When an NBA franchise is fortunate enough to acquire a player with one of the brightest futures in the NBA, the key decision makers; the owner, general manager, and head coach, more often than not, make a plan to build around this future superstar. In the case of the Minnesota Timberwolves, there has been a refusal to follow this much agreed upon notion.
Karl-Anthony Towns is prime example of what mainstream media likes to call “Unicorns”. A big, who possesses the traditional skillset of protecting the rim and scoring in the post combined with the ability to shoot the ball effectively from outside and occasionally bringing the ball up the court. Joel Embiid of the 76ers and Kristaps Porzingis of the New York Knicks are also great examples of being a “Unicorn”.
The reason the term “Unicorn” is used is because it’s such a rarity to encounter a player with this particular skillset. There are some NBA big men who have the ability to perform the tasks mentioned above, but only a select few can do so at an elite level.
So why does Timberwolves’ head coach Tom Thibodeau refuse to involve Towns more on offense?
To begin, Towns does not posses the speed or ball handling to be a primary ball handler for an NBA team. This fact indicates that most of Towns’ opportunities to score come by passes from his teammates, rather than Towns dribbling to create his own shot. This simple notion means that the ball is out of Towns’ hands a majority of the game which is completely fine.
Secondly, with Jeff Teague, Andrew Wiggins, Jimmy Butler, and Jamal Crawford all being adept scorers, this means that Towns will be receiving undoubtably less touches per game due to his teammates looking to score themselves.
Wiggins and Butler both find themselves shooting more per game than Towns does. I think everyone would be fine with Butler shooting the same amount next season, but Wiggins on the other hand has shown to be quite inefficient with his opportunities which is frustrating given that Towns is one of the most gifted big men ever in terms of shooting the ball.
What would a team built around Karl-Anthony Towns look like?
Rather than rattling off a bunch of names that the Timberwolves will never acquire, let’s analyze certain skillsets and player archetypes that would surround Towns well both offensively and defensively.
A floor general who looks to pass and create easy and open looks for his teammates. This player would also need to be great at stopping his opponents from entering the lane too easily because Towns has shown to be weak at protecting the rim when he becomes responsible for the ball handler and the big man rolling to the rim. An example of this type of player would be Tyus Jones who believe it or not is on the Timberwolves roster as of June 18th, 2018. Jones, when given the opportunity to play, has shown he can run an offense with great ball movement, while not sacrificing points on the defensive end. An added bonus for this position would be able to shoot threes well but it’s not completely necessary.
At shooting guard, this individual needs to be able to handle his defensive assignment well much like the point guard on the team because of Towns’ weakness inside the paint. This player also needs to be a viable secondary scoring option behind Towns. In order to be successful in today’s NBA, you must have two or even three truly efficient scorers in order to keep up with the Houstons and Golden States of the world. He must be all-star or even an all-pro level of player to make the Timberwolves competitive long term. An example of this player would be Jimmy Butler. If Butler were 24 or 25 years old instead of 28, he would be a perfect compliment to Towns. Butler would be assigned to handling the opposing team’s best scorer while providing anywhere between 20 and 30 points on a nightly basis.
If the Timberwolves have found their primary scorer at the shooting guard position, whoever is assigned with starting at small forward must be capable of effectively scoring from beyond the arc, attacking the defensive glass for loose rebounds, and stopping whoever the opposing team throws on the court to score. If the Wolves can somehow manage to secure an all-star caliber player for this position, they will have a legitimate shot at competing for a NBA championship. If not, they can still find success by creating a team that functions effectively by using a number of players off the bench to fill certain roles. An example of this player would be Robert Covington from the 76ers. Covington, who profiles as a prototypical “3 and D” wing would fit perfectly into a team built around Towns.
As much as I love Taj Gibson and what he does for this team, he just doesn’t theoretically fit with a team built around Towns. Gibson has shown he cannot shoot from beyond the arc which is the main need at this position other than being competent defensively. This player would need to be a threat from outside while being able to handle the opposing team’s best big in some cases. Also, this player must have the lateral speed to be able to stick with smaller forwards and bigs when they’re subbed into the game to attack the rim. An example of this player would be Bobby Portis of the Chicago Bulls. Even at 6’10”, Portis has displayed his ability to guard on the perimeter while remaining adequately disciplined protecting the rim. Also, with his 3 point percentage being at 35%, Portis passes the requirement of being able to space the floor in order to give Towns more room to operate down in the post.
Towns is obviously the choice here.
A hot topic amongst Wolves fans this season was the poor production from the bench. Not only was this because it was a subpar group compared to the NBA average, but also because Tom Thibodeau refused to play any bench player significant minutes. However, there were bright spots that can be used for a future iteration of this Wolves’ squad.
Nemanja Bjelica in particular showed his worth this past season when filling in for an injured Jimmy Butler. Bjelica not only contributed scoring wise but his team defense was a breathe of fresh air compared to the rest of his bench mates. A player like Bjelica will always have a spot on an NBA roster. He has the size to play both forward positions and he has enough athleticism and a high enough basketball IQ to stay on the floor when teams decide to go small against the Wolves.
Tyus Jones is another player who stood out this year coming off the bench. In this piece I already mentioned him as a potential starter but if Jones progression stopped now for the rest of his career, he could still be a suitable NBA point guard for many years to come with his current skill set. Jones would provide a rest to the starting point guard and the offense would more than likely continue their momentum they had going, rather than letting it drain away.
The rest of the bench would be filled with off ball shooters who have the ability to defend at an individual level and at a team level.
The team would also need a veteran big who can keep the team in check when our star player in Towns goes to the bench for a break from the action.
If Scott Layden and Tom Thibodeau can one day aim for this type of roster construction, not only will we see Towns flourish under his new offensive and defensive surroundings, we will see a significant increase in our success on the court and on the scoreboard. But for now, all we can do is pray we don’t sign Derrick Rose to the full mid-level exception this offseason.
photo credit – hoopshype.com