Karl-Anthony Towns is having a tremendous offensive season but he must also lead on defense to make his team consistently competitive. Marks Deeks examines how the Minnesota Timberwolves are putting their All-Star center in position to succeed on the less glamorous end of the court.
On the young season thus far, Minnesota Timberwolves All-Star center Karl-Anthony Towns is averaging 25.7 points, 12.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.7 blocks per game in five contests.
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He is shooting 50.0 per cent for the floor and 45.1 per cent from three-point range, and notably, as a center who shot three-pointers only 7.6 per cent of the time as a rookie, he has thus far this season attempted more of the latter than he has two-pointers.
This has not come at the expense of his ability to get to the free throw line, which is also on course for being a career-high, sporting a free throw rate of 37.9 per cent thus so far. He is producing a lot of basic box score counting numbers and doing so efficiently.
The advanced metrics are flattering for him, too. Among all players league-wide to have received at least 100 minutes, Towns is ranked eighth in win shares per 48 minutes, and is seventh in PER (per ESPN.com).
He is also sixth in box score plus minus (a statistic designed to calculate how many points better than a league-average player someone is per 100 possessions) at a hefty +9.5 mark per basketballreference.com. He might rank higher in this category had he not played three games less, two of which were due to a suspension for fighting Joel Embiid.
By any measure, Towns is having a tremendous offensive season. And by any measure, we should expect nothing less. Having won the Rookie of the Year award in 2016, making two NBA All-Star appearances in the last couple of years and appearing on the All-NBA Third Team in only his third season, this is nothing new.
The higher volume of three-point shots this season is a new development, certainly, but having hit greater than 40 per cent on a good volume of outside shots in each of his previous two seasons, it is not an aberration, rather the logical progression of continuous improvement. What were once catch-and-shoot jump shots from either the short left corner or just beyond the foul line are now three-pointers, and both his and his team's offensive efficiencies are the better for it. As a modern era 'five man' capable of playing all over the court, Towns is an offensive wizard, and particularly so far this season.
Towns' offensive development is both a product and a large part of the reason for a wider modernisation of Minnesota's team offensive philosophy. They struggled last season, having traded away Jimmy Butler early and firing Tom Thibodeau at mid-season, struggling to establish any sort of identity beyond the individual brilliance of Towns. But this season, they came in with a stronger idea of how they wanted to play.
The required results are not yet there. The Wolves thus far this season are only 20th in the league in offensive rating, down from last year's 11th; the early season shooting struggles of each of Treveon Graham, Shabazz Napier, Josh Okogie, Jarrett Culver and Noah Vonleh - that is to say, basically the entire bench rotation - can be said to be a large part of why that is. Regardless of the shooting efficiency to date, though, the type of shots taken is evidently different.
The Wolves attempted 28.7 three-point shots per game last season, the fifth-lowest mark in the league, yet are up to the fourth-highest so far in 2019/20 in attempting 40.5 of them. Their pace rating has gone from a middle-of-the-pack 14th to a league-leading first, the post-up touches are down to 8.7 per game from 19.7 last year, and elbow touches per game are down to 7.3 from 11.9.
At a time the Wolves are taking more shots than ever, they are also taking more out of them from the area worth an extra point, and if they had a more dynamic slashing guard than Jeff Teague, perhaps they would see better results around the basket as well.
At least Andrew Wiggins seems to have tempered all his pull-up mid-range jumpers and floaters, utilising the three-pointer, more regularly getting to the rim and adding 46 points to his true shooting percentage mark of last season accordingly. The added floor stretching presence of Towns and the regularity with which he can now draw a defender outside of the paint is only helping with that.
More importantly, the knock on both Towns and his team in recent seasons has been the defensive end. In the last five seasons, the Timberwolves have ranked 24th, 27th, 27th again, 28th and stone-cold last in defensive rating respectively, despite for much of that time having a supposedly defensive-minded head coach in Thibodeau.
Towns as an individual has received a large part of the criticism for why that is, which has been inevitable and fair. He is the best player on the team, he is the franchise cornerstone now paid accordingly, he is a sub-par individual defender at a crucial defensive position, and he is the one who, if anyone can, will take this team in its current incarnation towards competitiveness. And this requires him to lead from the front on both ends, not just a glamorous one.
This season, the Wolves have improved to 15th in defensive rating, per nba.com/stats. And this is not because of some significant upgrades to their personnel - it bears repeating they lost elite wing defender Jimmy Butler, as well as stalwart power forward Taj Gibson - but because of a change in schematics that perhaps stands to benefit Towns as an individual the most.
To counteract the increased league-wide propensity for stretch bigs, historic three-point volume and pick-and-rolls starting from higher up the court than ever before, NBA defenses have been stylised to match. Specifically, more agile big men that are able to step up to the perimeter with the speed to stay with attacking guards, as well as contain the new-fangled big man shooting threats, are all the rage today, and teams that have such players are ever more confident in playing switch-heavy schemes, knowing they have the personnel across all five positions to contain the pick-and-roll, the most fundamental basketball play there is, from wherever it may begin.
When a big does not have the lateral speed to be able to do so, though, they become exploitable unless significant adjustments can be made. Some players are just too big, slow or both to be able to cover much ground when running sideways or backwards, and for them, switch-heavy schemes will never be favourable.
When such players are suitably good offensively that they need big minutes even with this distinct drawback, their teams need to find a way to incorporate them defensively without overexposing them and giving up more points than their offensive games yield.
Prior to his broken leg, the Portland Trail Blazers had managed to do this with Jusuf Nurkic by playing a 'drop' defense, in which Nurkic was rarely asked to step up at all. In other cases (eg Enes Kanter), players who also are not good rim protectors are exposable even then, but Nurkic-types who can block shots far better than they can defend in space benefit from dropping back in this way, even though it relies upon heavy rotations, crisp communication and good athleticism from the other four players to cover for it.
Despite his good athleticism and quickness for his size when running forwards, Towns has never had the best lateral speed, compounded by not having the best perimeter defensive footwork.
As a result, he has always been a player that opposing offenses attack in these sets; combined with Minnesota often not having the type of physical large quick guard at the one spot who can shoot the gaps, cover both positions, fight over screens and have the size and speed to recover onto whichever player intends to shoot , this has over the last few years been leaving any kind of 1-5 pick-and-roll set as a significant vulnerability for the Wolves.
This is said with particular reference to Teague, a good player with distinct strengths that do not fit into this article's narrative and for whom this article is not flattering.
Towns has been a better interior defender than advertised over his last few seasons, albeit with limitations. Combining long arms with good strength, he makes good plays on the ball around the basket when he is in the right position; a slowness to react across the lane, however, and a lack of second and third efforts has often undercut what should be good potential in this area of the game, a very important one for a center. If stuck on an island away from the basket, those slow reactions are even more costly.
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This season, though, it seems as though the Wolves are trying the Nurkic option. Towns is staying home inside the paint more often, and while this, in theory, gives up jump shots and pull-ups to opponents - particularly when paired with Teague, a player who honestly is quite good overall, but just not here - it does give Towns more opportunity to be in the back-line, co-ordinating, communicating and contesting.
It is not a coincidence that this summer, Minnesota hired David Vanterpool as an assistant coach, bringing him over from the very same Blazers that crafted the Nurkic solution. Once the 40.3 per cent opponent three-point percentage that the Timberwolves have given up so far this season regresses to the mean, even better defensive results may be forthcoming.
Towns also started to play with more active hands in the second half of last season. While he can still be slow to react across the lane, if he is able to disrupt and win possessions in the passing lanes, combined with staying back in his more comfortable areas and more consistently putting forth multiple efforts, he can become a good defensive player where once he was poor.
Indeed, this appears to be what he is doing. And so for all the offensive production outlined in above, it is the improved defensive play of their superstar that has seen the Timberwolves get out to a solid 5-3 start, with room to grow once the shots start falling.
Minnesota said before the season started that they would empower Towns to take more outside jump shots, to use his shooting threat and much-improved passing game to hit cutters around the painted area, rather than starting him off down there. They have, and he has come through.
In exchange, and as payment for putting him into more individually favourable defensive positions, they needed better commitment on that end from their star player. And so far, he has come through there as well.