How far can Karl-Anthony Towns take the Minnesota Timberwolves?
August 9 by Sean Carroll
After signing an extension, Karl-Anthony Towns is committed to the Minnesota Timberwolves. But just how good is he and how far can a player of his calibre take a team?
The KAT's got the bag, now can he find success in the playoffs? (Sean Carroll illustration)
After being drafted first overall in 2015, Karl-Anthony Towns has done nothing but excel in the NBA. He entered the league as a walking double-double, averaging 18.3 points and 10.5 rebounds, and made his first All-Star appearance in just his third season.
He spent much of the early stages of his career under the wing of Minnesota Timberwolves great, Kevin Garnett, and the similarities between their games were uncanny. Along with these comparisons came pressure and to KAT’s credit, he didn’t falter and has carved out a very impressive career as an offence-first big man in the modern NBA.
This past offseason, the big man signed a four-year, $214 million extension, sticking with the Timberwolves as the franchise looks to make a serious mark on the 2020s.
After paying an above-market price to pry Tim Connelly from the thrifty Denver Nuggets and giving him the autonomy to trade everything not bolted down for Rudy Gobert, the incoming ownership tandem of Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez want this team to win and win big. This isn’t so much a bet that Rudy can lead this to the Finals, it’s a bet that Rudy can paper over their star’s shortcomings.
Minnesota might rightfully look at Towns and see a star but they see an incomplete one, that’s why they brought in Gobert. Are they right in deciding that? Is Towns actually one of the best players in the league or is he more like his new French teammate, an excellent regular season contributor that can’t make it work in the playoffs?
One of the hardest aspects about evaluating Karl-Anthony Towns right now is that his role on the Timberwolves is going to change drastically after the trade.
Before, the critique was that the former Kentucky big was an excellent offensive force but his lack of… anything on defence would mean he would never be a top-tier star. Now, I’m wondering how he’ll look on offence with Rudy likely around the paint and whether he can hang with faster forwards on the perimeter defensively, rather than protecting the rim.
On the offensive end, this team will be excellent. As I said on The Deep Two NBA Podcast after the trade, I think this team could sniff close to 60 wins, but as a baseline, this should be a top-four seed in the West.
Gobert adds a level of competence that will help them cruise in the regular season, even if D’Angelo Russell puts on his best turnstile impersonation and Anthony Edwards gets another youthful pass on that end.
Towns will be a major reason this team succeeds on the offensive end. He’s faster than most ground-bound centres in the league, he’s stronger than the smaller guys and with Gobert on the court, he might spend a lot of time being guarded by fours rather than fives.
Chris Finch, who has the reputation as one of the smarter offensive minds in the NBA, could focus the offence more around KAT. This past season, Towns averaged 3.6 assists but his usage dropped to its lowest since the 2017-18 season, mostly due to the rise of Ant.
“We think that [Rudy Gobert] fits perfectly inside of what we already do. We feel he can probably do some things that he maybe hasn’t been asked to do before,” Finch says of the on-court fit.
“What we love is the dynamic between him and KAT will now force teams to choose a little bit more about how they want to guard one or the other, and then we’re going to have to figure out how we exploit that, and that’s the fun part. That’s what the rest of the summer is for our staff.”
Next season, the Timberwolves are going to start every possession with Edwards being guarded by the best perimeter defender. Given his current trajectory, he could be ‘that guy’ and still find his shots, but every possession, KAT will likely be guarded by an underqualified four or a slow five: a much better option.
If he has a smaller player guarding him and if he draws a double team, Towns will have shooters around, a smart cutter in Jaden McDaniels or the four-time consecutive leader in dunks above the rim as pass options (Rudy Gobert, or Baguette Biyombo, if you will).
Even if the end goal on offence is to put one of the two bigs in a pick-and-roll with Russell or Edwards, it wouldn’t hurt to dump it down to KAT in the post to start the possession and see what that initial action gets you before moving into something different.
Because of this ingrained mismatch, I’m quite bullish about Towns’ future.
Despite this, we’ll enter the 2022-23 season with a gap between KAT and the two best big men in the world: Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid (in that order). These are two players you could insert into any lineup in any gym across the world and they’ll be an amazing offence.
If all breaks right for Minny and this two big lineup works, KAT could vault into the superstar big man discussion, perhaps even into the MVP discussion. And if that’s happening, then these Wolves would make the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2003-04.
Kevin Garnett, the Timberwolves legend, never won a ring in Minnesota. After toiling away for years, he was traded to the Boston Celtics where he teamed up with other stars in Paul Pierce and Ray Allen and really cemented his legacy as one of the game’s greats.
That’s not to say KG never had good teammates in Minny, but the front office never did enough to put a title contender around him and in the end, both sides moved on.
KAT has signed on the dotted line and barring a trade, will be on the roster through the 2027-28 season. Towns has held up his end of the bargain and in my opinion, is the offensive difference-maker a team can build around. All the Wolves need to do is find a way to win.
It’s not very loud at the moment, but the clock is ticking.
Towns is now second in Minnesota franchise win shares, behind only KG. When Kevin McHale eventually sent the big man to Boston, there wasn’t a parade of boos when he returned or burnt jerseys outside the stadiums, there was over a decade of losing and self-reflection.
The Wolves knew they let one go and nearly 20 years later, they’re in a better situation to build around an athletic big man with the spending power to back it up.
“It’s championship or bust,” Towns told Michael Rand, The Star Tribune this offseason.
“When you make the trade that we made, that’s the reality. I’m not trying to sugarcoat. You’ve got to think that. That’s really what’s on the table. I don’t think the fans would be accepting of [a goal of] a third-round elimination… Let’s be real. The standards are high. The pressure is high. And that’s when we should all love to play basketball even more.”
If there is a divorce in the future, the headlines will echo those of KG’s departure all those seasons ago. In reality, with the team tailored to his strengths, KAT has as much to prove as the Wolves do.