The Minnesota Timberwolves have long been a laughing-stock of the league. Years and years of endless turmoil, despair, and ineptitude lead them to that unforgiving status.
Karl-Anthony Towns, the leader of the pack (pun 100% intended), has been at the forefront of every Wolves team over the past seven years. He’s been selected as an NBA All-Star thrice now, but his play has been questioned all the way. Once heralded as the best player to start a franchise with, we saw Towns’ stock drop as the years went on. The problem wasn’t his individual play not meeting expectations, but rather the team continuously finding themselves scraping bottom of the Western Conference barrel.
After making back-to-back All-Star appearances in 2018 and 2019, Towns went two seasons in a row spending the weekend sitting at home. It wasn’t because his numbers didn’t support him being an All-Star, but rather that his team was destined for yet another lottery trip.
This season, however, is different than nearly all the rest of his career. Towns, and his teammates, find themselves in the thick of the playoff hunt - sitting just 2.5 games back of Denver for the 6th seed.
Even though Towns isn’t posting better numbers than either of the past two seasons, he became an All-Star because his team is finally winning. I’m not one to discredit players for putting up “good stats on a bad team,” because in the NBA, it doesn’t really matter if you are at the top of your conference or the bottom, it’s still the same ball, on the same court, in the same league. The distance of the free-throw line doesn’t change, the travel schedule isn’t different, and the opponents aren’t going to let up. But, it is without question that winning impacts perception. And Towns, since his days at Kentucky, hasn’t done much winning.
Coming into this season, with this team, Towns looked to show the NBA world that he could be a winner. He set out to dispel the narrative that he couldn’t positively impact a team. And, to this point, he has done just that. His defensive impact is far and away better than ever before, which has made the biggest difference, but now he has shown that he still is one of the best offensive players in the league AND a good defender.
Many might argue that, regardless of his slightly lowered counting stats, Towns is playing the best basketball of his career. Even if that is true, it is not outlandish to think that Towns could come back even better following the All-Star Break.
One reason to speculate that Towns will up his play is a potential raise in his confidence level. As previously stated, he was selected as an All-Star this season, proving that he belongs among the best in the world.
Another reason his confidence may just be boosted is because of his dominant performance in the 3-Point Contest on All-Star Saturday night.
A center just won the 3-point contest.— Jake Weinbach (@JWeinbachNBA) February 20, 2022
SHOUTOUT KARL-ANTHONY TOWNS.pic.twitter.com/3UmNsZ8qHr
As the lone center, scratch that, the lone non-guard in the competition, Towns proved that he belongs among the elite shooters in the league, regardless of position.
While the contest means nearly nothing in the grand scheme of things and it may be easy to scoff at the idea of it mattering, it seemed clear that it mattered to Towns.
“I ain’t just showing up to be a smiling face. I’m going to compete. I’m not showing up to Cleveland for anything less. I want to win the All-Star game. I want to win Saturday night.”
Simply put, Towns was determined to win the 3-Point Contest.
Now, he can take that confidence into the remaining 23 games of the season. While I can’t promise that winning the contest will motivate Towns to launch more treys in every game for the rest of the regular season, I can promise that Towns will not lose confidence in his stroke.
One of the biggest gripes I’ve had with Towns this season is the lack of threes he’s taken. It seems that he’s leaving a lot of good looks out there in order to drive and pass more. He’s defended himself in postgame interviews saying that he’s trying to find the fine line of aggression. While I can respect the desire to involve teammates and open up the game for yourself and those around you, I also see that he is one of the best 3-point shooters in the league and believe that he should let it fly.
This season, Towns is only taking 5.2 threes per game. It sounds crazy to use the word “only” when talking about a center taking more than a handful of threes per night, but we know that’s not the case. Towns took 6.3 and 7.9 treys per contest in 2020-21 and 2019-20, respectively.
The hope, or at least my hope, is that Towns can take the confidence of winning the 3-Point Contest into the final 23 games and let the threes fly at a clip of 8 to 10 attempts per game.
Another reason to be optimistic about Towns’ play coming out of the break is that he’s historically been dominant in the final stretch of the season. It is hard to say what exactly is the reason for his improved play after All-Star breaks. It could be the week off, it could be desire to finish the year strong, or it could be other factors. There is, however, one thing that we know it couldn’t have been, outside of one season: a playoff push.
The only season the Wolves finished higher than 11th in the Western Conference was Towns’ third season in 2017-18. Yes, the season where they played Denver in the electric Game 82 to secure the final playoff spot.
I won’t make you just take my word for it when it comes to Towns playing better after the All-Star break. Although it has always seemed clear with the eye test that he’s upped his play, the numbers truly bare it out as well.
Here are Towns’ per game averages in every season of his career, split into averages in games played before the All-Star Break and games played after it. AS you can see, 2019-20 Post-ASB is empty because Towns was injured and did not play any games after the All-Star Break before the season was shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Towns saw increases in his points per game after the break in every single eligible season of his career. He also saw increases in his rebounds and assists per game in 4 of 5 eligible seasons.
The biggest jumps in each category we saw from Towns were his points going up by 4.7 and his rebounds going up by 1.6 per game in his sophomore season. His biggest uptick in assists happened in his rookie season, increasing by 1.6 per game after the break. On average, Towns increased his points by 4.32 per game, his rebounds by 0.82 per game, and his assists by 0.52 per game.
Currently, Towns is averaging 24.4 points, 9.7 rebounds, and 4.0 assists per game. If he tacks on his average uptick from prior seasons, he would average 28.7 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per game. Those numbers would equal the 5th best scorer, the 11th best rebounder, and the 52nd best assister (is that even a word?) in the league.
Again, we cannot count on those stats jumping up that much, or at all, but I think I’d put my money on some sort of measurable increase from Towns once things ramp back up later this week.
If the prior seasons’ jumps aren’t enough to convince you that Towns might just do it again, think about what is at stake this year. The Timberwolves are battling for playoff positioning and hoping to make a push that leaves them out of the play-in tournament. Towns has extra motivation (including financially) to play better than he ever has before. He’s been as locked in as ever this season, why should we doubt that it would continue?
Buckle up for the ride, Wolves fans. We could be in store for a great one.