I miss watching Karl-Anthony Towns play basketball and you probably do, too. Towns has played all of 39 games between this and last season because of suspension, injury or illness. To be clear, there is no faulting Towns for missing games for injury or illness. This is just to say the NBA is a better place when Towns is on the floor.
The fact Towns is playing for the Minnesota Timberwolves at all this season is truly remarkable. Going back to work after the death of any family member is difficult and Towns has tragically lost several loved ones to COVID-19. Taking time away would have been understandable, but he has shown up and even played well.
In four games this season, Towns is averaging an efficient 22.2 points, 12.8 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game. Though a smallish 132-minute sample, the Timberwolves are a plus-5.3 with Towns on the court this season. Over a full season, this would be the second-highest mark of his career behind 2018 when Jimmy Butler was still a teammate.
Towns’ absence has only reinforced his value to this team. I mean, imagine looking at this roster and thinking he was the problem. This Timberwolves team is simply not built to survive losing their best player for an extended time, as are few teams. Yet, the Timberwolves have been fatally exposed without their franchise cornerstone.
A 2-2 record in four games with Towns doesn’t say much but the team’s 1-8 mark without him certainly does. Minnesota may not be a .500 team if Towns had played every game but they probably wouldn’t be 3-10 and last in the conference either.
The Timberwolves have depth, just in the wrong places
If Towns were a guard, maybe the Wolves could more easily manage. Minnesota has a glut of backcourt players and a dearth in the frontcourt. It feels likely the team could survive any of Malik Beasley, Ricky Rubio, Jarrett Culver, Anthony Edwards, or D’Angelo Russell taking a rest night.
It’s a different story inside. With Towns out and Ed Davis struggling to begin the season, Naz Reid has been pressed into heavier minutes. Reid has had his challenges and seems like he’s learning from the experience, but his current role is likely more than the team imagined. When you factor in Juancho Hernangomez is currently in the health and safety protocol, the Wolves become even thinner upfront.
(At least we’re getting extended looks at Jaden McDaniels and Jarred Vanderbilt.)
Russell alone cannot compensate for Towns’ production
Another factor is Russell does not seem like the kind of secondary option capable of carrying a team for a short period of time — at least not right now. Russell has had some productive games but it seems evident, at least for now, he needs more around him. You can argue whether Towns is more of a true number one or number two option, but it seems less likely the team would struggle this badly if the roles were reversed.
Russell, at least, seems like a good complement to Towns. The pair are a plus-1.8 together and the only other teammate that has a positive net rating with this season is McDaniels. However, Towns and Russell have at least played 90 minutes together this season while Russell-McDaniels have played approximately one half of a basketball game together. Not that plus-minus is perfect, you can notice potential trends with it over time.
The core that has barely played together
These are also crucial developmental minutes the Timberwolves are losing. Towns played sparingly last season with newcomers like Beasley and Russell before the team shut him down for the season. ESPN’s Zach Lowe pointed out on a recent episode of his podcast that the Towns-Russell-Edwards trio had played just 21 minutes together this season. That number should be much, much higher. Again, plus-minus, but that trio is a plus-11 together, which may not hold but is encouraging.
In an ideal situation, Towns would receive as many minutes as humanly possible with his new teammates. From the limited sample we have, the early returns are encouraging. We will see them all together eventually, but a sneak peek at the future is always fun.
Focusing on what really matters
First and foremost — there is nothing more important than the health of Towns and his family. Basketball is absolutely second here. With that said, while the Timberwolves continue their slumping ways, it does seem like a good time to remember how great Karl-Anthony Towns truly is. However, knowing the solution and having it out of reach doesn’t make any of this less frustrating.
Towns should return whenever he’s ready. All of us here at Canis would certainly wish him a full recovery with no long-term effects. The mental stress that comes with contracting the same illness that has attacked your family has to be difficult. He has already put so much on himself to watch over his family and is now fighting his own battle. What he has gone through and overcome this past year is remarkable, regardless of age.
Whenever we hear from Towns off the court or see him on the court, it will be a welcomed sight for all.