What a difference a year can make.
At this time last year, the only topic around Karl-Anthony Towns was a positive.
WHEN (not if) will he ink his 5-year super max extension and further vault himself as a face of the franchise’s resurgence alongside Anthony Edwards?
The Minnesota Timberwolves had won their most games since 2017-18, and the leader of that charge was coming off of his second All-NBA and third All-Star selection.
The lede from last year’s season review of KAT echoed this as well:
Karl-Anthony Towns stamped himself as one of the truly elite NBA players in his seventh season as a franchise cornerstone of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
He won the NBA 3-Point Contest during the All-Star weekend in which he participated in the finale. He scored a dazzling, career-high 60 points and paired it with 17 rebounds in a late season game against the San Antonio Spurs. It all lined up perfectly for 2022-23.
tWhen he’s hot, he’s a top five watch in the league. His range his incredible, and he has the explosiveness to match.
His 2022 postseason was up-and-down, but enough encouraging signs lingered from Games 1, 4, and 5 against the Memphis Grizzlies to largely overlook the shortcomings.
The dead horse has been beat, Towns was a pillar of a season that didn’t go as planned. The move for Rudy Gobert leaned into his timeline as a player in his prime, and enhancing the cast with Anthony Edwards was a perceived bonus. But what’s true is true in this case; the Gobert trade was made to maximize KAT, and he knew it heading into the season.
"It's always talkin about us being good and are we good enough and sh*t. It's time to be great. It's not time to be good anymore. It's time to be great. We made these trades, so gotta be great. Good is not good enough anymore."— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) October 19, 2022
— Karl-Anthony Townspic.twitter.com/mKgtfsQtXc
A pretty serious illness in camp prevented him and Gobert from playing much together. In fact, they didn’t make their debut together until October 14 in a preseason game against the Brooklyn Nets that foreshadowed a clunky start together to start the season.
It shimmered through Towns’ game. He started off unconventionally rough, shooting 49 percent from the field, 36 percent from three, on a surprising 20 points per game before the All-Star break, three numbers that sound an alarm in juxtaposition to KAT’s normal efficiency and scoring prowess.
The illness had clearly set him back in terms of his conditioning, and the pair of him and Gobert was not living up to billing. But before KAT’s injury I thought the game at Indiana was one that showed a stride that everyone could get into offensively that could work.
Wolves 115, Pacers 101: Minnesota’s Most Complete Performance Yet— Canis Hoopus (@canishoopus) November 24, 2022
— The tug of war between Gobert’s defense and the rest of the team
— How the Pacers exploited drop coverage
— The Wolves’ balanced offensive attack
Recap by: @mho_kj https://t.co/UG5QdnjPnm
The Jekyll and Hyde nature of the Wolves persisted, even after that game, but the theme of the season continued to persist in the form of Towns on November 28, when he crumpled to the ground holding his calf on a non-contact injury.
The aforementioned theme, in my opinion, was “not quite”. Towns was not quite healthy to start the season, not quite in sync with the offense with Rudy Gobert in the picture, not quite in sync with the organization on a return timeline from his injury, and not quite 100% present for the conclusion of the season in the Wolves’ first-round series with the Denver Nuggets.
This subtracts all of the “not quite”s that surfaced in other areas of the team. There were plenty.
Towns went on to miss 53 games after a setback in his recovery from his calf injury, exposing a massive amount of obscurity that an initial 4-6 week timeline provided. His return came on March 22.
In addition to the obscurity, a seismic mystery remained all season in how an elevated Timberwolves team, with Mike Conley eventually in the fold and playing better basketball as a unit, would fare with Towns back in given the eyesore that happened at the season’s beginning.
Were results mixed? That would be an understatement. And it tees up the questions that rest on KAT’s shoulders heading into next season.
Questions Gone Unanswered
The following players played two games together this season:
- Karl-Anthony Towns
- Anthony Edwards
- Naz Reid
- Rudy Gobert
- Jaden McDaniels
- Mike Conley
- Kyle Anderson
The results? An impressive win at Golden State against the full strength Warriors in which KAT didn’t play particularly well but hit the game-winning shot, and a strong game on the road against the Phoenix Suns, in which Naz broke his wrist. A 1-1 stretch that, in a vacuum, was encouraging basketball.
The Wolves were net positive with KAT on the floor this regular season, and net negative with him off of it.
His spacing is imperative, even while maybe not himself for the full season. Take the game against New Orleans for example, one in which he paired up with Ant for a vintage performance to secure the Wolves’ 8-seed and right the ship after the infamous Rudy Gobert-Kyle Anderson scuffle (and Jaden McDaniels wall punch).
Karl-Anthony Towns transition pull-up 3 pic.twitter.com/HT10Z6ruxw— Timberwolves Clips (@WolvesClips) April 9, 2023
But the playoffs provided a lot to be desired, and suddenly springboard the recently-coronated super max star into an important offseason.
Towns had a fine postseason when it’s all said and done, but a bad series against Denver.
He was phenomenal in the first half of the play-in game against the Los Angeles Lakers and excellent in the ensuing play-in game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, pairing 28 points with 11 rebounds. But the chasm between him and Nikola Jokić was on display over the course of the next couple of weeks.
The Wolves were already shorthanded down Naz Reid and Jaden McDaniels, and for one game, Kyle Anderson. Jokić is the best, if not a top-three player in the NBA. I don’t expect Towns to completely match his level.
But it wasn’t very close. Once considered in the same tier of big man, the consideration in itself reared its ugly head. Even with the caveat of health, it’s hard to use that as a pass for bad decision making, a failure to take advantage of advantageous switches on the block (namely Jamal Murray and Christian Braun), the inability to shoot the ball consistently after doing so late in the season. Where health comes into play more could be in his first step; it was noticeably elite last season as Towns grew his driving game, but was absent in the Nuggets series against bigger defenders, which is understandable given the injury.
Personally, I think a super max player needs to win you one-to-two playoff games, especially given the short-handedness of the roster, and set the tone early. Instead, Towns committed 13 turnovers in the first three games of the series, and finished with a 1.8 turnover to assist ratio in the five games the Wolves played. He looked uncomfortable, and struggled to make Denver pay for the primary defensive matchup of Jeff Green. While he played significantly better (and more on-par with his Play-In performances, on both ends of the floor in Games 3-5, had Towns played better in Game 2, it would’ve been a completely different series.
Not to mention he was clearly usurped on the pecking order by Anthony Edwards; maybe more as a testament to Edwards’ performance more than a slight to what Towns did.
But the shakiness in the playoffs is bringing a larger contingency of the “Trade KAT!” crowd out this offseason. I personally think it’s lunacy.
The rumors are already floating, as they do...
NBA executives see Heat, Nets, Trail Blazers, Celtics, Knicks and Pacers as potential destinations for Karl-Anthony Towns: https://t.co/ZJlWlSP5q9— NBACentral (@TheNBACentral) April 27, 2023
It makes complete sense to run things back and see how the season starts next year with a full training camp under everyone’s belt, and how another potential playoff run helps calm the choppy waters created by this seasons inconsistencies all around.
If there’s minimal change in performance, sizable roster change would have to ensue. But for now, don’t get over your skis...
But I keep going back to the pressure of expectation a year can bring, and how the mood going into the following season will be quite a bit different around KAT this year than last.
But he said it best himself; it’s going to be time to be great.