At the Timberwolves annual Media Day in 2015, we were treated to Kevin Garnett holding court for about 25 minutes on a variety of subjects. As any NBA fan knows, opportunities to hear KG speak in depth are as insightful as they are rare. On this particular day — a sad one in one important respect, as Flip Saunders was conspicuously absent with terminal cancer — Garnett did not disappoint. After fist bumping some old media friends in the crowd, KG mixed humor with sincerity as he waded through a number of different subjects, including his first go-around in ‘Sota, his time away in Boston, and the young players on the roster he was joining in his Timberwolves return.
The part I remember best about this was a short comment he made about being a “two-way player.” I wish I had the exact quote, but I don’t. But to paraphrase KG from my own memory, he said that when he first played in Minnesota (during his athletic prime) he tried to be a two-way player, but when he left and joined the Celtics, he shifted more of his emphasis to playing good defense.
Listening to him say this, I came away thinking that he might have meant one of two things:
- In Boston as an aging veteran player, he had less energy and needed to decide how to use it. Defense won out over offense. Or:
- By his own standards, with the benefit of advanced age and perspective, he realized that he never really was a two-way player. He learned in Boston that he had to choose a side to prioritize in order to play it best, and he chose defense.
Before digging any deeper, it’s worth pointing out the obvious objective-subjective distinction, as this conversation could apply to Garnett. Anybody paying attention to the Wolves from the late 1990s to mid 2000s knows that KG was an excellent player on both ends of the floor. From the 1999-00 season through 2006-07 — his last in Minnesota before the Celtics trade — KG was selected to the NBA All-Defensive Team every year. (He was on the first team six times in that stretch and the second team twice.) In those same eight seasons, Garnett averaged no fewer than 21.2 points and no fewer than 4.1 assists per game.
So yeah, he was a “two-way player” beyond any reasonable doubt, including his own.
But KG’s own (potential) doubt about the matter is what I’m interested in discussing because it touches on something relevant to this coming Timberwolves season. That is the prioritization of defense versus offense; specifically how much conscious energy Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns spend on defense this year, trying to improve at getting stops, even — especially — if it comes at some expense of their offensive output.
Here are a few things that we know are true about Wiggins and KAT:
- They played a ton of minutes last year. Wig led the entire league with 3,048. KAT was right behind him at number two, with 3,030. Only three players (James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and John Wall) were within 200 minutes of them. Whatever total amount of energy Wig and KAT had entering into the season, Thibs expended it and then some with his playing-time distribution.
- They were both really good on offense but bad on defense. Wiggins averaged almost 24 points per game while KAT averaged over 25. After the All-Star Break, which roughly correlates with “after LaVine was traded away,” those averages went up to 24.4 and 28.4, respectively. Defense, however, was a different story. KAT’s defensive rating was a team-worst (aside from the rarely-used Omri Casspi) 110.8. Wig’s was barely better at 110.4. When Towns sat on the bench, the Wolves D rating dropped to a respectable 103.6. For Wig, the drop-off went down to 104.8. In other words, the Wolves defended much better with these two star-hopefuls riding the pine. Some of that might have been due to exhaustion and some of it might have resulted from them defending opposing starters, as opposed to reserves, but the point stands: their defensive numbers sucked. According to nba.com’s “rating” stats, the Wolves had the NBA’s 10th-best offense (6th-best in the West) and 26th-best defense. Wig and KAT were the chief contributors to both results.
- This coming year, with Jeff Teague at point guard and especially Jimmy Butler on one of the wings, Wiggins and Towns will not need to shoulder as much of the offensive burden. Barring injury, it would be shocking if anyone on the Wolves averaged as many points as KAT’s 25.1 from a season ago. This means, theoretically anyway, that Wig and KAT will have more available energy to allocate toward defense.
In other, fewer words, we know that Wig and KAT were good on O and bad on D last year, they had some legitimate excuses for the D, and those excuses should be partially or completely removed this coming year (depending on whether Thibs adjusts the rotation so they don’t log so many minutes).
What we don’t know is whether either player will willingly accept a reduced offense role and/or shift more internal emphasis toward the defensive end of the court. Neither player, but especially Wiggins, will have much of a choice about the first part — Jimmy Butler is going to demand the ball and that will inevitably mean less primary sets for Wig in the half court offense. Ideally, he will capitalize on the opportunity to find baskets more easily, particularly from corner three-point shots that require very little energy and score at the highest rate aside from dunks and layups. In a perfect Timberwolves World, he would then use some of that newfound remaining skip in his step to defend more aggressively and — perhaps as importantly — more attentively. There are a million ways in coach-speak to say that “you make mental mistakes when you get physically tired” but that’s just because it’s true.
A lot of the classic two-way NBA stars are physically gifted players who can excel at things without having to grind as hard for them. LeBron, and Kobe and MJ before him, could facilitate offense for 40 minutes, crank up the playmaking intensity for the homestretch, all while playing good defense. That’s much easier to do with a physical advantage. It holds true for bigs: Tim Duncan, KG, and Dwight Howard all leveraged physical advantages into efficient use of their energy. All three had great size. Duncan had graceful footwork, KG had all-around agility, and Dwight had explosive power.
The thing about these types of two-way stars is that they don’t actually spend entire games working as hard as they can. That’s true on both offense and especially on defense, and the truth of this matter might be what was behind KG’s quote on “two-way” play. LeBron’s defensive effort level waxes and wanes. When he shut down league MVP Derrick Rose in the 2011 East Finals, LeBron was playing defense like a man possessed. He could never maintain that intensity for a full season or even playoff series while also playing offense the way that he does. But even at least than full throttle, LeBron is smart and athletically gifted enough to play good defense.
What I am saying is that, before they reach the point where they can shift gears and consciously reserve energy, Wiggins and KAT need to try harder on defense and worry less about offense. They need to approach games more like the Boston version of Garnett and the ’11 ECF version of LeBron. Even if they have the potential physicality to be great two-way players — Wiggins with unmatched fast-twitchy muscle fibers and KAT with an elite combination of size and coordination — they are far from that category right now because of their defensive deficiencies. What needs to begin this coming season is consistent, conscious attention to defense. It needs to be a priority. For their imaginary video-game sliders that apportion focus to offense and defense, they were probably at about 80/20, last year, in favor of O. For Wiggins, now playing next to Butler, it would be ideal for the Wolves if he somehow flipped the two. But I think everybody would settle for an even split of attention. Towns is so good on offense in such unusual ways that he might never become a completely balanced player, but he needs to be better on defense. For KAT, rather than focusing less on offense he would do well to worry less about his individual rebounding stats. Wolves fans know the difference between an all-around defensive beast and a rebounding hog after watching KG and then Kevin Love. The former made contesting shots the first priority. The latter said that there’s no such thing as a selfish rebound, and he evidenced that belief with his style of play. KAT needs to be more like Garnett and less like Love, in order to help his team win games.
When KG went to Boston in 2007 he left behind a supporting cast of Ricky Davis, Mark Blount, and Mike James, and joined one headlined by Ray Allen and Paul Pierce. This radical change of circumstances provided him with a new perspective about what winning at the highest level entailed. Rather than carry the team in every way, Garnett was able to find what he was best at and devote more of his attention to it. In his first few Celtics seasons, his points per game dropped into the mid teens while his defense became possibly the league’s single most valuable tool. Garnett, focused much more on defense than offense, was the heart and soul of a mini dynasty of teams that won a title.
Wiggins, Towns, and the Timberwolves are probably not going to win or even seriously contend for the championship this season. (Spoiler alert.) But joined by all-around star Jimmy Butler, each has an opportunity to dramatically improve his impact on winning by playing with more conscious effort on defense. This should be observable from the stands. With Wiggins, it means not standing up and resting, and it means being more vocal and involved. With KAT, it means challenging more shots at the possible expense of rebounding position and foul trouble. Each guy should begin to look more like a defensive player. Fans should see the difference.
Time will tell if Wig and KAT ever become “two-way” stars. For now, they need to take things one step at a time, and try to stop being one-way liabilities.