Wiggins, Towns, and “Two-Way” Play

Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

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:

  1. 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:
  2. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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9 Responsesso far.

  1. My favorite article of the summer. Great stuff

    • I would love to sit in on a film session and hear what Thibs teaches the guys about spatial awareness and conservation/expenditures of energy. I bitch to the imaginary people watching the games with me every time Wiggins locks into his man and does not to attempt to help when someone else’s guy blows by him with the ball, or when a pass whips by him that he could have deflected with those go go gadget arms. For Towns, I scream at the TV whenever he leaves his man to steal a rebound from a teammate, fails to box out, or especially when he pulls the blanket out of the way bullfighter style when a wing or guard funnels their man into him at the hoop.

      I would any price to see the film of a film session!!!

  2. gjk says:

    In a sense, youth struggles/inattentiveness on defense makes sense. It requires high alertness to play good NBA team defense, and they recognize that scoring = $$$. If the habits needed become more instinctual with time, they can at least be decent. Role players who play good team defense are so important in that situation, as Prince and KG showed two seasons ago. This is where hitting on 2nd round picks is so important; 4-year college players are often available and seem to figure things out defensively more quickly.

    When it comes to being a two-way star, really only LeBron and Duncan have done it consistently with such high usage. Jordan could pick his spots playing next to Pippen and Harper, Kobe wasn’t the top threat on his team until ’05 (and absolutely picked his spots on defense), and every other great player has picked his spots on one end or the other because it’s too much of a challenge for most. In this situation, I’d rather see Wiggins pick his spots on offense while KAT picks his on defense. That might be tough to do for Towns because it seems like teams target him on the pick-and-roll, but maybe there’s a way to be effective without expending tons of energy. That might also mean being judicious with posting him up and engineering easy looks where his time between catching and shooting is minimal.

  3. pyrrol says:

    As the numbers in the article suggest, KAT and Wiggins are bad at defense. Really, really bad. And that’s exactly what it is. They are simply bad at defense at this point. No excuse explains why they are this poor at it, but (perhaps in desperation) excuses fly around like so many mosquitoes.

    The main excuses are: a) They play a lot of minutes and thus are tired, and b) they are young and don’t know how to play D. These two fundamental excuses have garnishes, like the idea above, that young players think the way to get paid is to score as much as possible at the expense of everything else (this may be true and they may be right).

    But when it comes down to it, fatigue–specifically being asked to play massive minutes with finite energy–does not explain the complete lack of any defense from these two players. It’s clear when you watch them that they aren’t simply lazy on D (although that might be happening too) but rather, totally confused. Neither seems to have developed any ability to play team defense in a meaningful, consistent way. Individually, they are both easily schooled as well.

    Why haven’t they learned basic defensive competence by now? Or even show signs of it coming soon? True, they are young, but this will be Wiggins’ 4th season, and KAT’s 3rd. And they are playing D at first months of rookie season level. Ironically, both players were expected to be stars when drafted, but scouts would say things like, ‘it will take them a while to put it all together but they should be helpful defensive players right away’ about both. It turns out, D might be the last thing they pick up.

    None of this answers the why. It is my opinion that the lack of D we’ve seen from both these players given the amount they’ve played and the level of talent they seem to possess is unusual, abnormal, somewhat alarming.

    A source of blame I keep drifting to is coaching. It seems almost impossible that well taught, well coached players of Andrew and Karls’ ability and focus would have to this point learned this little about competent NBA defense (and skills like when to turn the effort of each side of the court and when not to). It’s as if they are receiving no guidance. It is also true that the minutes thing, while not an explanation for the overall problem, makes success and balance harder for these young players and is also very risky. It would be easy to say the #1 factor in this issue is coaching, but both players had the same issues under Mitchell. That said, they were a rookie and a sophomore at that point, and so it’s easier to understand these issues under Mitchell (plus he’s not exactly an amazing coach). Sam seemed to have teaching issues with the players as a coach (as well as other weaknesses) but this issue has continued with abandon so far under Thibs. The silver lining is that the one thing that seemed to help the issue so far, veteran leadership, is coming this season in a big way.

  4. Tom says:

    Wigs and KAT have shown that they can be better defensive ball players when they have vets on the court with them that help them with their positioning on and off the ball. On top of that, having Taj and Butler guarding the best front court and back court players for the opposing team gives our young stars a smaller load to carry. Wigs has had to guard KD, LeBron, Carmelo, etc over his three years and that makes bad statistical defenders out of the best of players.

    Lastly, this is Wigs first of two or three huge contracts he could sign in his career IF he becomes a more complete player and has top ten player success. If he doesn’t defend, pass and rebound better than this will be his only big contract.

  5. pyrrol says:

    I have hopes that things will turn around, because veteran, on court guidance is what they need most to start becoming whole players. Butler in particular should be fantastic. Gibson might help. I have a hard time thinking Teague will be any better than Rubio in that department. Rubio was one of the few guys who ‘got it’ on D last year and showed any real leadership. In that regard it is possible that Teague will be a downgrade. Still, Butler and Gibson will help.

    On the other hand, the idea that because Wiggins had to occasionally defend elite players so he couldn’t have good defensive stats (or apparently show any knowledge of team D) is pretty weak. Tough assignments has little or nothing to do with his defensive incompetence. But that too will be easier as Butler will be taking a big defensive load, and maybe Wiggins can start learning D in a more cushy environment. Still, you don’t see a lot of all time greats or even all stars starting their careers like this defensively. With Wiggins that makes some sense to me, as I think he’s just been overrated as a talent for a long time. With KAT it’s more confusing because he’s more more ‘with it’ personality wise and is still a likely candidate for an all time great.

  6. Tom says:

    Young players that are needed for offensive performance and guard the best players DO suffer statistically, especially when they are playing some of the heaviest minutes in the league and are surrounded by poor team defensive players (Zack, G, Shabazz, etc.) Both these players did better when KG and Prince were with them under Sam Mitchell. Sadly, both didn’t take that leadership and make it there own last year and both should be upset with their defense and want to do better.
    Duncan is an example of a player that was not a great defender out of college, but he was lauded for his play because he didn’t have to guard KG, he guarded Rasho. He didn’t guard Hakeem, he guarded Big Shot Bob. etc. Earning a reputation as a good defender at an early stage of your career is as important as getting calls when driving to the basket early in your career. As KAT, becomes a star in the entire league, he will be able to body a defender and not get called on, which frustrated KAT and made him play passively, so he could contribute to the team on offense. Wiggins seemed to step up his defensive game when he played guys like Hardin, LBJ, KD, but he has to do it when he is guarding lesser players each night. However, This year he will be guarding those players less, playing less (Crawford and Belly will come in for Wigs more than Jimmy) and should be able to give good minutes or Thibs will not protect him as he did last year.
    It will take time for these players to mesh offensively, but Taj is one of the best pick and roll defenders in the league and will bark at KAT to have good position and be better than G at stopping the player going to the basket. They should be much improved from last year defensively from the start. Lastly, this team will be much better at end of games, holding leads that last year’s team would squander. Thibs should be less vocal this year on the sideline (he won’t, but he should be) as our team plays at least average NBA defense.

  7. pyrrol says:

    Agreed, except who people play with or who they are asked to guard has nothing to do with whether they are a good defender or not. It will help to have good D players to teach the young guys and take burden off, but they will still have to actually work to become better defenders. Who a player guards has even less to do with their defensive ability. If a player faces a disproportionate amount of tough D assignments, it could knock their D stats unfairly a bit, but with putrid defenders like KAT and Wiggins have been thus far, this is a tiny cosmetic issue. However, like I’ve been saying, the vet presence bodes well. As tough as I’ve been on Thibs, I think his strategy was always to feel out the roster in year 1 and go out and get a star and some vets to bring the team to life in year 2. This isn’t a bad plan, though I disagree with the extent he threw away the season last year and a lot of his individual decisions. In his transition to this year’s plan, I disagree with getting rid of Rubio for Teague, some of the economics (overpaying) but also think we got some really exciting things going. And the bottom line is that we needed vets, stat. I think Thibs could have brought in a bit more last year, as his teaching seemed ineffectual without on the court vets to help, so we lost a teaching year, largely. No team as young as we were last year is all that good, so a team like this years was inevitable unless we wanted to be mediocre 5 more years. For overall strategy, I like what I see, but the devil’s in the details. Nabbing Butler might cover a lot of sins, however. I’m excited to see how it goes. One other thing that really impressed me about Thibs is how he traded his first big draft pick after only a season to help get Butler. For me and a lot of others the writing was on the wall with Dunn. I expected Thibs to be too stubborn and keep him another year. Instead he was smart and got rid of him while he still has some ‘mystery value’, youth and hype. Dunn was so bad and between the cracks, so to speak, skill-wise last year that it is possible he could play himself out of the league in quick fashion. But what is worse is that his ceiling seems low. So you have a decent risk he’s a play himself out of the league guy, balanced only by a pretty low ceiling for upside. He’ll likely float around the league and maybe be a really decent bench piece. But it might just be that the best thing he does in the league is help someone get Jimmy Butler. Thibs was able to see the writing on the wall with his own pick.

  8. Tom says:

    Always great to have a little disagreement with the people in this site. Never gets troll-like and always comes from a avid fan’s perspective. I think that all athletes, except the rare lifetime greats, benefit from veteran presence and matching up with opponents that are not going to destroy self confidence and allow them to grow into their ability. KAT, when he was with KG on the floor, was able to block more shots per minute, and handle the weaker low post player. That showed he had some interest in being a complete player. Last year, playing along another struggling low post defender in G, he got in some foul trouble and we had to play without him for stretches which hurt us at both ends of the floor. So KAT, decided to stay in the game and not get help out fouls and worked on his offense. We saw him learn how to handle double teams and his passing and low post moves got better. With Taj, both G and KAT should be able to get in the right positions to defend and I want to see KAT take on Jokic, Embiid, and Nurkic and centers that pushed him around last year. I think he will add that to his game as he physically matures.

    As for Wiggins, we saw that he could shut down Hardin,LeBron, and George for stretches, but he was inconsistent. Paul George, James, Durant, etc. are much bigger and stronger than Andrew and moving him to the two, should give him more physicality to handle and work on his defense for longer periods of a game. He may never be a Jimmy Butler two way player, but he should be able to use his height, speed and reach to defend the second best wing player on most teams.

    Last year Thibs wasn’t able to bring in defensive veterans to supplement his team. I think he wanted to throw his young talent into the deep end and see if any of them had that killer leadership like KG. They didn’t, but few do. So he got Butler and over paid for Teague and Taj by a lot. Maybe there is still a Snow tax and he had no choice. Possibly he could have been more patient and saw that teams couldn’t spend like the year before and got Hill and Rose instead of Teague and ?? as a PG. Patrick Patterson over Taj and then maybe had a shot at some quality bench players and pushed guys like Belly and Tyson to the end of the bench. He didn’t. But in the end, it will the growth of KAT and Andrew (to a lesser extent Jones and G) that will determine if Thibs has a team that can compete with Golden State and others in this conference. I would think we should be in for a fun ride.

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