Building up Towns: On KAT sitting late, and other gripes

TownsBuiltThe Minnesota Timberwolves have emerged victorious once in their past nine games, a pair of four game losing streaks sandwiched around an overtime victory at home over the hapless Los Angeles Lakers. They began the season 8-8, with impressive victories over Chicago, Atlanta (twice) and Miami. Gripes about the team’s outmoded offense and Sam Mitchell’s rotations could be seen, but were mere flickers compared to the inferno that erupted a week ago, when the Wolves blew an 18-point lead in a loss to Denver.

A plethora of commentaries exist regarding what Minnesota ought to do with the offense, the coaching staff, and the development of the team’s three most important players: Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, and Karl-Anthony Towns. What’s known: the Timberwolves do not shoot enough threes (16.7 per game, fewest in the league), especially corner threes (2.5 per game, dead last). They take too many midrange shots (28.5 per game, most in the NBA). Due to the lack of spacing, their sets often result in congestion or clutter, labored (and time-consuming) attempts to enter the ball into the post, or repetitive curl action designed to get ballhandlers moving down the lane and attacking the hoop (a fine idea, but one that’s been easily countered by clouding the paint with bodies).

Opposing coaches seem to make adjustments that slow down the offense, and the Wolves have no counterpunch. It either happens between the starting unit’s first and second stint (at home versus Denver on Tuesday and in New York on Wednesday) or after the halftime break (at Denver and Phoenix last weekend). Minnesota has found a way to make games interesting, but their dry spells leave their margin for error extremely low. Lately, they haven’t been able to overcome them, thus the angst about Sam Mitchell’s performance. There is little that can be said to assuage the fan who is certain he isn’t the right fit, but it i’s important to remember the difficult circumstances under which Sam ascended to the job. That doesn’t make him immune from criticism, of course, but as long as the ‘interim’ label sticks, there’s reason to suspect the team may take a more open approach to finding a long-term fit this offseason, when the time is right.

TownsANDWiggBut in the meantime, as mentioned above, there are some very important young players to develop. The main criticisms with Mitchell’s handling of Wiggins concern his lack of threes (of course) as well as the repetitive nature of the plays called for him. When Wiggins shares the floor with Garnett, Rubio, and/or Prince (three non-scorers), everyone knows what’s coming: isolation post-ups and curl action that often leads to contested shots in the paint. He’s terrific at getting to the line (7.5 free throw attempts per game, 5th in the NBA), but putting all of the offense’s eggs in that basket (no pun intended) leads to low efficiency numbers for Wiggins, and some pretty simple defensive adjustments by opposing teams.

Regarding LaVine, it’s the same question that’s sparked debate among fans and writers since day one: is he a point guard? Is it helpful or hurtful to play him there, even for developmental purposes? Subjectively speaking, it feels like LaVine is improving; part of what hurts his standing as a point guard in the eyes of fans is the person to whom he is being compared. Ricky Rubio was put on this Earth to be a point guard; the Timberwolves organization is trying to mold the wet clay of Zach LaVine into one, which is a slow, messy process. A year and a quarter into the effort, it’s starting to take shape:

Rubio v. LaVine
PPP Team EFG% Ast% Threes/36 mins
Rubio at PG 1.018 45.2% 63.4% 10
LaVine at PG 1.038 49.2% 50.5% 14

Also, the idea that playing with LaVine is bad for his fellow young players is overblown; in reality, the results are somewhat mixed:

Eff FG% w/ Rubio vs. LaVine at PG
eFG% with Rubio eFG% with LaVine
Wiggins 42.4% 49.5%
Towns 55.2% 51.4%
Martin 45.9% 42.8%
Dieng 56.5% 47.8%
Muhammad 26.7% 50.4%

Wings seem to perform better when LaVine is on the court, bigs do better with Rubio, and Kevin Martin struggles either way. Rubio is outstanding at entering the ball into the post, as well as making highlight passes to teammates standing near the hoop. LaVine, on the other hand, helps improve the play of shooting guards and small forwards who play alongside him, likely because they have more room to operate once they have the ball. Rubio’s man can zone up and help cut off driving lanes for the likes of Martin and Muhammad; when LaVine is out there, that option is risky, because Zach must be respected as a shooter.

Obviously, there are light years between them on the defensive end. Ricky Rubio has the kind of potential to be an All-NBA defender, while LaVine is still lost and physically overmatched at times. That fact should be considered by the vocal “LaVine HAS to play shooting guard, what are the Wolves DOING?!?” crowd. He’s overmatched against fellow point guards; imagine if he had to deal with checking opposing two-guards for 30 minutes per night? Until he grows into his body and adds a little bit more muscle, that seems unwise. And in the meantime, he’s showing enough progress at point guard to make the experiment worthwhile – even if he doesn’t fit your platonic ideal of what a point guard ought to be.

la-sp-zach-lavine-wre0025663808-20150103There’s little to complain about when it comes to Karl-Anthony Towns’ play, or even how he is being used. Through 25 games, he’s second on the team in minutes (behind Wiggins) and is averaging 15 points, 9 rebounds and 2 blocks per game on 55% effective field goal shooting. He turned 20 one month ago. That’s INSANE, continues to be insane, and will be insane for the foreseeable future. He is everything the Wolves could have possibly hoped for, and the fact that the team has finally landed a top draft choice of their own who looks like the real deal, without reservation, is something to be celebrated.

That doesn’t stop a few nitpickers from picking their nits. The first complaint arises when he sits late in games in favor of Gorgui Dieng. Towns has sat the entire fourth quarter four times this season, and once checked out with 7:40 to go and did not return. Each time, Dieng played well enough to keep Sam from calling on KAT to re-enter. Each time, the Wolves’ starters dug the team a big hole in the early part of the second half, and each time Gorgui and his fellow reserves came close to clawing out of it:

Date Opponent Result When Towns exited Score when Towns exited Score rest of game
11/5 MIA L 7:40, 4th Down 65-81 19-15
11/25 ATL W 3:43, 3rd Down 64-67 35-28
11/27 @ SAC W 3:30, 3rd Down 63-67 34-28
12/1 ORL L 3:51, 3rd Down 58-72 35-24
12/13 @ PHX L 4:38, 3rd Down 61-73 40-35

Dieng’s individual numbers in those situations are eye-popping:

Total minutes FGM/FGA FTM/FTA Total +/- Per-36 min averages
58:28 10/16 10/10 +34 26 points, 14rebounds, 2.5 blocks

While it’s true that developing KAT is the team’s primary objective, Mitchell still has a basketball team to run, and there’s something to be said for sticking with unit that got you back into what would have otherwise been a blowout. His defensive presence at the rim aside, Dieng has been very solid for the past month, and (I imagine) it’d be difficult to yank him when both he (and the team) are performing well.

The second complaint some fans have regarding how KAT has been handled is that he doesn’t get enough touches on the offensive end of the floor – that the team doesn’t run enough offense through him. But as the following charts show, Towns leads the team in elbow touches:

  Touches/gm Points/gm Pass% Ast% TO%
Towns 4.8 2.3 49.1 5.2 3.4
Wiggins 3.5 2.7 23.5 6.2 8.6
Dieng 3.3 1.0 62.5 6.3 5.0
Garnett 2.5 0.1 89.1 10.9 0
Martin 2.1 0.8 47.9 10.4 0

And post touches:

  Touches/gm Points/gm Pass% Ast% TO%
Towns 4.3 4.0 15.4 3.8 6.7
Dieng 3.5 3.0 20.0 4.7 9.
Wiggins 2.0 2.0 10.6 2.1 0
Muhammad 1.5 1.8 2.7 0 0
Garnett 1.4 0.6 32.3 9.7 3.2

And paint touches:

  Touches/gm Points/gm Pass% Ast% TO%
Towns 3.6 3.5 14.9 3.4 9.2
Dieng 3.0 2.7 19.2 1.4 9.0
Wiggins 1.8 1.9 7.1 2.4 0
Muhammad 1.4 1.6 3.0 0 0
Garnett 1.0 0.5 19.0 4.8 4.8

Plus, while Towns has shown flashes of being a transcendent passer, making crisp decisions while whipping the ball across the court, finding cutters to the rim, or deftly dropping the ball over his shoulder to a wing player slicing through the lane, he hasn’t actually racked up very many assists – just 1.2 per-36 minutes.

While it seems as though Towns will someday be able to initiate offense at the elbow, while being able to pop outside to shoot threes, and put it on the floor a little bit, and run in transition, and guard four (or five?!?) positions effectively, he isn’t quite there yet, and he probably shouldn’t be asked to do a whole lot more than he is already. He won’t be able to buy beer until he’s a month into his second NBA season, and for all intents and purposes, he’s under team control (contractually) through at least 2023. There’s time.

Despite the angst, despite the desperation, despite the worry, it’s important to remember those two words regarding all three of the Timberwolves’ enticing young talents…

There’s time.

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2 thoughts on “Building up Towns: On KAT sitting late, and other gripes

  1. “He’s overmatched against fellow point guards; imagine if he had to deal with checking opposing two-guards for 30 minutes per night? Until he grows into his body and adds a little bit more muscle, that seems unwise.”
    I want to push back against this a little. I feel like guarding the point guard, against most teams, would be much more physically demanding than guarding someone off the ball. The point guard is run through screens and has the ball a lot more often and, especially in the league today, the average point guard is leaps and bounds better than the average shooting guard, though this distinction may be less prominent in bench units. It seems when most good teams “hide” their bad defenders, they don’t do it by putting them on the player who has the ball the majority of the time and instead put them on wings who are less offensively skilled.
    That being said, great article. The numbers for Lavine at PG were much better than I expected and the analysis makes sense.
    Quick question, when you say “A year and a quarter into the effort, it’s starting to take shape:” are these numbers from just this year or do they also include last year?

  2. Often cranky fan perspective here: Look, clay sounds nice. You can make this into ANYTHING. No one is clay. When you say someone is clay, you are really saying they are undeveloped and you aren’t sure what their place in the league is, or if they even have a place in it. That’s not a good thing. When Zach came into the league he was young, and even for his age behind the curve, after playing a reserve roll in one year of college ball. He was acquired for good reason, potential, but when that happens, you should say to yourself, ‘let’s find the best role for this guy’s talents,’ not ‘this guy is clay, we can mold him into what we want.’ All signs have always and still point to Zach being a natural 2 guard. He’s improved in all aspects of his game, is a very hard worker and is already a really nice scorer in the league. But even with improvement as a point he’s not a good one at all, and what makes him OK at it is really 2 guard type scoring skills that offset his inability to play point guard well. This fitting a square peg into a round hole thing might make more sense if the Wolves lacked a good true point guard–maybe if we had a point by committee or were searching for our future point guard. (Yes, I see the stats, but the fact is, point guard stuff isn’t what Zach is doing well in games yet.)

    So folks can debate whether Zach will get to the level we want as a point guard, we can debate the merits of his skills and potential at either guard positions. But the other aspect to this issue is what is good for Zach, not so much by position alone. In other words, we have Rubio at point guard, doing point guard stuff (other than scoring) better than Zach will likely ever be able to. Yet Zach is good, talented, getting better fast, and hardworking, as well as a potent scorer on a team that often has scoring dry spells. Isn’t it better for Zach to aim at starting at the 2, rather than backing up point guard? I think starting (he seems like a clutch type) and high minutes is what we want for Zach sooner rather than later not back-up roles. Barring anything crazy, this will only happen at the 2 in the near future. (I think Zach can figure out how to defend 2’s fine. A big part of his troubles on D are the complexities, such as pick and roll, associated with guarding point guards.)

    No one has any nits to pick about Towns. The nit picked above about Towns vs. Deing is actually a coaching nit pick, which you will find a treasure trove of. Without spending too much time on it, it wasn’t so much the idea that Sam would go with a hot Deing at times, even at ends of games, but the idea that he did it a lot over a short stretch. It looked like a whole new philosophy or role that might go one for a while. There was a Star Tribune article about how he was moved to the closer center role over Towns. Well, that didn’t last. I like Dieng and I think most fans do. But he’s been less consistent than Towns this season. Towns isn’t just more full of potential and more versatile than Deing, he’s been consistent while Gorgui started the season really bad. Even game to game, Dieng has ‘young guy lapses’ that at least equal or maybe surpass Towns even though he’s 25 and in his 3rd season. We’re lucky to have Dieng… as a back-up.

    The other coaching nit pick is using Towns. I guess it is a take it or leave it thing because we use him very well and he’s played well and it is a better than expected situation. I think we could really pressure teams and improve spacing if we went to Towns in the post a bit more at certain times. He’s that good—he could use a bit more responsibility.

    On a more non-cranky note, against SAC Sam’s coaching looked a lot better. He made crisp decisions, even seemed to adjust a few times, was active in teaching the young guys all game and handled lineups well. I’d swear we had some fresh plays. Sam’s finally melted his fear of uneven line-ups and a larger amount of used players, allowing him to use guys like Miller a bit situationally. Martin saw a reduced roll (although this may have to do with his wrist or trade status). It wasn’t spectacular coaching against a good team, but it was competent and the players seemed to respond well to it with effort and awareness. If we can have that every night, we might not go on these losing dives.

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