Entering the 2015 NBA draft, there was a near consensus that Karl-Anthony Towns could be the cornerstone of a contender. After he joined the Timberwolves as the no. 1 pick and immediately began producing at levels that only Tim Duncan had previously managed as a rookie, the enthusiasm only increased. It seemed like just a matter of time before KAT led the Wolves back to the postseason, with Tom Thibodeau and Jimmy Butler profiling as perfect additions to school him on the finer points of NBA defense and the virtues of maniacal intensity.
That, as you probably remember, didn’t exactly work out: The Thibs-and-Jimmy era produced one 47-win season, one first-round drubbing, and one of the most egregious practice-session line-steppings in history before everything fell apart. The Wolves had the West’s worst record through the next three seasons following that playoff run, and the only through line was Towns—who was eclipsed in the big man power rankings by the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, and Joel Embiid, and was looking less like a cornerstone than a rock amid rubble.
That view was always somewhat uncharitable, though. A franchise’s cornerstone matters because it’s the first piece laid down, but it’s still only one stone. If you want to build something sturdy enough to last, you need … like … way more fuckin’ stones.
They need to be the right stones, too. Well, it took seven years, four head coaches, six heads of basketball operations, and 68 teammates, but the Wolves appear to have finally found a new blueprint for something better—one with Towns, playing the best all-around ball of his career, at its center.
The Wolves enter Wednesday’s game against the Raptors at 43-33—just the franchise’s second winning season in the past 17 years. After playing .500 ball through the first three months, they hit their stride just before the All-Star break, going 18-8 with the West’s third-best net rating since February 1. They play a dynamic style built on sharing the ball and moving off of it—the “first principles” of head coach Chris Finch’s offense—ranking seventh in points created via assist per game, sixth in offensive efficiency for the full season, and second behind the Suns in that category since the start of 2022.
They persevered through a few points when the season could’ve veered off course—most notably a late-December COVID-19 outbreak that at one point sidelined the entire starting five—and now enter the home stretch in firm control of the West’s no. 7 seed. (They still have a shot to move up, sitting two games behind the sixth-seeded Nuggets and fifth-place Utah.) That will give them two chances to win one game in the play-in tournament to advance to the postseason proper. This is a level of stability, solidity, and optimism rarely seen in Minnesota since the KG era. And it’s one that Towns and the Wolves have had to navigate some choppy waters to find.
In some ways, Towns has occupied the same space as his former Kentucky teammate and buddy Devin Booker: inarguably talented, but dismissed by some as a not-quite-star who puts up big numbers in games devoid of consequence on teams going nowhere. It took an undefeated run in the bubble, a subsequent sprint to the Finals, and an even more impressive encore this season for Booker to get the flowers he deserves, and for some skeptics to admit that “He’s playing winning basketball now” often really just means “His teammates and coach are better.” Towns is a long way from the sort of sustained team success that Booker has experienced in the past two seasons, but with the Wolves once again bound for postseason play, it looks like maybe the situation is finally catching up with the star.
There have been plenty of questions in the past few years about the many bets the Wolves made: about sending the Warriors a first-round draft pick that wound up becoming Jonathan Kuminga to pay Andrew Wiggins’s freight and bring in D’Angelo Russell; about using the no. 1 pick in the 2020 NBA draft on Anthony Edwards rather than LaMelo Ball or James Wiseman; about hiring Finch midseason almost immediately after firing Ryan Saunders and looking past respected in-house assistant David Vanterpool; and many more. And yet, despite the uncertainty that surrounded those moves—and the abrupt preseason firing of Gersson Rosas, the executive who made them—a bunch of them have paid off.
Yes, Wiggins made the All-Star team this season, and Kuminga has shown tantalizing flashes. But Russell has been integral to the Wolves’ turnaround this season, averaging 18 points and a career-high 7.1 assists per game. He’s grown comfortable in a role that puts him to work both on and off the ball while also demanding improved defensive effort; he’s also posting his lowest usage rate since his rookie season, laying back a bit to create more opportunities for Towns and the ascendant Edwards. Russell has been deputized, though, to take the reins late in games, tied for ninth in the NBA in scoring in “the clutch”—points scored when the margin is within five points in the final five minutes—and has poured in 90 points in 98 crunch-time minutes with a 13-to-4 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Yes, Ball won Rookie of the Year last season and made his first All-Star appearance in his second year. But I doubt many in Minneapolis still regret picking Edwards—an irrepressible comet and quote machine who’ll inform you during a presser that he sometimes “feels like Black Jesus,” responds to inquiries about his ceiling with a matter-of-fact “I don’t think I got one,” and has pegged his ETA in the MVP conversation at “next year, for sure.”
According to Stathead’s database, Edwards is just the fourth player to average better than 20-4-3 on .550 true shooting by his age-20 season; the first three were LeBron James, Luka Doncic, and Zion Williamson. He has shot more accurately at every level of the court in his second season, and with lingering knee pain limiting his devastating slashing game of late, he’s boosted his facilitating to the tune of 4.4 dimes per game since the All-Star break. He’s made strides on the other end, too, particularly as an improving on-ball defender. Ant has recently stepped up to guard a slew of All-Stars, including Luka, James Harden, Khris Middleton, and Devin Booker. “He just wants to win those matchups,” Finch recently told reporters. “He takes them personally.”
Entrusting those marquee battles to a 20-year-old known more for slams than stops is just one example of how Finch has displayed a deft touch in his first go-round as an NBA head coach. Criticisms of the process (or lack thereof) that preceded his hire were valid, but the globe-trotting bench boss has earned his stripes in a number of ways—not least of which by fostering an environment that sure sounds like a breath of fresh air in the Twin Cities. “It’s the chemistry, it’s the camaraderie, it’s all the things that go into play before we even touch the court,” Russell recently told reporters. “It’s not preparation, it’s not mentality. It’s liking each other.” (Try to imagine a Thibs-era Wolf saying that.)
It’s the tactics, too, of course. Finch has transformed a long moribund Minnesota defense by ditching conventional drop pick-and-roll coverage that often left Towns, a so-so rim protector, as a sitting duck in the paint against downhill drivers. In its place, Finch implemented a more aggressive, high-wall scheme that brought Towns up to the level of screens, making him a more active participant at the point of attack, and helping generate more turnovers.
The shift comes with risks, especially against opponents ready to beat the blitz with early ball movement. Only four teams allow opponents to shoot more 3-pointers per game, with only Toronto conceding corner 3s more often. Only three teams grab a lower share of defensive rebounds, thanks partly to Minny’s centers starting so many possessions so high up the floor. And nobody fouls more. Thus far, though, they’ve been outstripped by the rewards: The Wolves rank no. 4 in the NBA in steals, tied for no. 3 in blocks, no. 2 in opponent turnover rate, no. 1 in points scored off of cough-ups, and, most importantly, no. 10 in points allowed per possession, according to Cleaning the Glass—on pace for the franchise’s best defensive finish since Kevin Garnett won MVP in 2003-04.
The defense has thrived thanks in large part to the contributions of 2020 draft steal Jaden McDaniels, hard-charging, tone-setting veteran Patrick Beverley (a godsend imported from Memphis before the season as a graceful pivot away from 2019 lottery bust Jarrett Culver), and Jarred Vanderbilt (quietly the jewel of the four-team 2020 blockbuster that landed Clint Capela in Atlanta). Their combined length, ever-revving motors, gift for navigating screens, and tenacity in pursuing the ball make them perfect chaos agents rotating all over the court in Minnesota’s souped-up scheme.
There’s a reason Finch can rely on them, though: The flaws that might complicate their fits elsewhere matter a hell of a lot less next to an offensive dynamo like Towns.
Whatever your feelings are on the tempest-in-a-teapot Dirk debate, Towns is a historically great shooter. He’s tied for fifth in career true shooting percentage out of more than 750 players to take at least 5,000 shots, right behind Steph freakin’ Curry. That makes him a nightmarish cover in space—especially when playing in a five-out offense, flanked by shooters that defenses don’t want to sag off of—whom Finch has given the green light to attack off the bounce like never before:
Towns’s Drives Through the Years
|Season||Drives Per Game||Drive Points Per Game||Drive FG%||Drive Free Throw Attempts Per Game||Blow-bys Per 100 Possessions|
|Season||Drives Per Game||Drive Points Per Game||Drive FG%||Drive Free Throw Attempts Per Game||Blow-bys Per 100 Possessions|
|Drive data via NBA Advanced Stats. At-rim data via Cleaning the Glass. Blow-by data via Second Spectrum.|
You can play a non-shooter like Vanderbilt because Towns constantly draws opposing big men out to the 3-point arc or forces opponents to cross-match, giving Vanderbilt a marked quickness advantage against centers. You can give a developmental prospect like McDaniels the minutes and opportunity to construct his offensive game bit by bit—first simple 3-and-D duty, then more cutting, then driving closeouts, then some pick-and-roll—because Towns demands so much defensive attention. You can slot Beverley into the smaller role to which he’s best suited—tied for fourth on the Wolves in half-court touches, with more than twice as many catch-and-shoot 3-point tries as pull-up attempts—largely because Towns shoulders so much of the workload.
It’s all connected—the system benefits him, and he’s also the system—and it’s not exclusive to role players, either. Edwards started to take off last season once Towns came back from injury. Russell’s true shooting percentage spikes by nearly 10 points with KAT on the floor. The Wolves go from scoring like the NBA’s best offense with Towns to a bottom-five outfit without him—even with both Edwards and Russell in the game.
Minnesota’s many bets have cashed this season largely because of the success of its biggest one: continuing to believe in Towns, to believe that the stain of all that “soft” talk and two years marred by injuries and COVID-related tragedy would wash away, to believe that he still could be that cornerstone.
These Wolves project unwavering belief in who Towns is and what he can be. Here’s Finch, whose previous stops in the NBA have included stints coaching Harden, Jokic, Anthony Davis, and DeMarcus Cousins: “I’ve worked with some really high-level players, and to me, KAT’s the most skilled player that I think I’ve ever worked with.”
And Russell, describing the bone-simple plan that produced 39 Towns points on 22 shots to beat the Warriors: “Feed him, feed him, feed him. If you run out of food, feed him the fork.”
And Beverley, that same night: “He’s the engine of this team, and we can only go as far as he can take us.”
It doesn’t matter whether you think those plaudits ring true, or they’re just invested parties gassing the big fella up. What matters is how confident and comfortable they make Towns feel—and the staggering damage he can do when he’s feeling that way.
“I feel like anytime I touch the ball, I’m unstoppable,” Towns said after scoring a career-high and franchise record 60 points against the Spurs earlier this month. “I don’t think anyone in this league can guard me one-on-one.”
Whether he’s right will likely determine the Wolves’ chances of advancing through the play-in and making some noise. Even if they don’t linger long past mid-April, though, the season has provided precisely the brand of rebirth that everyone in Minnesota desperately craved. Towns will likely return to an All-NBA team for the first time in four years. (Perhaps as high as the second team, should Embiid and Jokic both land on the first.) He, the Wolves, and their fans get a welcome respite from years of speculation about whether he’d be the next superstar to grow disgruntled and seek greener pastures—even if that never really seemed like his MO.
“If you want to build a legacy, we gotta win,” he said last season. “I want to build my legacy here. I want to win with the Wolves, and I’m gonna do everything I possibly can to step-by-step, brick-by-brick build something.”
While the Wolves’ success might owe partly to a shift in Towns’s demeanor or approach, it’s also about a shift in the circumstances surrounding him. Sometimes, what look like empty-calorie stats are evidence that a star is better than his situation; sometimes, the situation catches up with the star. When that happens, a team might finally be ready to build, and the rest of us get reminded of what we forgot along the way: A cornerstone doesn’t stop being a cornerstone just because it’s surrounded by rubble.