The NBA Finals feature two incredibly creative teams, but they share one core element – their centers’ playmaking ability. Nikola Jokic’s presence is obvious. He’s a one-of-a-kind offensive threat who can do anything for you at an elite level. However, much of his game comes from his ability to harness the Denver Nuggets’ flow by being the offensive playmaking hub. Bam Adebayo does something similar. The Miami Heat center does not have Jokic’s complete game, but Bam offers flow to the offense by finding teammates around him on dribble handoffs and on their cuts. Jokic and Adebayo of possess above-average passing traits that enable them to generate offense.
As another example, the Sacramento Kings did a better job implementing Domantas Sabonis into the offense. As a result, he propelled them to a 48-win season, their record season since the 2005-06 season. Sabonis has settled into a role where he can operate at the arc similarly to Bam and Jokic, using players such as De’Aaron Fox’s quickness or Kevin Huerter‘s shooting to full effect.
Luckily for the Minnesota Timberwolves, they have Karl-Anthony Towns, who isn’t too far behind these three in playmaking. KAT has already proven that he can play at an All-NBA level and shoot the ball as good at an elite level for a big. However, it may be time to mold his game to fit more flow into the offense. Minnesota doesn’t need to completely change what has worked his entire career. Rather, they’d be adding to a budding skillset. The offensive flow was a massive clog in the team’s ignition. They tried to play more free-flowing basketball but did not have the structure to do so. Molding KAT into a player that can operate in more of a freelance system would find a happy balance between the two.
A playmaking base could be a good role for KAT and only help his other offensive skills. He is already very patient with the ball when he receives it in the post. Putting him in the post can also limit him. But if he is put in a position where he has more freedom at the top of the arc or mid-range area, then he has more options than if he was trapped baseline on a regular short corner post-up.
It would also match his playstyle. Placing KAT at the mid-range area or the arc would make it easier to find mismatches. It’s also a way for him to take advantage of situations where he has a smaller player matched up with him. Many teams have begun to put a smaller player on him and limit him from trying to fully take over off the dribble by entering the heart of the defense.
It will take some buy-in, though. The Wolves were consistently stagnant on offense because few players excelled off the ball. Jaden McDaniels and Anthony Edwards stand out as the players who can benefit the most from a change in KAT’s game. Both already have the best tools as scorers when KAT is on the ball and possess the athleticism, touch, and methods of scoring to be effective in catching and driving to the rim. When the offense can naturally flow, it gives them a purpose off the ball and makes the defense think. The benefit here is that if either player learn this skill, it will only help them develop moving forward.
Other players becoming more adaptive with their cuts will keep the defense from being able to dig toward KAT or send quick pressure through a double team. As I mentioned before, KAT can sometimes take too much time analyzing what is going on when he is on the ball, especially in the post. The mix of those two factors, the pressure and Towns’ slow processing, is a recipe for disaster. He must make quicker decisions to find teammates, and which he needs to develop But his teammates must also learn how to become more effective and not be a statue off the ball.
However, any player can adapt to becoming a better player off the ball. In the playoffs this year, we have seen Eric Spoelstra throw Duncan Robinson into important minutes due to Tyler Herro’s injury. Robinson had a tumultuous season, and Spoelstra didn’t play him most of the year. However, Robinson has been to move off the ball using his shooting abilities to make the defense think. He also was active cutting towards the rim despite not being a phenomenal finisher.
Schematically, Miami, Denver, and Sacramento are all different teams than Minnesota. They tend to run far smaller lineups. The Wolves still have Rudy Gobert taking up space in the paint which makes it difficult to find a spot on the floor for him if KAT is going to get more touches in the center of the floor. But yet again this coincides with the abilities of those around making life easier, you need to be able to find roles for players.They can use Rudy to set off-ball screens for others. They could even attempt inverted screens for KAT to get him a lane downhill to find others, something that Aaron Gordon does for Jokic all the time.
While KAT doesn’t have Jokic’s supreme offensive skill level, using others around can offer creative visions where they can try to toy with matchups and expand the game of KAT.
Chris Finch could use Ant as a dribble hand-off ball-handler. That way he can curl around KAT to take advantage of his trail defender going over the action and to the rim. Or he can stay back for a potential open three. Similarly, they can use Jaden off the ball with pin-down screens from Gobert, something that we frequently saw in the freelance offense this season.
Ultimately, if Finch wants his free-flowing offense to work, the players must buy in. But there also must be structure in place for everyone to have a role. Using KAT as a hub more effectively is one of the many ways they can succeed in trying to build upon last year’s offensive misfortunes. It does not all have to structure the entire offense around using KAT as a playmaking hub, you can still get more than plenty of looks for Anthony Edwards. The offense simply needs more variety implemented. Finch is likely to remain with his free flowing offense and players need to find a better way to adapt through smarter movement.
The clock is slowly ticking away with the timelines of the team with Ant and Jaden being extension eligible soon and Rudy and KAT already making a large chunk of the cap. They must find creative ways to succeed in a vital 2023-24 season, with many of last year’s players looking to return barring any large trade.