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KAT’s Defense and the Wolves’ Capacity to Improve

For the All NBA big-man and his ascending team, last season’s 28-day New Year’s run is a road-map to continued success.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Minnesota Timberwolves Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

2017-18 was a turbulent season for the Wolves and their devoted fan base. When Tom Thibodeau traded for Jimmy Butler during the draft, an avalanche of excitement turned hope for the future into expectations of the present. Through 87 games of emotional rigor, the team sent two players to the all-star game in Los Angeles, earned a playoff spot in the Western Conference, and outclassed the first-seeded Rockets during the inaugural post-season matchup at a renovated Target Center. Still, a first-round exit left many with the feeling that this group was capable of more.

Through much of the season, the Wolves scored potently to defeat opponents in shootout contests. However, while the team had the league’s fourth-best offense, a revamped collection of talent struggled to execute on the defensive end. At the center of their two-way shortcomings was a 22 year-old seven-footer scuffling in his quest to protect the paint. While Karl-Anthony Towns has not become an anchor as quickly as anticipated after his lone season at Kentucky, his ability to perform on that side of the floor will continue to dictate the ceiling of this team.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Houston Rockets - Game Five Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

As is usually the case with a roller coaster, the season began and ended on relative plateaus. Between opening night and December 17th, the Wolves were 17-13 over their first 30 games. During that stretch, they ranked fifth in the league by offensive rating (ORTG), 25th in defensive rating (DRTG) and 10th when combining the two (NETRTG). Then, to wrap up the regular season, they finished 18-19 through the final 37 games. Their 5th ranked offense and 26th best defense added up to a middling (18th) net rating over that time. In all, they were a pedestrian group for 67 contests to start and wrap-up the year.

But between December 18th and January 14th, when the roller coaster clicked toward its peak, the Wolves were the best team in the NBA; over the same period of time, Towns played the most effective defense of his young career.

The new-look Wolves racked up 12 victories over the 15-game span. They were sixth among peers in DRTG, first in ORTG and led the league in NETRTG by nearly four points per 100 possessions. Ten of those games came against opponents that would go on to make the playoffs; of which the Wolves won eight. At one point, when Tyus Jones replaced an injured Jeff Teague in the starting lineup, they swept through a five-game homestand against the Pelicans, Cavaliers, Thunder, Knicks and Blazers with an 18 point average margin of victory.

It was evident at the time and it is clear with hindsight that the primary factor in their month-long explosion was Towns’ improved defense. After struggling at the beginning of the season, talk around Towns deservedly revolved around his turnstile containment. Of 58 centers who averaged 15 minutes per game in October and November, Towns ranked 47th in individual defensive rating. But as the schedule turned to December, something seemed to click.

Over the 15 game stretch described above, Towns jumped to seventh of 64 qualified centers by defensive rating (100.8) and led all Wolves starters in defensive win shares added. After sustaining his improvements into the New Year, the narrative had switched to reflect his evident progression on that side of the floor.

Following a narrow loss to the Boston Celtics on January 5th, Thibodeau chimed in on the advancements he’d seen from Towns: “I think part of it is experience. The more you do it. He’s got a lot of pride and works at it. Now he’s been around for a while,” the Head Coach and President of Basketball Operations gleaned, “I think for our team to make another jump we’re going to have to be better defensively. We’re heading in the right direction.”

Eventually, though, the other shoe dropped and the third-year all-star reverted back to old habits. His knack for biting on pump fakes returned, he slowed in reacting as a help defender, and seemed to lose focus more and more often. Over the 37 contests that concluded the season, Towns slipped to 54th of 67 qualified centers by defensive rating and third among Wolves starters in defensive win shares added. Subsequently, his team fell to the fringes of a crowded playoff hunt.

In switching their aspiration from ending the post-season drought to making a post-season run, the defense of the Wolves’ franchise cornerstone will be a deciding factor in any hope of competing for a ring. Though he hasn’t matured at the rate most projected, Towns’ combination of natural tools, demonstrated potential, and a desire to win make it likely that he’ll continue to progress. But while he learns through his mistakes, it’s vital that Wolves management surround him with capable talent.

Last season, Thibodeau played nine different five-man lineups a total of 75 minutes or more; Towns was on the floor with five of those groups.

Defensive Rating by Lineup

Jones, Butler, Wiggins, Gibson, Towns 94.9 23.4
Teague, Wiggins, Bjelica, Gibson, Towns 103.9 6.3
Teague, Butler, Wiggins, Gibson, Towns 104.2 8.5
Jones, Crawford, Butler, Dieng, Towns 113.1 5.6
Teague, Crawford, Wiggins, Gibson, Towns 114.2 2.5

Three of the lineups that featured Towns produced defensive ratings (94.9, 103.9, 104.2) that ranged from elite to respectable; the other two were abysmal in slowing opponents. A variable that seemed to dictate success was 38 year-old shooting guard Jamal Crawford – the 18-year NBA veteran finished 2017-18 ranked 109th of 109 players at his position by ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus.

To place a young, struggling rim protector behind one of the league’s worst perimeter stoppers was a recipe for disaster. Like I wrote about in February, Towns is not yet capable of making up for the lapses in containment that a player like Crawford affords. So, while Thibodeau contemplates reshuffling his roster this summer, any addition to the back-court should be capable of sticking with their man.

A final line of resistance in a league that emphasizes athleticism and efficiency, the center position is integral to two-way success. In 2017-18, the top three groups by defensive rating were the Boston Celtics, Utah Jazz and Philidelphia 76ers; each one of them was led by an All-Defensive first or second team rim protector. As was evident last season, Towns’ aptitude to contribute on both sides of the court will be paramount to the Wolves’ success moving forward. Though he’s proven somewhat capable in the right situation, a more consistent and productive ceiling will be required to elevate his team in the echelon of title contention.