clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Karl-Anthony Towns is the future of the Timberwolves and Tom Thibodeau needs to see that

New, 2 comments

The Timberwolves need to forget about Jimmy Butler and feed their best player this year.

USA TODAY Sports/Peter Rogers Illustrations

You may have heard of Schrodinger’s Cat.

No, it’s not an adorable punk rock band that performs at Furry-fests and post-modern Bat Mitzvahs. It’s a thought experiment posed in the 1930s by a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, Erwin Schrodinger, and it’s about quantum physics and entanglement. Basically, Big Erwin said, If you put a cat in a box with a tiny bit of radioactive rock, and then you close the box and wait an hour, you will not know if the cat dies UNTIL you open the box. Thus, the cat is both alive AND dead until you open the box and discover the truth. It’s more complicated than that, but this is a fantasy basketball column, so feel free to attend advanced physics classes at the Sorbonne or Washtenaw Community College or Neptune Tech or wherever, if you feel the need to torture your mind with the exquisitely minute (get it??) details of quantum theory. For us, suffice it to say: we don’t know if the cat’s dead ‘til we open the gosh darn, MFing box.

Since Erwin posed his thought experiment, it’s taken on a life of its own and become a kind of pop/philosophical conundrum that’s vexed folks all across the disciplines and maths and comment sections, from anthropologists questioning whether their mere presence corrupts their data, to lazy sci-fi writers penning ANOTHER story about duality, to a former Mayor of New York City declaring that Truth isn’t Truth, to sabermetricians questioning the value of a Win for pitchers, to some prick fantasy basketball writer who insists that the Pistons are good even though, get real, they are pretty seriously bad (NO, THEY’RE NOT! THEY’RE RILLY RILLY GOOD!).

Which brings us to today’s fruitless search for truth in a universe within which multiple states of being can exist simultaneously, and thus, nothing is true, or rather, ALL is true, and so nothing matters. Cue your boards for your fantasy draft, amirite?

World, I present to you Karl-Anthony Towns, the Big KAT, and his would-be executioner, Thomas “Radioactive by Imagine Dragons IS MY JAM” Thibodeau!

First: Thibs’s real name is Thomas Joseph Thibodeau, Jr. “T.J.T.J.!” His name repeats. His name is twice his name! You think that doesn’t mean anything? How could that NOT mean something?! We’re being basketball detectives, we’re really damn good at our imaginary jobs, and THAT! IS! A! CLUE! His name happens twice! Two! “Dead or alive” is TWO options! Duality! Dichotomy! Oh my God! You guys! Guess how old Karl-Anthony Towns is??? HE’S TWENTY...TWO! That’s two 2s! Just like Thibs’s name! Clue, consider yourself discovered, recognized and duly considered.

Second: (Gasp! Another 2!) Karl-Anthony Towns, the KAT of this article’s magnificent headline, is a MFing stud of a basketball player.

Six dudes scored 20+ points per game and grabbed 10+ rebounds per game in the 2017-18 season. Guess which badass was on that list? That’s right, Basketball-Doctoral-Student Karl-Anthony Towns. Guess which guy on that list (of ONLY SIX DUDES IN THE ENTIRE GODDAMN NBA!) had the best 3-point percentage? Big KAT, at 42%, which, by the way, was 14th best in the entire NBA out of players who took at least 3.5 three-point attempts per game. Do you know what happens when you filter that and only look at players who scored at least 20 points per game AND attempted at least 3.5 threes? You get this list:

(And, played in at least 10 games, otherwise you get MarShon Brooks as your #1. Which, no hate, I sincerely hope you’re the best player in the league, MarShon, but you only played in a handful of games.)

So, that’s a list with three of the best scorers and shooters in the history of the NBA. I don’t need a Nobel Prize like Dr. E in order to know that that’s “hella good,” as the scientists say. The Big KAT, a guy who has to play with little to no spacing, AND IS THE CENTER ON HIS TEAM, is scoring, including long range buckets, at a clip that puts him in a group with Klay Thompson. That’s positively incredible.

Haters are gonna come back and say that Towns is shooting half as many threes as the Warriors on that list. Correct, Karl-Anthony Towns is not a perimeter player. He is...A CENTER!! AND, HE’S SHOOTING THREES LIKE THAT! Lemme ask you a question, out of those four dudes, who gets the most rebounds? You’re goddamn right, it’s the Big KAT, and it’s almost twice as much as the next highest rebounder, Kevin Durant. And, KAT blocks shots—tied for 8th in the NBA with 1.4 per game—along with Giannis and Marc Gasol. Big KAT also gets to the foul line around 5 times a game, basically the same as Victor Oladipo and Paul George. Only 27 other guys in the NBA got to the line as often as KAT; out of that group, Towns had the 8th best FT% at 85.8%. (Better than Jimmy Butler, but we’ll return to that later.)

The Big KAT is an elite scorer, despite being a center. He gets rebounds, he gets blocks, he gets to the line, and he shoots well. I wondered, how good was KAT’s season in 2017-18? I went to Basketball-Reference.com, a veritable gift from the heavens, and did a search for single seasons when a player scored 20 or more points per game, got 10 or more rebounds per game, shot 80% or better from the line, and 40% or better from three. Here’s the list:

Um, that’s Larry effing Bird. Kevin Love (while also in Minnesota) also did it, which means that only two (!) teams in the history of the NBA have had players do what the Big KAT did last season. That’s strange. Almost...too strange. (Two again!)

Here are some other KAT stats (I’m sorry):

  • He was top 25 in points per game, averaging more than Chris Paul, Klay Thompson, Dr. John Wall, offensive powerhouse Nikola Jokic, splendiferous golden basketball mage-assassin Gary Harris, Ben Simmons, and Carmelo Anthony (who is about to save the Rockets).
  • Towns had the 5th best PPG for Centers, 4th if you don’t count the Unicorn, Kristaps Porzingis, who missed a lotta games. (BTW, all stats come courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball-Reference.com, ESPN.com, and MyFeels.Natty.gov.) Towns was also the only Center in the top 10 who played in every single game last season. Seems fairly important.
  • Thibs got static for making his starters play so many minutes, BUT, to be fair, both Anthony Davis and Boogie Cousins averaged more minutes than Towns. So, despite Thibs being out of his goddamn mind with these minutes, other coaches do play their best players in similar fashion.
  • Speaking of the illustrious AD, KAT averaged five fewer shots than the Brow last season. I say this only because I also wanted to point out that Towns also averaged fewer shots THAN NIKOLA EFFING VUCEVIC! RED FLAG, THIBS! RED MF’ING FLAG, MAN!
  • Oh, and again, the Timberwolves made the playoffs. For the first time since 2004. Do you know how long ago that was? In 2004, Kevin Garnett was a young man playing for Minnesota. In 2004, Barack Obama wasn’t even a Senator yet! 2004 was so long ago that the head coach of the Chicago Bulls, Fred Hoiberg, WAS PLAYING ON THE TIMBERWOLVES AS THEIR TWO (!!!) GUARD! In 2004, the Detroit Pistons won the NBA Finals! (I told you they were good!) 2004 was a longass time ago, man. In 2004, Nelly and TIM MCGRAW made a song together. I swear to God! If that doesn’t prove the existence of a multiverse where ANYTHING can and does happen, then nothing will. (Counterfactual: that Rams jacket is rad.)

To return to the now, Towns, again, is just 22 years old. He just had an elite-elite season. His stats suggest he’s an elite-elite player, at least offensively. So, why was the nation so underwhelmed by the TWolves last year while the Big KAT was doing so well?

For that, let’s look at the box that surrounds KAT and the (possibly) deadly poison.

In 2017-18, the Timberwolves had 5 players average at least 30 minutes per game. Is that weird? Not really. Boston had 4 players average 30+ minutes, Denver had 5 (6, if you count Millsap), the Warriors had 4, Houston had 4, the Lakers had 4, the Pelicans had 4, the Thunder had 4, and the 76ers had 4. I mean, no duh, this isn’t quantum mechanics, it’s basketball: you should play your best players. (Meanwhile, the Cavaliers had 1 player average 30+ minutes per game. I’ll give you one goddamn guess who it was. Man, I hate the Cavs.) (Brooklyn had zero, by the way. Hahaha! So did the Kings, but they probably tried to and failed because they are a monumentally stupid franchise. If every team is a Schrodinger’s Cat experiment, then the Kings are the cat that’s already dead when you throw it in the box. Just leave it in there, man. No one wants to see it.)

So, the minutes alone aren’t an abnormality, despite a bunch of folks, including your humble, gorgeous writer, saying that Thibs was running his players into the ground with excessive minutes. (To be fair to your humble, gorgeous writer: even some of the TWolves players mentioned the minutes as a problem during the season.)

HOWEVER, while the average minutes may not be a problem, the total AMOUNT of minutes is. Out of every player who averaged at least 30 minutes per game, only 9 played in every single game of the season, 82. THREE of those nine are Minnesota Timberwolves. Those three (Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, and Ancient Taj Gibson) are also in the top 15 in total minutes on the season. Only Milwaukee, New Orleans, and Oklahoma City even had 2 players in the top 15. (LeBron was the only player last year with at least 3000 minutes. GTFOH.)

Last year, the Wolves starters averaged 34.8 minutes per game, highest in the NBA. The year before that, they were at 34.4, also highest in the league. In 2015-16, Thibs wasn’t coaching, as he transitioned between a bull and a wolf. In 2014-15, the Thibs Bulls averaged 32.5 mpg, tied for 2nd (!) in the NBA; 2nd in 2013-14; 3rd, 2012-13; 8th, 2011-12; and 17th, 2010-11, Thibs’ first year as a head coach. Since his rookie season, Thibs’ teams have been in the top 10, if not the top 3, of starters’ minutes. 2011 is also the season that Derrick Rose tore his ACL in the playoffs, thus beginning a sad history of players getting injured under Thibs.

In 2013, Rose again got injured. Joakim Noah played through a leg injury in 2014, and generally started wearing down, while Zach LaVine, the Dentist, suffered a torn ACL in his only year under Thibs. Luol Deng was never the same player after he played a bunch of minutes for TJTJ in Chicago. This past season, Jimmy Butler, Mr. Tough Guy, only played in 59 of 82 games because of injury. Thibs is also notorious for not sitting players in blowouts, either good or bad, or towards the end of the season (though, this may have more to do with Thibs’ teams generally being in contention for the playoffs; his first season as the TWolves head coach is his only year as a head coach without making the postseason).

All of this is anecdotal as we don’t have firm proof of a causal relationship between the injuries and the player’s usage or minutes. Derrick Rose played basketball like Sergeant Russell Westbrook does now: without regard for life or limb. Noah is one of the meanest, hardest working players I’ve ever seen in my life, and was definitely a triple-double threat and shadow MVP when Rose was out; Deng also had troublesome surgeries that have nothing to do with Thibs; and, Jimmy Butler is another dude that plays really damn hard. (LaVine averaged 37.2 mpg in 47 games in his only year under Thibs; I feel fine saying that’s too many minutes, but whatever, I’m not a basketball doctor.) Thibs likes a certain style of player, and he likes to play those players a lot of minutes. Your best players are your best players; you should play them as much as you can. Duh, just look at LeBron.

Fair enough, except fatigue and physical wear and tear ARE ALSO REAL THINGS! Playing basketball doesn’t occur in a magical vacuum of known talent and scouting reports. A player is affected by all sorts of things, INCLUDING GETTING TIRED. Plus, today’s game is more intense. You can look at pace, at defensive rules, at number of possessions, at distances run during games, or even just watch a game from the 1980s and witness how little they gave a damn about defense (for the most part; love you forever, Bad Boys!).

If you look at the coaches who try to rest their star players, you see fewer injuries like those under Thibs’ watch. The body needs rest, especially during wars of attrition, like the NBA. Just because you can’t prove causality doesn’t mean you should blind yourself to the possibility of a connection, especially when those injuries generally occur late in the season!

The Big KAT is a young man, and he’s on a young team. Both he and Andrew Wiggins’s shot attempts went down when Jimmy Butler came to town. Here are Mr. Tough Guy’s numbers since 2013-14 when he started playing 30+ minutes per game:

And, here are Big KAT’s (he’s averaged 30+ mpg all three years of his career):

So, Towns averages more points with a much better FG%, similar 3PT%, and more rebounds, especially on the offensive end. So, why is Jimmy Butler taking the Big KAT’s shots? If anything, Towns should be the #1 option on scoring. Butler shot 35% on 3.4 threes per game; that’s basically Ricky Rubio. For this, Towns is supposed to defer?

Meanwhile, Andrew Wiggins regressed with the arrival of Butler, but that may be because he’s almost Jimmy Butler’s double on the offensive end. They’re both 6’8” perimeter players with a mid-40s field goal percentage, and a subpar 3PT%. Guess what Wiggins’s ratios were the year before Butler arrived? That’s right, 3.5 three-point attempts per game, 35% completion rate. Almost identical to Butler’s long range shooting last year.

Thibs has crafted a starting five with two subpar long range shooters (36% was the 3PT average last season) in Butler and Wiggins, Jamal Crawford is also below average from long range, and Jeff Teague is at 37%, so as little above average as you can be. Ancient Taj, who is the same age as LeBron James, shot 20% from 3, but he probably shouldn’t be shooting from out there, anyway. That’s four below average shooters, one barely average shooter, and an elite shooter. Who is also the Center. And, undeniably the best player on the team. Both Butler AND Wiggins took more shots than Towns last year. You cannot possibly think that’s a good thing after the stat lines from above. NEITHER of those guys is better than the Big KAT, and yet here we are: with a Head Coach who runs his players into the ground because they’re his “best players,” but who doesn’t feed the ball to his “best player” to score.

The key to this season for the Timberwolves is can they realize, acknowledge, and adjust to the fact that the Big KAT is an exceptional talent and must be their #1 option on offense? If they can do that, then the box they’ve trapped themselves in with poor outside shooting from everyone EXCEPT their Center, will be opened, and a beautiful, bouncing elite-elite KAT will be alive inside, living his best basketball life as one of the best young players in the entire NBA.

If they can’t, then a resurgent Lakers team will probably lap them and keep Minnesota from the playoffs.