The microscope on KAT and his place in the league

“For of those to whom much is given, much is required.”
–John F. Kennedy

Within the National Basketball Association are two different NBA worlds. One is established and relevant. This world is experienced Thursday nights on TNT from November through April, and then commands all interest from there. The market in this world is right now almost monopolized by the Golden State Warriors. But the Cleveland Cavaliers, San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets, and probably the Oklahoma City Thunder also live and work there. The Boston Celtics had to leave when Gordon Hayward broke his leg, even if they continue to play well in his absence.

We know exactly what Steph Curry, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, Russell Westbrook, and LeBron James are. Watching them on Any Given Thursday in November will do little to adjust our perceptions of their abilities or their place in history. That doesn’t mean that we take their greatness for granted, or cease to be entertained. They are the best of the best. When the playoffs roll around, there is nothing better.

The other world is developing and Relevant. This world is experienced on League Pass and Twitter. Its inhabitants are lesser known quantities; younger players on incomplete rosters whose weekly–hell, nightly–progression and regression is what keeps the pro hoops junkies hooked for the entire calendar year. Right now, this is occupied by teams like the Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, New York Knicks, LA Lakers, and Denver Nuggets. None of these teams are relevant to the championship or even deep playoff discussion (eds note: today’s trade that sent Eric Bledsoe to Milwaukee could possibly change this for the Bucks, but — for now — the point stands) but they are Relevant — even required — for fans to remain engaged in this league from one day to the next for all 82 games.

When Giannis makes a big shot over LeBron, it feels momentous. When Embiid follows a dream shake with a three-pointer, and then Ben Simmons posts a triple double, we ask if the league’s positional revolution is complete. Off the court, when Twitter has a new story up about Markelle Fultz shooting left-handed jumpers because his shooting shoulder is half-secretly injured, we collectively wonder what that means for his future and his team’s. We watch for new Jokic passing highlights. We stay updated on all things LaVar Ball.

This year’s Timberwolves fit neatly into neither NBA world. Last year’s team — and especially the year’s before that — were clearly in the latter group. They were 19 and 20-year old kids flying through the air making highlights, with very little idea of how to win basketball games. In particular, they had no idea whatsoever how to play defense. Even noted defensive guru Tom Thibodeau was unable to quick fix the situation last year, his first in ‘Sota. The Wolves finished 26th in the league in defense, with a 31-51 record that barely eclipsed the prior year’s 29 wins. Those strict performance struggles were largely excused, however, because the talent oozing out of Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins, and especially Karl-Anthony Towns, was almost comical. Clearly, this team had a future. The fun was in watching it develop, one huge dunk at a time.

The Wolves offseason roster shake-up changed the dynamics. They still had Wiggins and they still had Towns, but no longer had LaVine (or Kris Dunn) and instead had a whole bunch of good veterans; citizens of that first NBA world that plays TNT primetime and deep into the playoffs. Jimmy Butler was All-NBA. Jeff Teague was an All-Star. Taj Gibson was an elite defender and conference finals veteran. Jamal Crawford was a 17-year veteran and multi-time 6th Man of the Year.

Thibs and Scott Layden said goodbye to some of their young players and all of their excuses.

This overnight elevation of expectations affected everybody in the organization, but nobody more than Karl-Anthony Towns. KAT was not only League Pass World’s darling, but he was also unbelievably respected by NBA insiders. For two years running, he was the NBA GM poll winner of the question: “If you were starting a franchise today and could sign any player in the NBA, who would it be?” Last year, he averaged 25 & 12, with 54/37/83 percentages. After the All-Star Break, he averaged 28.4 points, 13.4 rebounds, 2.2 assists, while shooting 59.7 percent from the field and 43.4 percent from three.

Read that again.

Towns, at age 21, was setting a pace for himself that would mean MVPs and titles sooner than later.

There was only one minor issue, and it was one that just about everybody was willing to dismiss via youth, and assume as the next logical step in his development:

Defense.

He was bad at it.

Like, really bad.

Despite mentoring from Kevin Garnett in his rookie year and coaching from Thibs in his second, KAT’s defense was bad and possibly getting worse. Last season, Karl’s defensive rating (the number of points allowed by the Wolves with Towns on the floor, per 100 possessions) was a whopping 110.8. To illustrate how bad that is, the league-worst D-rating for a team was the Lakers’ 110.6. In other words, the Wolves with Towns defended worse than any team in the league. Lest anyone chalk this up entirely or even largely to the guys he was playing with, the Wolves defended way better (103.6) when he was off the floor. ESPN’s advanced stat “Defensive Real Plus-Minus” ranked Towns as the worst defensive center in the entire league.

All of this — the funky League-Pass-hype background, the veteran-overhaul offseason, and the wildly optimistic perception of Towns’s future among NBA general managers — added up to one certainty amid all of the questions ahead:

Karl-Anthony Towns was going to be watched closely in 2017-18.

The Wolves were going to be better, no doubt, but by how much? A team with Jimmy Butler and another All-Star is a playoff team. Would the Wolves be a playoff team? Was Towns an All-Star? If he wasn’t, then why? Would he learn defense? Would he try to learn defense? What about stats? With Butler and Teague, there would be fewer shots for Towns. How would he handle that?

Does winning cure all?

Does Towns know how to win?

Entering this season, Towns was straddling the Serious and Respectable World of the NBA, where we look at (Thibs voice) what goes into winning, and the fun and loose League Pass World, where we focus on highlights, individual stats, and excuse away any deficiencies to youth; stuff that is going to get better with time — a matter of when, as opposed to if.

The first 10 games have — perhaps not unexpectedly — been a roller coaster for KAT. He’s had some huge games, like his two in wins against OKC, dropping 27 & 12 and then 33 & 19. Last Saturday in another win against Dallas, Towns had 31 points and 12 rebounds. But while he’s continued to score and rebound at high levels, his defense has begun to receive much more national scrutiny than it used to.

Owing partly — but by no means entirely — to the team’s disastrous performance against Indiana and Detroit when Jimmy Butler was out sick, the Wolves currently have the 26th-ranked defense.

Just like last year.

Also just like last year?

Towns has the worst defensive rating among all Wolves starters, rocking a horrendous 111.3 which is even worse than last season.

As the devoted NBA pundits weigh in on the fun-and-relevant question of The Next Guy, Towns is no longer admired so universally and uneqivocally.

Tom Haberstroh, the longtime NBA writer for ESPN, said this about Towns on The Ringer’s NBA Show with Bill Simmons:

I’m really surprised that people are still picking Karl Towns as the generational talent of this NBA, as the “young stud.” For two years running, [] the NBA GM’s picked him as the guy they want to build a franchise around, but their defense is garbage. At some point, it’s gonna come back to Karl Towns, where it’s like, “Alright man, you gotta bring it defensively because we’ve seen Embiid be out of the league for two years bring it defensively, and we’ve seen…even Porzingis, like, there’s actually defensive evidence there that they can do it…If [Tom Thibodeau] can’t get Karl Towns and Andrew Wiggins to play defense, I don’t know who will.

Nathaniel Friedman f/k/a Bethlehem Shoals recently tweeted this about Kristaps Porzingis and Giannis Antetokounmpo, conspicuously-to-Wolves-fans omitting Towns:

Zach Lowe, in his weekly “Ten things I like and don’t like” column, devoted a “don’t like” number to KAT’s defensive problems, focusing the microscope on reckless attempts at blocked shots. Lowe shared videos of Towns trying to block shots after arriving late to the play when the opportunity was long gone. But then he dug deeper on KAT’s overall defense:

He is also among the very best at the Andrea Bargnani fake fly-by contest — the little sideways jump con artists use to pretend like they are playing defense when they are really getting out of the way. Remember verticality? This is horizontality.

Opponents have grabbed 25.6 percent of their own misses against the Wolves, the fourth-highest share in the league, and that number skyrockets when Towns is on the floor, per NBA.com. That’s not all on him, but some of it is.

For someone who zooms in a blur on offense, Towns can look strangely leaden on defense. He lurches in robotic, two-footed shifts. He positions his body at weird angles that reveal driving lanes. He also flat doesn’t play as hard as he does on offense.

Towns has the tools to be a plus defender. He looked like he would be one — and soon — during the first half of his rookie season, and he has somehow gotten worse and worse since.

He has shown signs lately — especially against Oklahoma City last Friday. Tom Thibodeau will always demand more. Towns needs to be better for the Wolves to get where they want to go — to where Towns has declared he would take them.

In the same “10 Things” column, Lowe separately praised Porzingis, Embiid, and also Ben Simmons, a newcomer to the league’s discussion about the future.

Between Haberstroh, Shoals, and Lowe, you’ve pretty much covered the style spectrum of NBA voices, from analytics to importance to x’s and o’s. If Towns isn’t firing on any of those cylinders, then something is wrong.

But then again, is it?

Right now, the Timberwolves have their best record after 10 games since 2001, and Towns is posting All-Star-like averages of 21.8 points, 10.9 rebounds, and 2.0 blocks. He’s shooting 55.4 percent from the field. Next week, he turns all of 22 years of age.

Patrick Fenelon of Timberwolves Twitter (and his own new podcast) fame, perhaps laid out the defense-of-KAT backlash best, in a pair of tweets:

https://twitter.com/Patrick_Fenelon/status/927688976517029891

https://twitter.com/Patrick_Fenelon/status/927689306025717760

Two things stick out as mandatory points of agreement:

  • Towns is only being criticized in such a large-scale way because of his stature and the high expectations that have been set for him. KAT’s progress is measured against the best players, not average ones.
  • His defense has been awful. Even adjusting for age, it’s alarming that he consistently shows up as the worst defender on one of the league’s worst defensive teams.

What I find interesting when talking about Towns to people in the Wolves media and community is how much variety there is in the “takes.” I can have one discussion about whether he should post up, shoot more threes, or pick-and-roll, and then another about whether he should switch out on perimeter defense or be a true rim protector. Some people think he goes too hard for blocked shots while others feel he takes possessions off without helping from the weakside. Some people think Towns is an A+ personality and ideal face of the franchise, while others are turned off by perceived faux accountability and an over-eagerness to please that is just masking insecurity.

Before the season, I posed a question for each Timberwolves player. For Towns, I asked “What direction does his career go?” The heart of the issue was precisely what’s discussed in this piece: whether Towns was a highly-productive star with a big weakness, or a budding superstar with an all-around game that can carry a team for years and years. Is he Kevin Love, or is he Kevin Garnett?

Either way, the Wolves are extremely lucky to have him. But the question is still a meaningful one and KAT’s play in the foreseeable future will be examined until we have an answer.

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4 Responsesso far.

  1. Mebert says:

    If the wins keep piling up everyone will ignore the defense again. Harden was a constant g1ighlight of embarrassing defense, but nobody talks about it because his team won enough.

    Not saying his bad defense is ok, only that people only care when the team lacks success because it is something they can point to.

    Hopefully KAT and Wiggins figure it out at some point, would be nice to cheer for a complete team.

  2. dailywolf says:

    Excellent post, AG. I fall in the boat of people that believe Towns’ defense is truly awful right now and that it will get better moving forward. It seems to me that what he’s bad at (block hunting–leaving the weakside vulnerable) can be fixed.

    • Andy Grimsrud says:

      Thanks, John. I think a lot of his problems are fixable, too. I didn’t expand on this in the piece at all (word count was already running high) but the question of whether he should switch more, or stay back on PnRs like Thibs has him doing now, is one that I think might get asked more as the league continues to evolve. Many of us recall the time he switched out on Steph Curry, late in that crazy win over the 73-win Warriors when KAT was a rookie. That was with Sam Mitchell coaching. Thibs hasn’t had KAT switching much, leaving that to the 2 through 4 guys. I tend to think that more switching would be good for Towns in the short-term, but I suspect Thibs wants him to learn “true center” defense first and foremost.

  3. Tom says:

    People forget how KAT was able to switch onto Steph and hold him in check during his rookie season. He has the talent to be a good defender, although probably never an elite low post defensive presence like a David Robinson or Hakeem or Gobert. He just needs to understand that defense isn’t just about blocking shots or looking like you are trying to block shots.

    The biggest problem is how often he gets caught in no man’s land on the pick and roll. A guy with his quickness should be able to flash the point guard harder and still get back to the roller. Instead he lays back, so he can be in position for a rebound. This puts his teammate in a bad position to fight over the pick and pickup fouls or surrender an open shot, going under. He and Wiggins are both saddled with bad habits from AAU ball, which rewards offense and little defense. College usually corrects that, but neither one had enough college and the first couple years as pros, they didn’t have penalties for bad defensive effort. Until a bench player can come in and truly take time away from KAT and Wiggins, you will not motivate them to change.

    KAT has been raised to a level of All-Star status, yet he rarely has good games when he doesn’t score. Luckily, he scores most games, but he needs to sacrifice his offense to be a leader on defense if he wants to become an elite player in this league.

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