDaniels together on the same team. What they’re able to do — we saw it against Boston the other night, we saw it against Denver with Jamal Murray when McDaniels clamped up on the perimeter against the opponent’s best perimeter creator.
O’Connor goes on to propose that Naz Reid is ready for a bigger role off the bench. He said that the Wolves should trade Karl for several good role players, using the example of the Phoenix Suns trading Deandre Ayton for players who weren’t as good as him but fit the roster better. O’Connor goes on to suggest that KAT doesn’t fit and that the team would be better without him.
I agree with many of Kevin O’Controversy’s points about what makes the Wolves good. I also believe that the Wolves can win the West, that McDaniels and Gobert are the best defenders at their position of anyone in the league, and that Naz Reid is ready for more minutes. However, I strongly disagree with the idea that the Wolves need to trade KAT to win the West. I believe that the Wolves need KAT to be a true contender in the Western Conference for several reasons.
First and foremost, KAT is an incredibly important part of Minnesota’s big-ball identity this year. One of the advantages that the Wolves have had in the first ten games of the season is that no matter what lineup they are running with and no matter what type of team they are facing, they can always have at least one super-talented big on the court who can take advantage of different matchups. There are at least a few very talented centers in the league that KAT is uniquely adept at matching up against.
Vernon is from Memphis and is a big Grizzlies fan. He pointed out that when the Wolves played the Grizzlies in the playoffs two years ago, Towns played Steven Adams off the court because he was too slow to defend KAT. There are few centers in the league who can keep up with KAT, and though smaller defenders guarding him have sometimes been profitable, most teams don’t have Jrue Holiday as their 3rd to 4th best player like the Celtics. The San Antonio Spurs tried the same thing by matching wing Keldon Johnson against KAT and got shredded. Karl put up 29 points and 12 rebounds.
Last year, Chris Finch talked about wanting teams to have to adjust to Minnesota’s size and not the other way around. Having three really good centers has allowed the Wolves to do that, especially now that they’ve had more time to learn how to play together. Some nights KAT will have an advantage, sometimes Rudy will, and sometimes Naz will.
Another reason that the Wolves need Karl to win the West is that he greatly raises the team’s offensive ceiling. The Timberwolves have the best defense in the league, but their offense has left a lot to be desired, especially when Anthony Edwards is off the court. The Wolves currently have the league’s 17th-best offensive rating (110.4). There is an idea throughout the NBA that to be a true championship contender, a team needs to have a top-ten offense and a top-ten defense. Of course, some teams have managed to win a title without these parameters. Occasionally, one half of the equation is so dominant that they don’t need the other to be elite, but it often holds true.
However, the Wolves are closer to having a top-ten offense than their current offensive rating suggests. That’s partially because KAT had a slow start to the season. He shot only 8 of 34 (about 23.5%) from three-point range in his first six games of the season, but Karl’s shooting has quickly returned to its normal greatness. Towns has shot 14 of 25 (56%) from downtown in the last 4 games. As a result, the Wolves blew out the New Orleans Pelicans and Spurs and earned emphatic wins over the Warriors. Even the best shooters go through slumps. But with KAT back to looking like he’s getting back into All-NBA form on offense, the Wolves can be a truly scary offense. They have the potential to reach the top ten in a matter of weeks.
Finally, KAT has improved a lot on defense. Although he may not be the level of defender of Gobert or Jaden, KAT has consistently contributed to Minnesota’s No. 1 defense this season. Throughout the Wolves’ win over the Nuggets, Towns did a great job of walling up Jokic, preventing him from getting easy buckets near the rim. Jokic was regularly throwing elbows into KAT’s chest as he tried to back him down. For the most part, Towns was able to contest Jokic’s shots without fouling. KAT has generally been better at going straight up to contest shots this season.
Towns also seems to be actively working at some of the bad habits that he’s had in the past. Most importantly, KAT has been great at getting back on defense after an offensive possession. He sprinted back to get a block on Sunday against the Warriors. In Tuesday’s game, Karl hit a layup through contact but didn’t get the call to shoot an and-1. KAT visibly expressed his frustration at the no-call. However, he did so while sprinting back to play defense and didn’t let his frustration get in the way of the game. That has felt like a trend for KAT throughout the season, and it’s evidence that he’s made a commitment to not let refs bother his play.
If the Timberwolves trade Towns now, they will lower the team’s ceiling for both this year and the future. Many of the league’s best teams are now playing with two skilled bigs on the court, including the Celtics. The Wolves are ahead of the trend with two elite skilled bigs in KAT and Rudy. Although it has taken him some time for Towns to be able to adjust to playing the 4 regularly, he has learned how to make it work. As KAT continues to get more comfortable in his new role, Minnesota’s offense will continue to get better, and the team will continue to look more like a true championship contender.
KAT has shown a lot of growth in the past year. He’s gone from hurting the team’s defense last year to being a big part of why it’s No. 1 this year. I don’t care if the Wolves will be in salary cap hell in the upcoming seasons. I don’t care about second aprons or supertaxes. And I don’t care if there’s logic behind trading away one of your big salary players to get under the new tax rules before they begin.
This team kicks ass. It’s super fun to watch in part because of how big they are, and they look like they are only going to get better throughout the season. The Timberwolves have a legitimate chance to win the title with their current core, and the team is starting to sell out home games. If that’s not a good enough reason for the owners to pay the luxury tax, then I don’t know what is. Even if they have to trade everyone but Ant, Jaden, and Naz in two years before their draft picks are frozen by the second apron, so be it. They will be a glorious two years.