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Trouble Brewing Around Karl-Anthony Towns and Nikola Jokic?

The two star big men found themselves at the center of some side-eyeing following two ugly losses on Tuesday

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Denver Nuggets Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Nikola Jokic and Karl-Anthony Towns have a lot in common: They’re Western Conference mates, passionless defenders, and bucket-getters that have announcers yelling “He’s only 22!” And after both the Nuggets and Timberwolves lost on Tuesday in embarrassing fashion, talk of chemistry issues bled out of their respective locker rooms in the direction of their two stars. None of the quotes were pointed, but Towns and Jokic—two high-profile big men saddled with big expectations coming into the season—could take the brunt of the blame for their teams’ recent problems.

Towns Left Defenseless

It took one quote to foreshadow an eventual run-in between Towns and new teammate Jimmy Butler.

“I want everybody to work the way that I work,” Butler told Vice Sports over the summer. “And it's wrong for me to think like that because people don't do it! But in my mind I'm just like, ‘Why? Why don't you want to chase greatness the way that I do?’”

I’m not saying Towns is not chasing greatness. Look at his Twitter!

But there is a disconnect between his focus on offense and defense. Per The Athletic’s Jon Krawczynski, “Butler barked at Towns during the game for lobbying for fouls. [Butler] was clearly upset after the game too.” Entering the game, Butler said the team “is not capable of playing defense.”

That doesn’t just fall on Towns. But against the Wizards on Tuesday, the Wolves center looked a step behind or completely unengaged when defending pick-and-rolls, and followed opponents in the paint rather than staying in good position to stop them. It’s a common problem for Towns, who Method-acts the role of rim-protector without ever being prepared to own the stage.

The 92-89 loss to the Wizards was also a result of not having Jeff Teague or Nemanja Bjelica, a 49-point performance from Washington’s bench, Butler going 1-for-6 in the fourth, coach Tom Thibodeau not rationing his minutes (Butler played all 12 in the final quarter), and consecutive second chances on the Wolves’ final possession that ended unsuccessfully.

Oh, and this Otto Porter shot … defended by Towns.

Cue the very-recent-memory bias Butler needs to be upset postgame.

Nuggets Looking for Leadership

Denver’s final score against Utah, 106-77, is more believable if reversed. The Nuggets put up 146 points less than two weeks ago against the Pelicans (granted, that was before Paul Millsap was sidelined by a left wrist injury).

After the loss, Mason Plumlee downplayed Millsap’s absence as the root of Denver’s issues.

“We miss Paul as a player,” Plumlee said, “but he wasn’t super vocal. We miss him on the floor but this very well could have happened with him on the team too. [...] We have no leadership right now. It’s on the players.”

Who besides Jokic is a better fit to take on that role? Nuggets coach Mike Malone echoed Plumlee, saying the team has “no veteran leadership stepping up,” and adding that “two young guys [are] trying to step up.” Wilson Chandler is the only consistent starter over 23 years old and he was out because of lower back pain. The franchise’s most identifiable vet, Kenneth Faried, plays less than 13 minutes a game.

The Nuggets’ off shooting night (28-for-78 from the field overall and a queasy 7-for-34 from 3) and turnover surplus squashed their game plan. High-powered offense is how teams are supposed to beat the Jazz, who pray nightly that their defense is enough to win (and who were also without their highest scorer, Rodney Hood).

Denver is plain average on defense (21st overall, to be exact). If their shots don’t fall, then the Nuggets inevitably will. That’s why Jokic’s defense is so detrimental (and even on offense, his finishing has left much to be desired lately). It’s much easier to hide his woeful efforts with Millsap, a superior and versatile stopper, on the floor, as The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks wrote in early November. Jokic is neither vocal—one of the more important qualities of a center, who is often well-positioned to call out offensive movement—nor giving consistent effort.

Tuesday’s disappointment involves much more than just Jokic. Injuries kept two starters out, and the young backcourt of Emmanuel Mudiay and Jamal Murray is turnover-prone and still finding its footing. But in Millsap’s absence, the onus falls on Jokic.