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The Karl-Anthony Towns Era Will Soon Begin in Earnest, in Spite of Thibs

Getting rid of Jimmy Butler is only the tip of the iceberg. To maximize a transcendent talent like Towns, the Timberwolves will have to rewrite coach Tom Thibodeau’s antiquated script in its entirety.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Karl-Anthony Towns era is about to begin in Minnesota. No matter who comes back in a Jimmy Butler trade, the Wolves have to build around Towns, who agreed to a five-year, $190 million extension earlier this week. It’s what they should have been doing the whole time. Towns has too much talent to take a back seat to anyone. He’s a former no. 1 overall pick who made his first All-Star Game by the age of 22. The only other big men to have done both in the past 30 years are Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard, Yao Ming, Tim Duncan, and Shaquille O’Neal. Guys like Towns don’t come around often. If Wolves president and head coach Tom Thibodeau can’t get more out of his star big man, he won’t have either job for much longer.

Towns sacrificed to make Butler comfortable last season. He led Minnesota in true shooting percentage (64.6 percent) by 3.6 points, but he was only fifth in usage rate, behind Butler, Andrew Wiggins, Derrick Rose, and Jamal Crawford. While Towns still put up big individual numbers (21.3 points on 54.5 percent shooting, 12.3 rebounds, 2.4 assists, and 1.4 blocks per game), he averaged 3.8 fewer points per game than the season before, and 3.7 fewer field goal attempts. Thibodeau didn’t build a team that would (or even could) feature Towns. Butler, Wiggins, Rose, and Crawford are all used to being primary options on offense. They don’t have games that work in smaller roles.

Towns had to be a complementary player for the team to make sense. He was their best 3-point shooter: he was third in 3-point attempts per game (3.5) and first in 3-point percentage (42.1 percent). He spaced the floor for everyone else in Minnesota, but they had no one who could space the floor for him. The Wolves were dead last in the NBA in 3-point makes (8.0) and attempts (22.5) per game. The game has moved past Thibodeau’s offensive schemes, which forced Towns to battle for position in the post with multiple defenders sitting in his lap.

Things bottomed out in the first round of the playoffs, when Minnesota lost in five games to Houston. Towns averaged 12.0 field goal attempts per game in the series, almost the same number as Rose (11.4), even though Rose played 10.2 fewer minutes per game. When Thibs was asked after Game 1 about Towns not getting enough touches, he said Towns didn’t work hard enough to get open. The statement begs an obvious response: Shouldn’t a coach make it easier for his best offensive player to get the ball? Why make his life harder?

A deeper dive into the numbers shows the coaching malpractice in Minnesota. Of the 28 players who averaged at least 20 points per game last season, Towns was second in true shooting percentage behind only Steph Curry, and dead last in usage rate. The Wolves were leaving points on the board almost every possession down the floor. Good things happen when Towns gets the ball. He scored a career-high 56 points against the Hawks in late March when Butler was out. Towns is the fourth-youngest player to ever score that many points in a game.

His productivity came almost in spite of the way Thibs used him. The majority of his offensive possessions last season (22.5 percent) came in the post. It’s a hard way to make a living. Even though Towns was in the 85th percentile of post scorers in the league and the 70th percentile of pick-and-roll scorers, he averaged more points per possession in the latter (1.162) than the former (1.02). It’s even harder to post up without 3-point shooting around you. Towns spent 87.1 percent of his time last season next to either Taj Gibson or Gorgui Dieng upfront, neither of whom can space the floor.

His numbers in the rare situations when the Wolves went small around him are mind-boggling. His true shooting percentage (68.2 percent) in small lineups would have led the entire league over the course of the season. Towns is essentially impossible to defend one-on-one. There’s no reason to force him to battle with bigger defenders in the trenches when none of them can defend him in space. At 7 feet and 248 pounds with a 7-foot-4 wingspan, Towns is an elite shooter with the ballhandling ability to put the ball on the floor and get all the way to the rim.

Imagine what Towns could do in a spread pick-and-roll offense. He was no. 145 in the NBA in 3-point attempts per game last season, even though only 12 players ahead of him shot a higher percentage from downtown. Towns could easily double his number of 3-point attempts. He should be running around screens off the ball, knocking down 3s in pick-and-pops, and getting open 3s in transition. Minnesota played at the one of the slowest paces in the NBA last season. Towns is too athletic and too skilled to walk up the floor. He should have the ultimate green light to shoot and the freedom to push the pace himself. He has never played in a wide-open system: John Calipari parked him inside in college, while both Flip Saunders and Thibodeau used him in more traditional systems in the NBA.

Watching his 56-point game without Butler is eye-opening. Towns was more comfortable on offense because he knew the ball would come back to him. He could pass the ball out of the post and re-establish deeper position inside, or move the ball around the perimeter, force the defense to rotate, and get a better driving lane for himself. His ratio of assists to turnovers in the game (2-to-1) was almost twice as high as his ratio (1.26) over the course of the season. Towns can make every pass in the book, but he doesn’t get to show it much in Minnesota. Look at the unnecessary flair he adds on this pass to Nemanja Bjelica. There’s nothing he can’t do on the offensive end of the floor:

The goal for the Wolves in any Butler trade should be to bring back players who complement Towns: guys who can space the floor on offense and stay in front of their men on defense. There would be nothing a defense could do if Towns were playing in the pick-and-roll with Jeff Teague and three 3-point shooters around them. Something would always be open. The only time he should be posting up is after a switch. If Thibodeau wants to keep Towns in the post, he should be putting him in pick-and-rolls to force smaller defenders to guard him.

The problem with using Towns in that role is what would happen on the other end of the floor. He’s an inattentive defender who is rarely in the right position, and relies on his athleticism to bail him out when he makes late rotations. The Wolves had an offensive rating of 114.7 (which would have been no. 1 in the NBA over the course of the season) in the 378 minutes that Towns played without Dieng or Gibson, but they also had a defensive rating of 115.4, which would have been no. 30 in the NBA by a significant margin. A lineup with Towns as the primary rim protector will give up just as many points as it scores.

Thibodeau’s strategy of pairing Towns with a defensive-minded big man like Gibson or Dieng can still work, but only if Towns is a perimeter player on offense. He can play like a 7-foot guard in much the same way that DeMarcus Cousins did in New Orleans last season. Towns can be the ball handler in the pick-and-roll with one of his centers setting the screen for him. Offensive creativity is the best way to develop the skills of a player as singular as Towns, not forcing him to be part of a mid-’90s cosplay act. It’s as if Thibs was given the Mona Lisa to decorate a room, and he used it to prop open a rusty door.

Towns needs to improve defensively, but that makes him no different than most young big men. Interior defense is a difficult skill to master. Davis is a front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year, and the Pelicans had a significantly worse defensive rating when he was on the floor as recently as 2015–16, when he was in his fourth season in the NBA. It doesn’t help that Towns is playing in an outdated scheme that forces him to drop back against pick-and-rolls. He has the athletic ability to be the centerpiece of an all-switching defense like Clint Capela is in Houston.

Capela dominated his matchup against Towns in the playoffs, but not because he’s a better player. Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni made the game easier for Capela than Thibodeau did for Towns. Instead of posting him up with no 3-point shooting around him, D’Antoni got Capela the ball on the move with four shooters spread out along the 3-point line. And rather than making Capela quarterback the entire defense, D’Antoni simplified the game by having him switch every screen. There’s no way to defend James Harden and Chris Paul when dropping back in the pick-and-roll. You have to pick them up at the 3-point line.

Thibs was asking Towns to sacrifice his game and his body to run a system that had no chance of working against an elite team. It didn’t make any sense, and it’s no surprise Towns and Wiggins were unhappy. It was impossible not to notice the double standards in Minnesota. Thibodeau preached ball movement and unselfishness while letting Butler and Rose pound the ball into the ground and shoot contested jumpers whenever they felt like it. And while he constantly got on Towns and Wiggins about their defense, he never said a word about Crawford, arguably the worst defender in the NBA.

Thibodeau’s constant refrain when asked about his decisions is that major change was necessary to break a 13-season playoff drought, but that isn’t the right way to look at things. Towns was entering only his third season in the NBA. None of the previous 11 had anything to do with him. Drafting Towns was a reset for the entire franchise. The Wolves have to develop at his pace, not try to rush things because they were so incompetent before he got there. It’s unrealistic to expect a 7-footer with his incredible offensive talent to concentrate on defense and accept being a role player at this stage of his career. Towns needs a more open-minded coach who gives him the freedom to make mistakes.

Thibodeau was right that the Wolves had a losing culture, but that culture doesn’t start with the players. It starts at the top. The only thing that connects the Kevin Garnett era in Minnesota with the Towns era is Wolves owner Glen Taylor. Taylor let a bad GM (Kevin McHale) build the roster for all of Garnett’s prime. He may have made the same mistake with Thibodeau. Instead of hiring someone who could grow with Towns, he gave complete control of the front office to an out-of-touch coach without the patience to build slowly. Garnett’s career is proof that no player can carry a poorly-run franchise. Towns will be 28 when his extension runs out. Minnesota has five seasons to prove that it can put the right pieces around him. The Wolves aren’t off to a good start.