The Domino Effect of Missing Karl-Anthony Towns
Since the Timberwolves star center injured his wrist in a win against the Utah Jazz, the team’s performance has completely cratered into nearly unrecognizable form. The offense and defense were both dreadful without Towns in blowout losses to the Lakers and Clippers, and the Wolves will need much more out of their supporting cast to keep their heads above water awaiting his return.
Why do the Wolves miss Karl-Anthony Towns so much? The obvious answer is that he is their best player, and one of the most efficient offensive players of the last decade. However, many other teams are able to field a competitive squad when their best players are lost with injury. In fact, the Wolves were just blown out by two teams missing superstar players in Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard. The Lakers game may be excusable, as they still fielded a defending champion team that includes LeBron James, but facing the Clippers without Leonard should have allowed the Wolves to be competitive for most of the game. However, that was not the case, as the structure of the team has crumbled under the weight of Towns’ absence. That is the risk of building a system to maximize the strengths of a team’s best player. When that player is missing, what is left? Let’s take a look at how the Wolves are missing Towns in their offensive and defensive systems.
Ever since Ryan Saunders took over as the permanent head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves they have aimed to maximize their best offensive player, Karl-Anthony Towns. He is so devastating as an offensive player, that an offense built around him will likely always rank highly in scoring efficiency no matter who surrounds him. This season they have finally surrounded Towns with the shooters and playmakers necessary to boost the offense into a top ranking. Even with improved players around him, the responsibility for the success of the offense still falls heavily on Towns’ broad shoulders.
The Timberwolves have two main go-to sets that they run through Towns that nearly always yield an efficient shot. The first one is to get him the ball at the top of the key to give him options. This locks all of the defenders’ eyes on Towns as he suddenly has a myriad of choices to attack the defense. Reading the defender guarding him, he can either step back for a three point shot, drive to the rim, or look to pass to rim cutters or three point shooters. Given his threat to shoot, the defender on him is usually guarding him up close, leaving the lane completely open and without a rim protector. At times teams will have a smaller player guard Towns when he has the ball on the perimeter and leave their center to guard the rim. When this happens Towns is so good at taking smaller defenders into the post and scoring or forcing a double team where he can pass to open perimeter players. Because he is such a smart offensive player and skilled at shooting, driving, and passing, the defense has to be ready for anything, and Towns typically makes the right play. Even when he makes the wrong decision, if often works out well because of his sheer talent.
The second set that the Wolves go to is the “pick and pop” play that can work so well in clutch time at the end of close games. With a scoring playmaker like D’Angelo Russell handling the ball, it can be a nearly impossible play for the defense to guard. Towns will set the screen and read the defenders. If they switch, he will roll and gain post position with the smaller defender on his back. This almost always forces a double team and an open perimeter player for Towns to pass too. If the defenders do not switch and the big man drops into the paint, that leaves Towns wide open at the three point line where he is one of the top shooters in the NBA. This action really leaves defenses in a no-win situation, and they often resort to over-helping and leaving wide open shooters for Russell and Towns to find with passes.
Along with these two sets, nearly every other action the Wolves run for their other players is made easier because of Towns’ shooting gravity. Defenses simply must account for him at all times, and that will often leave the lane wide open for ball handlers like Anthony Edwards, Malik Beasley, D’Angelo Russell, Ricky Rubio, and Jarrett Culver. Russell, Rubio, and Culver specifically benefit from the vacated lane because of their lack of vertical athleticism when attempting shots at the rim. They rely on craft and touch to score, and that is used much more efficiently when they only have to score over their own defender instead of a big man. As an example, see the screen grab below of a Jarrett Culver drive against the Utah Jazz. He gets a step on his defender, Bojan Bogdanovic, and without any help defense was able to burst to the rim for an easy finish. Karl-Anthony Towns’ defender, Derrick Favors, is reluctant to help off Towns on the perimeter, so his help defense is non-existent. This is a clear example of Towns’ shooting gravity simplifying the game for his teammates.
Contrast that with the screen grab in a game that Towns missed against the Clippers. D’Angelo Russell isolates Nic Batum to drive and score. Russell is not necessarily known for being a guy who blows by defenders to get to the rim, but Batum should not have a chance to stop him from doing so. Russell had a step on Batum, but sees Serge Ibake waiting for him in the paint, so he stepped back for a contested midrange shot. He made the shot, but this is a glaring example of the Wolves missing Towns’ gravity and spacing. Three Clippers have their feet planted firmly in the paint, with two other players close by.
With Naz Reid in the game instead of Towns, the defense can strictly focus on the ball handler instead of worrying about a superstar offensive player. Reid is a fine offensive center in his own right, but he is not threatening enough to devote heavy resources to stopping. Towns’ absence is a domino effect for his teammates. Without him, D’Angelo Russell is missing a dynamic pick and pop partner, turning him into a less efficient isolation scorer. Malik Beasley and Anthony Edwards lose driving lanes to the rim, and more eyes will be on them when they are off the ball. Jarrett Culver, lacking the explosiveness to finish over a big man, suddenly sees a rim protector there to stop his drives. Every player on the team will have a harder time generating efficient shots without Towns. The coaching staff can draw up other set plays to help to free up their scorers, but opposing defenses adjust quickly in the NBA, and teams need a go-to offensive hub to sustain efficient offense. When the offense is able to run through Towns, they maximize his strengths while mitigating his teammates’ weaknesses. Without him, the hierarchy is shaken and the teams’ collective weaknesses are on full display.
The defensive system used by the Timberwolves is referred to as a drop scheme. Their goal is to keep their center, Towns, near the paint to deter at-rim finishing while other defenders are given the freedom to switch along the perimeter. This system is not necessarily structured around Towns, but it is built on the idea that they can play 4 guard/wing players along with Towns as he is big enough to handle defending and rebounding at the rim. In the first two games of the 2020 season, Towns was showing a real ability to master the scheme, and as a large, long, and athletic center he was making the scheme work. With Towns in the lineup, the roster construction and rotation made sense, and the defense and rebounding would be just competent enough to get by.
In losing their superstar center, the entire structure of the big man rotation needs to change. In past years without Towns the Wolves could simply plug in Gorgui Dieng to play competent defense for most of the game. The losses typically only came on the offensive end, but the team defense maintained the status quo or in some cases improved. The Wolves no longer have a quality grizzled veteran player to start in Towns’ place. They have a backup center, Naz Reid, who was showing flashes of quality play against bench units but was always going to be overmatched defensively against starters. Naz is a 21 year old 2nd year player with loads of potential and upside, but is not ready for a starting role. He has quick feet, but lacks the vertical explosiveness to deter shots at the rim at a high level. He is also relatively undersized for a center at 6'9" and does not have particularly long arms. With these physical limitations, Naz will have a hard time defending and rebounding effectively against starting caliber players. He will need to develop a sense of exactly where to be on the defensive end to offset his weaknesses, but he has not developed that part of his game yet. Although it would be unrealistic to expect that at his young age. Use the screen grab below as an example. Nic Batum has the ball near the left block, and is backing down the smaller D’Angelo Russell. Russell needs help, but Reid comes a little too close to them leaving his man, Serge Ibaka, wide open at the top of the key. Batum is a savvy veteran player who knows exactly what to do in this situation slinging a quick pass to a cutting Ibaka for an easy dunk. There is so much space between Reid and his man that when Ibaka catches the pass on the move there is nothing Reid can do to stop him.
There is no guarantee that Towns would have magically stopped this play from happening, but given his size, athleticism, and overall experience he may have had a better shot of containing the situation more effectively. This clip also points to a larger chain reaction of losing Towns. In trying to get more offense on the floor, the coaching staff has three relatively thin guards in the game (Rubio, Russell, and Beasley) with a wing (Jarrett Culver) next to Naz Reid. The Clippers are bigger at nearly every position, leaving the Wolves in constant mismatches such as the 6'9" veteran Batum backing down Russell. Having Towns on the floor leads to nearly automatic competent offense, and Coach Saunders can feel more comfortable playing defenders together without cratering offensive efficiency.
The Timberwolves roster under Gersson Rosas is an ever-changing art project. They value flexibility at the expense of short-term gratification. That strategy works when Towns is available. He makes that delicate structure work so that a team that is heavy on guards and wings can play those players over the less competent forwards on the roster. Without Towns the structure crumbles. Against physical teams, the coaching staff almost has to play either Jake Layman or Juancho Hernangomez alongside Naz Reid to add the requisite size for defensive rebounding. Neither one of Layman or Hernangomez has showed much offensive value this season, and playing them more minutes offers less time to play the wings who are the strength of this team. Naz Reid functioning as a starter also leaves a vacant backup center position. Ed Davis was supposed to be the answer behind Naz, but has proven to offer value only as a rebounder. Losing Towns shifts the entire pecking order of a delicate big man rotation. He is one of the only players on the team for which the roster does not have adequate depth to replace.
Karl-Anthony Towns may not be a great defender, but having him available has a positive domino effect on his teammates. He has always been an adequate defender in 1 on 1 matchups against opposing centers, and early this season he was finally showing more awareness for help defense. Naz Reid was set for a small role of 16–18 minutes per game where he could passably defend second unit big men, and eliminating the need to play Layman and Hernangomez big minutes and Ed Davis at all. Towns’ absence shifts them all up in the hierarchy into roles that do not suit them at this point in their career. This highlights the risk/reward of the way the roster is built. With good health for the season, the Timberwolves are able to have quality depth establish their playing style and maintain the roster flexibility that this front office craves. The unfortunate injury to Towns has removed the biggest Jenga piece on the roster, and without him the Wolves will need to completely rebuild the rotation to survive.
What is the solution?
There is no direct replacement for Karl-Anthony Towns on the Timberwolves roster. That is no surprise. The team will not be able to simply plug in new players and expect to run the same system with the same sets. The coaching staff needs to take stock of the roster that is available, and lean towards a new identity for the Towns-less Wolves on offense and defense.
Offensively Naz Reid showed some ability to set hard screens and roll to the basket to put pressure on the rim. He has the hands, footwork, and IQ to catch a pass and finish at the rim or find a shooter when the help defense comes. The Wolves are also heavy on pick and roll ball handlers with D’Angelo Russell, Ricky Rubio, and Jordan McLaughlin who can be trusted to find Naz near the rim. Anthony Edwards needs to be more heavily involved as well as he has the potential to be a downhill scorer in the pick and roll. Overall, the offense needs to find ways to attack the basket to open up the three point line. They can still adhere to the offensive system they have established, but find those efficient shots in a new way. The Wolves can be known as a team that is intentional about getting shots at the rim early so they will be able to generate more open three point attempts later in the game. Establishing an identity like this without Towns could end up paying huge dividends when he returns, as the team becomes more versatile and harder to guard with and without their star center.
Defensively, a change in scheme or personnel may be needed to improve performance. Reid may be just a bit too small to be an effective drop scheme center, so they may need to play to his strengths. He has shown quick feet and some ability to slide with ball handlers on the perimeter. If they mixed in more defensive switching, especially later in the shot clock, Naz could show some of his versatility on that end of the court. He could also use a more substantial front court partner next to him. So far the defensive and rebounding results have been pretty porous with Jake Layman, Juancho Hernangomez, and Jarrett Culver as the power forward next to Naz. None of those players offers enough athleticism and strength to offset Naz’s weaknesses in those areas. Reserve big man, Jarred Vanderbilt, has impressed fans over the past two games in limited minutes because of his energy, effort, and athleticism. A pairing of Reid and Vanderbilt could have enough mobility and size to adequately defend and rebound. Vanderbilt can also serve as a backup center next to Juancho Hernangomez in the second unit. That pairing would have a tougher time on defense, but if Juancho can return to his previous three point shooting form they could be formidable on offense and would not lose much in the rebounding department as well. Changing the defensive scheme and personnel is not going to magically make up for the Wolves’ issues on that end, but they could help the Wolves steal a few extra quality defensive possessions over the course of a game. Every little bit will help in KAT’s absence.
Overall the best way to sustain quality play when a star player is missing is to get the supporting cast to step up in larger roles. D’Angelo Russell needs to lean into being the offensive hub to score and set up his teammates. Anthony Edwards and Malik Beasley need to be smart about finding their shots within the flow of the offense. Other players like Rubio, Culver, Layman, and Hernangomez need to establish a consistent level of play. The team as a whole needs to work together to make up for the loss of their best player, but a few scheme and personnel tweaks along the way will certainly help.