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Shrinking violet: Karl-Anthony Towns has to be better
Playoff basketball is different than regular season basketball. Nobody knows that more than Towns.
I generally try to keep things positive at Basketball Poetry; it’s not called Basketball Tragedy.
But as an objective observer, I have a responsibility to point out what I see, even if said things might hurt me. So today, we’ll discuss the most frustrating player in the NBA: Karl-Anthony Towns, of the uber-disappointing Minnesota Timberwolves.
I’ve watched a weird amount of Minny games over the last five-ish seasons. I can’t quit. Like any drug, though, watching too much Wolves basketball can be hazardous for one’s health. It starts and ends with Towns, the most inconsistent star of our era.
KAT has famously proclaimed himself the best-shooting big man of all time, and you know what? It’s statistically valid. He’s the only player 6’11” or taller to shoot > 39% from deep for his career (min. two attempts per game). No other near-seven-footer can do the things KAT can do from beyond the arc, both with the ball and on the move, and it makes him a uniquely powerful weapon.
Towns isn’t just a spacer; he’s a solid finisher (77% at the rim!) who also shot better from the midrange than Chris Paul this season. He averaged nearly five assists per game, a phenomenal figure for a big man, and he can take possession of the ball from anywhere on the court and go to work.
But Towns has inarguably the worst decision-making of any high-leverage player in the entire NBA. He commits some of the most blatant offensive fouls you’ll ever see, throws ill-considered passes at the worst times, and is perpetually a minute late in help defense. And while these flaws come and go in the regular season, they erupt, like a once-dormant disease, every postseason.
With the ball, Towns becomes a car without a steering wheel. He doesn’t seem to realize ballhandlers are allowed to, you know, change direction. The Eurostep has been around for decades, yet Towns continually plows into defenders who have been parked in one spot long enough to incur a ticket. Watch him mow over LeBron James, who spent nearly the entire play motionless:
Perhaps Towns just didn’t see him? The gold-clad, 6’8”, 260-pound LeBron fades into the background, after all.
Towns’ other favorite move in the playoffs is to throw an astonishing number of illegal elbows and hands to the defender’s head and chest. He definitely sees Jeff Green here before sending him an unnecessary flying elbow right to the sternum:
And Towns definitely sees Jarred Vanderbilt right before he smacks Vando in the face:
KAT has some passing ability (nobody in the league loves behind-the-head passes more than Towns, and they sure do look cool when they work!), but he needs more inhibition. Far too often, he tries to crack ajar a tiny window with a sledgehammer:
On the other side, Towns really does want to play defense. He tries! But he’s not particularly fleet of foot, and he’s always a beat late recognizing where he needs to be. Then, he tries to make up for his tardiness by launching himself at an offensive player who’s already beaten him to the spot:
This is Towns’ eighth year in the NBA, and he’s still making rookie mistakes; if he hasn’t improved on these things by now, it’s fair to wonder if he ever will.
But all of that — the offensive fouls, the poor defense, even the turnovers — would be excusable if Towns could simply make shots as he does in the regular season, where he’s perpetually an efficient scoring machine. Instead, he alternates between tentative and reckless at irregular intervals, passing up open shots before driving directly into double-teams.
Towns has played in 2.5 playoff series, 13 games, since 2018. Not a lot! But there’s a pretty dramatic drop-off in his playoff performances:
As you can see, this year is not an outlier. His shot attempts per game drop, his FG% declines, and his playoff assist-to-turnover ratio belongs in that Evil Dead trailer that TNT insists on showing every commercial break. It’s terrifying.
KAT has had some big playoff moments, and it should be noted he’s been an effective rebounder. Some of his playoff difficulties, particularly last season, could be attributed to the horrific personal catastrophes Towns has had to endure. And this year, he’s struggled to find a rhythm after missing most of the season with an injury.
I am rooting for KAT; I want to see him succeed. But this is the same story we saw last year and in 2018. He’s always in avoidable foul trouble, goes entire halves without putting up a fight, and commits backbreaking turnovers at inopportune times. So often, it feels like he’s a speed limiter for the Wolves when he should be the engine driving their success.
For this series against one-seeded Denver, the Timberwolves are missing Jaden McDaniels (an All-Defensive First-Teamer, in my opinion, with a burgeoning offensive game) and Naz Reid (a superb backup big about to get paid in the offseason). KAT’s injury meant that he, Anthony Edwards, and Rudy Gobert never got a chance to establish chemistry. It has been a star-crossed season for the Wolves for many reasons.
But the team emptied the cupboard of assets in trading for Gobert, and nothing we’ve seen suggests they are anything close to a title contender. I had very high hopes for this squad; sadly, it’s clear that Minnesota needs to take one step back to move forward. If I’m the Wolves, I’m looking around the league hard to see if we might replenish some chips by trading Towns while he’s still youngish and retains significant value.
The playoff sample size is small, and we have a long track record of Towns bringing major production during the regular season. He won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but the Wolves only need to find one desperate team willing to take him and his prodigious talent on board.
But with new ownership taking the reins in Minneapolis (and a driving factor in the trade for Gobert) and eager to win, any perceived backtracking may not be an option.
The KAT-Gobert-Edwards-McDaniels core could be locked in for the next few years. Edwards and McDaniels are young and on the rise, and the Wolves will surely try to re-sign them in restricted free agency after the ‘24 season (although the cost could be prohibitive for McDaniels, given how much is already tabbed for the other three); Gobert is old and declining, but he has up to three years remaining on his exorbitant contract. Towns happily signed a super-max contract that doesn’t even start until the 2024-2025 season — he could be making a jaw-dropping $62 million in 2027-2028.
That contract provides cost clarity and control, but it could make finding a deal for Towns difficult both conceptually and salary-cap-wise. We might be looking at the Timberwolves’ core for the foreseeable future.
The Wolves still believe (they have no other choice but to believe). Towns still believes. But given what little he brings on the defensive end and how much he’s paid, KAT needs to be an offensive force in the playoffs. Too often, he’s been a farce.