Powered by Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns, the Minnesota Timberwolves are 36-25, fourth in the Western Conference and roaring louder this season than they have in nearly 15 years.
Butler has deservedly garnered much of the praise as his pilgrimage from Chicago to Minneapolis has transformed the Timberwolves into a club sparring for home-court advantage in the warzone of the West. Yet Towns, despite pouring in 4.9 points less each night this season compared to last, is in the midst of a historically-efficient season. Splashing in 20.2 points and plucking 12.1 boards a night, Towns is on track to join Larry Bird as the only players since 1946-47 to drop at least 20 points and 10 rebounds on 50-plus percent from the floor and 40-plus percent beyond the arc (min. 20 attempts).
What’s more is Larry Legend did it as a 28-year-old in his sixth NBA campaign while KAT, 22, is only a junior in the league. Towns also boasts a 64.9 true shooting percentage to Bird’s 58.5 percent clip. Though in no way am I saying KAT is having a better campaign — Bird whirled 6.6 assists a game and launched just over 1.5 3-pointers per contest that season, the latter of which minimizes the effect of his long-range marksmanship on his true shooting percentage.
After netting a respectable 36.7 percent of his triples last season, Towns has evolved into a deadeye beyond the arc, sinking 42.1 percent from deep — a clip better than both Stephen Curry and J.J. Redick. Towns has emerged as a lethal pick-and-pop big, canning 43.8 percent of his looks from the top of the arc, which compose 48.6 percent of his 3-point attempts.
Butler’s arrival, paired with Towns’ emergence from 3-point range, are chief factors in Minnesota’s third-ranked offense this season, trailing only the Warriors and Rockets in offensive efficiency. Towns is reaping the benefits of the gravity Butler demands on his drives (12.1 per contest) as the third-year center is 24 of 50 on 3-pointers following a pass from Jimmy Buckets.
In his rookie and sophomore campaigns, just 37.5 percent of Towns’ wide-open treys (6-plus feet of space) found the bottom of the net. Opposing bigs could play with fire and often avoid getting burned. Rather than close out on Towns in pick-and-pop sets, teams could sag into the paint and defend against penetration from either KAT or the ball handler. But this season, he’s hitting 48.3 percent of those wide-open jumpers. The fire is hotter, consuming a bigger radius and torching more opponents in 2017-18.
Other times, the Timberwolves don’t even have to run pick and pops to catalyze open looks for Towns. He’ll often saunter up court as his defender retreats into the paint, awaiting Towns’ arrival. Instead, though, KAT takes the pass from a teammate and buries a 3-pointer with his opponent asleep down low.
It’s as though defenses overlook his chops on the perimeter and succumb to conventional wisdom, anticipating Towns, who has the post game of a throwback big, will dive onto the block and aim to befuddle his man with an array of moves.
And when defenders do respect his long-range credentials, he blows by them with ease:
Towns’ steady growth as a shooter is what’s allowed him to become one of the league’s most perplexing covers as he’s long maneuvered around the court with the grace and fluidity of a guard. Although now, Minnesota can harness that unicorn-like trait to run him off screens for open 3-pointers — much like they would a guard. The only difference? Those defending KAT don’t have the same footspeed. Towns whizzes by Steven Adams and before the Big Kiwi recognizes the play, KAT is already setting his feet for an open jumper.
And yet for all the fury Towns has waged upon opponents this season, he and the Timberwolves need more. Of the 21 All-Stars averaging 20 points a night, Towns is the only one jacking up less than 15.8 shots per night. Despite posting the fourth-best true shooting percentage in the league, Towns’ is launching just 13.6 times a game — a number in line with guys such as Gary Harris, Eric Bledsoe and Rodney Hood.
Towns’ passiveness and Minnesota’s inability to feed more touches to its hyper-efficient star has reared its head in the team’s six single-digit losses amid this 7-9 stretch. In those six defeats, Towns is taking just 9.5 shots per game, a mark that would fall outside the league’s top 100 if extrapolated to the entirety of the season.
Consider this play, which came in the Timberwolves’ 123-114 loss to Portland on Jan. 24:
As Andrew Wiggins curls around the screen, Al-Farouq Aminu slides off of Towns to help on the drive. A simple kick out to Towns at the top of the arc would have given the former Kentucky big man an open 3-pointer from his most frequent and profitable spot on the perimeter. Instead, Wiggins opts for a floater in traffic over Jusuf Nurkic.
Of the players with at least 200 post ups this season, Towns is sporting the best points-per-possession mark at 1.05. Yet such plays encompass only 21.4 percent of Towns’ offensive usage, the third-lowest clip of the 11-man group, and he’s posting up just 3.8 times a night. For reference, Joel Embiid and LaMarcus Aldridge lead the league in post-up frequency at 42.4 percent, battling on the low block 10.3 and 9.0 times per game respectively.
Rather than toss it into Towns more often, the Timberwolves are allotting a combined 10.5 possessions per game to Wiggins in isolation sets, pick and rolls and spot-up jumpers — all of which he ranks below the 50th percentile in. As a whole, Wiggins is taking more shots per night (15.7 to 13.6) and holds a higher usage rate (23.4 to 22.1 percent) than Towns this season — a bewildering and frustrating fact given their contrasting efficiencies (59.8 effective field goal percentage for Towns, 48.2 percent for Wiggins).
Towns zips it to Butler on the perimeter as Jarrett Allen shades the middle, providing help defense. But once Taj Gibson slips farther outside the key, drawing Allen away from Towns, Minnesota needs to rotate the ball back to the block and feed their big man. The Timberwolves don’t shoulder the entirety of the blame here, though. KAT has the 6-foot-6 Spencer Dinwiddie on him in the post and doesn’t establish position or present himself as a target down low.
Below is another example of the tunnel vision Wiggins often exhibits as a scorer. While he steps into an open trifecta, there’s not a single player clad in red, white and blue within 5 feet of Towns. A simple swing pass would spur a more efficient look beyond the arc.
Here’s a scenario in which Towns’ lack of assertiveness limits Minnesota’s offensive opportunities. Tyler Dorsey is pinned on KAT and while various players are in position to help off their man, Towns is a willing and able passer. With Tyus Jones, a 35.6 shooter from deep this season, and Nemanja Bjelica, a 43.3 percent shooter, both flanking Towns on the perimeter — along with a superstar in Butler — feeding Towns would likely generate a number of bankable looks for Minnesota. It’s on Towns to demand the ball, exploit the mismatch presented upon him and create an easy basket.
The burden of responsibility is three-fold in Minnesota. Wiggins must improve his decision-making, shot selection and passing vision; the Timberwolves must reduce the number of inefficient plays they provide Wiggins each game; Towns must be more aggressive as a scorer.
Karl-Anthony Towns is enjoying a historically efficient season. But as one of the best, most versatile big men in the NBA today, Towns needs to command more shots, find a mean streak and go to work in the post more often.
If Butler is shelved for an extended period of time, Towns will be called upon to pair his efficiency with increased volume. And yet, even if Butler emerges unscathed from his MRI, the Timberwolves’ most plausible route to adding a bite to their bark come April and beyond is clear: feed their young, hungry wolf repeatedly.