The Wolves are saving Karl-Anthony Towns - by dooming Karl-Anthony Towns
Longtime listeners of The Sportive will know how fond I am of bringing up the case of former Timberwolf Josh Okogie. The now-24-year-old might be the single most exciting defensive player I’ve ever seen in the NBA. He is capable of things on defense that don’t seem possible, like he’s warping space-time. I am thinking of plays like this, where Okogie falls behind Justin Holiday as Holiday drives the lane, and as Holiday leaps to shoot, Okogie somehow A) catches up to him from behind and B) leaps up to block the shot, all during the split-second that Holiday is in the air. Holiday didn’t slow down! Okogie just sped up, somehow!
He is still doing insane defensive things - here is him simply, and rudely, snatching a step-back three-point attempt out of the air - but now he is doing them for the Phoenix Suns, with whom he signed a one-year contract in the offseason, worth $2 million, one of the smallest contracts it would be possible for him to sign.
In today’s NBA, there is an almost endless amount of room for players just like Okogie, who are defensive wizards without much in the way of offensive talent as a complement. “Not wanting to score many points” can almost be a skill, when it’s paired in a lineup with other players who score many points but aren’t great at defense. But there’s one catch: in order to be a defense-first guy, you also have to be able to do one offensive thing, which is making a three-pointer.
It’s a pretty well-defined role at this point, the “3-and-D guy.” What it requires is amazing defense, and the ability to spend entire offensive possessions standing almost completely still in the corner of the floor, serving entirely as an outlet for passes from ballhandlers and post players who have been double-teamed. The corner three is the easiest to shoot, given that it’s 21 inches closer than the other areas of the three-point line. Whole careers are built on defense, and shooting threes from the corner when your assigned defender has ditched his responsibility to help elsewhere.
What has always fascinated me about Okogie is that he’s an utterly amazing athlete, seemingly capable of anything – except for this one thing. In four years with the Timberwolves, he never managed to make even 30% of his three-pointers, when 40% is the accepted goal. With Phoenix, he’s made slightly more threes, 33% so far this season, but still not enough to make him more than a role player with the Suns.
There’s one thing, just one thing, he needs in order to have an extraordinarily lucrative 15-year career in the NBA, and so far, he can’t do it!
What got me thinking about this again was this excellent Defector blog by Albert Burneko, about Ben Simmons in Brooklyn, and his coach Jacque Vaughn’s deeply truthful answers that boil down to “we cannot figure out how to use a guy who will not shoot the basketball.” Simmons is an otherworldly talent that seems to have lost any rational understanding of how basketball works.
Simmons, and Okogie, are hardly the first players in NBA history who have been limited in this way. Just from a Wolves perspective, Ricky Rubio had almost everything in his game that anybody could want from a ball-handling guard, but injuries and an inability to make jump shots kept him from reaching the level of the NBA’s elite. Currently, they have Rudy Gobert, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year who scores 15 points per game, who nevertheless looks like aliens have hijacked his nervous system if he ever handles the ball more than five feet from the hoop.
Which brings me to the Timberwolves’ current issues, and especially their dilemmas about how to get things working with Karl-Anthony Towns.
I’m not sure there’s ever been a player quite like Towns, in all of NBA history. He’s listed at 7’0”, 248 pounds, though he plays even more physical than that - yet for his career, he’s a 40% three-point shooter. He’s capable of scoring in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and score off the dribble, and he can shoot over any player in the league from deep. He’s a matchup nightmare. There really is no good way to guard a seven-foot-tall guy who can rain down three-pointers, and this is why he’s been All-NBA twice.
But at the same time, he’s been unable to become a standout on the other end of the floor. His limitations as a defender, especially in a scheme that requires him to be the last line of defense at the hoop, have caused a succession of coaches to throw up their hands, and his inability to become a top-echelon rebounder has made it much easier for good teams to get two and three offensive chances per possession, especially in the fourth quarter of close games.
In the same way as Okogie, I find this fascinating, specifically because brand-new GM Tim Connelly immediately tried to address it in the simplest possible way: if Towns can’t protect the rim and rebound, then he’ll just trade the team’s entire future for Gobert, the best rim protector and rebounder in the game.
This might have worked perfectly, if only NBA teams were allowed to execute hockey-style line changes; the Wolves could have Towns play offense and Gobert play defense, and put together, the two would become the best player in NBA history. They’re perfect complements; each is all-world at the things that the other is bad at.
In reality, though, it’s awkward to have both in the lineup. Gobert can run the pick-and-roll on offense, but if Towns has the ball, he’s mostly taking up valuable space underneath the hoop. Put him anywhere else on the floor, and he’s a liability; if he’s ever in a situation where he has to dribble the ball, a sense of panic seems to envelop him, like a man trying to understand important directions in a language he’s never heard before.
Towns, for his part, fully leaned into the deferential, eager-to-please part of his personality, and did his best to bend his game to Gobert’s on offense, mostly by throwing him unguardable tower-to-tower lob passes - which is fun, as an academic exercise, but also takes Towns away from the All-NBA part of his game.
On defense, though, the pair’s limitations were apparent. Sure, other teams could barely approach the rim, but with two lumbering defenders on the floor, they mostly didn’t have to. Gobert’s defensive skills, fairly famously, can be neutralized simply by playing a lineup without a big man; he’s not quick enough to guard smaller players out by the three-point line. Towns is both quicker and more enthusiastic as a perimeter defender, but has less severe versions of the same deficiencies, and so most teams could give themselves a matchup advantage simply by playing a normal lineup, one without two big guys in it.
The problems have been paused, for now, by Towns’s severe calf injury, but in his absence, the Wolves have changed again - and not to support KAT. Trading D’Angelo Russell for Mike Conley gave them more financial flexibility, but it also represented the team doubling down on Gobert, by bringing in a point guard that’s had plenty of success working with Gobert in the past.
It’s a chain reaction that has led to the Wolves determining that Anthony Edwards, not Towns, is truly the future of the team, and to developing a rotation that has a pretty good starting five and a pretty good set of substitutes, even without KAT.
So if you’re keeping track, Towns’s few flaws - ones that were not enough to keep him from earning the extremely high honor of All-NBA and All-Star selections - have led, through a series of bold but understandable and defensible personnel moves, to him being replaced as the franchise cornerstone, and to a rotation that somehow seems to have no place for him on either the first or second unit.
I’m rooting hard for Towns, I really am; his flaws, though frustrating, also make him more endearing. I want the Wolves’ coaching staff to find a way to integrate him into the team and to make things work, because a decent team - which the Wolves are, without Towns - could become a really good one, with the addition of an All-NBA-level player.
But even more than the case of Okogie, or Simmons, or any of the other amazing-but-partially-flawed players that have come through the NBA, Towns is simply a fascinating case. He’s an amazing player, one almost without precedent in league history, whose front office is addressing the few things he struggles with in a way that may end up requiring him to be removed from the team entirely.