When a team is on a seven-game losing streak, questions are asked. Right now, there are plenty of queries on the table for the Minnesota Timberwolves. After bursting out of the gate with a 7-3 record, they’ve lost 12 of their next 15 games and now occupy the 10th seed in the Western Conference at 10-15.
Niggling injuries have piled up since day one. The once-promising defense has swan dived off a cliff. And the pace-and-space system has been outweighed by personnel that simply doesn’t fit.
While all these things will be causing migraines for Ryan Saunders and his coaching staff, there is a fouler scent lingering over the on-court product; Karl-Anthony Towns is struggling to get enough field goal attempts and touches.
Despite his inability to put up superstar-level field goal attempts, Towns is still averaging 25.9 points per game. He is doing so on 17.3 shots per game. Of the 17 players averaging over 23 points per game, nobody takes fewer shots a night. When you are connecting on 51.4 percent of your shots and splashing a career-high 41.8 percent of your 3-pointers, that volume simply isn’t high enough.
While fans and pundits alike are searching for a single soul to shoulder the blame, the truth is there is plenty to share around. As it takes an entire team and coaching staff to successfully empower and assist a superstar, it also takes the whole band to mistreat their leader.
It starts with his teammates, specifically the lead guards and ball-handlers who are tasked with feeding the beast. The footage of the All-Star center visibly losing his cool after Jeff Teague looked him off, drove into traffic and got stuffed at the rim has done the rounds on social media, but it’s not an isolated incident.
Teague’s vision has become more and more tunneled as his Timberwolves tenure has grown older. Whether it’s a deliberate ploy to get himself buckets (and maybe a bigger contract next year) or he is just oblivious to the obvious, the 31-year-old is regularly missing Towns after the big man sets the screen and pops to the top of the arc.
According to NBA.com, Towns is shooting a scorching 42.9 percent from that straightaway area of the floor and 40.6 percent with over four feet of space. With that in mind, there is no reason Teague oversights like this should happen multiple times a game.
Teague is the usual culprit, but others are guilty of this charge as well. In this example, Napier has to be more aware of his teammate’s strengths. After he comes off the Towns screen, he doesn’t even look back at the big man, who has popped out beyond the arc and is in acres of space. Instead, he throws to a slightly less open Josh Okogie, whose current 31.7 percent 3-point clip seems generous.
It’s not just pick-and-pop ignorance, though. There is a multitude of areas that all of Towns’ teammates misuse their star. Seeing anyone launch a lob for the uber-athletic KAT is like seeing a unicorn trotting through the Minnesota snow. Almost every other team in the league leans on the pick-and-roll alley-oop to put both the ball-handling defender and big defender in a bind, but it’s non-existent in Minnesota. He isn’t the rim-running leaper like a Jarrett Allen or a younger DeAndre Jordan, but mixing in a few lobs would undoubtedly provide another scoring avenue.
Andrew Wiggins’ passing has improved tremendously this season, but on these kinds of plays, he would be better suited to just throw it up toward the rim for Towns, who has a huge height mismatch on Ricky Rubio, rather than forcing up the contested floater.
Speaking of pick-and-roll scoring, have Teague, Wiggins or the rest of the usual dribblers ever actually completed a successful pocket pass when Towns rolls out of a pick? It’s another play that most big men are fed on a platter nightly but Towns seems to see once in a blue moon. When Towns gets the ball going downhill toward the rim he is a handful for even the best rim-protectors, so it’s bizarre that he rarely gets the opportunity outside of his own self-creation.
It’s easy to toss blame for those deficiencies on the players who seem to ignore Towns, but some of that onus falls on Ryan Saunders and his inability to maximize Towns’ offensive versatility. Using him from the top of the arc was an impactful move that allows him to get more drives, 3-pointers and ability to pass to slashers, but it’s not quite enough to really embolden their franchise cornerstone.
It’s true, without sufficient shooters around him KAT gets swarmed in the post and forced to give the ball up or bury his way through two or three defenders to take a tough shot. His 0.93 points per possession in post-up scenarios rank him in the 61st percentile league-wide. Before this season, he has never finished lower than the 73rd percentile, per NBA.com.
However, there are plenty of ways to get Towns looks without having him cemented to the block. One way would be to use his athleticism and guard-like movement to hurtle off screens and catch the ball on the move and away from incoming double teams.
Something like this taken from Mike Malone and the Denver Nuggets would work a treat — especially with Towns’ superior agility in comparison to Nikola Jokic. With Jokic beginning the set in the corner, he curls around a pin-down screen and takes the pass from point guard Monte Morris in stride and unimpeded.
Even this play, which was surprisingly popular in the prehistoric Tom Thibodeau scheme, would be worth seeing again. The curling L-cut from top of the arc, through the key and back out to the strong side corner, aided by a late screen along the baseline, give Towns the freedom to shed his man and show off his insane catch-and-shoot prowess.
Sprinkle in some of these plays, along with a couple of lobs or pick-and-roll pocket passes, and all of a sudden you’re getting five or more extra (and clean) looks for Towns every night. With a team seriously deprived of top-tier talent, that could genuinely be the difference between a happy locker room and another long losing streak.
His teammates aren’t helping, nor aer the sets they are running for him, but some of the responsibility to truly dominate lies with Towns himself, too. He has grown from a player who looked flustered when he had to pass out of double-teams or create for others off the dribble to a big man that is capable of making pinpoint passes to cutters and spot-up shooters. This season, he is averaging 4.5 assists per game — the second-highest of any center. Over the seven-game losing skid, that number has risen to 5.1 per night.
Make no mistake, it’s encouraging to see Towns whipping the ball to the open man. It’s what this, and any good offensive system dictates. Unselfishness should never be punished, but sometimes a star player needs to cook up his own meal rather than playing the part of a waiter. With so many below average shooters and finishers around him, Towns needs to be more greedy at times.
It would be way more beneficial to the team and himself if he just attacked a weak post-up double-team like this one from the Atlanta Hawks, rather than kicking it out to the shot-deprived Treveon Graham.
He could also stand to be more aggressive looking for his own shot off drives to the rim from from the top of the arc. The ability to drive and kick out to shooters is a great one to have in your tool belt, but sometimes the more effective shot is a semi-contested one from a historically efficient scorer rather than an open one from a negative offensive player.
It’s a fine line to walk for Towns. By imploring him to pass at every opportunity the coaching staff are building up really good habits within his game. Habits that will shine brightly if and when they surround Towns with players who compliment his abilities. Unfortunately, they are not there right now and Towns needs to get a bit selfish at times to save this team from crumbling on a nightly basis.
There has been chatter around Towns’ low field goal attempts for years now. Most thought it would cease when Gersson Rosas and Ryan Saunders partnered up and spent the entire summer talking about how Towns has the entire set of keys to the offense.
Unfortunately, while it’s certainly an upgrade over Tom Thibodeau and Jimmy Butler freezing him out, it’s still not quite the bonanza of shots most expected.
Something’s gotta change.
The beast must be fed.