After years of playing a retrograde style of basketball, Karl-Anthony Towns and the Minnesota Timberwolves have finally moved into the modern NBA.
As the NBA sprinted into the age of analytically-minded shot selection and spacing-oriented offenses, the Timberwolves lagged behind the curve for years. The Jimmy Butler and Tom Thibodeau era was fraught with strategic and interpersonal issues, but it also prevented Minnesota from establishing an identity in the modern NBA. The Wolves had a generational talent in Karl-Anthony Towns, but failed — for reasons within and beyond their control — to surround him with a roster properly fit to complement him.
In his fifth season, Towns is indisputably playing the best all-around basketball of his career. His per-game statistics — 26.3 points, 12.6 rebounds, 4.1 assists — aren’t as staggering as how he’s producing them. He is pushing the limits of what a center can do on offense, and has become almost as unique as Nikola Jokić or Shaquille O’Neal in the way he vexes opposing defenses. Over half of Towns’ shot attempts have come from beyond the arc, and he’s shooting a preposterous 44.4 percent from distance. He’s assisting on a career-high portion of his teammates’ baskets and finishing more possessions on his own. Should Towns sustain his current rate of production, he’d own the second-most efficient high-usage scoring season in NBA history.
For his part, Ryan Saunders has pointed the team in a more forward-thinking direction, maximizing role players and affording Towns the room to reach to his fullest capacity on offense. Along with first-year President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas, who came up under Daryl Morey in Houston, Saunders has helped reorient Minnesota’s shot selection, which has drastically changed the look of its offense. The Wolves have jumped from 26th to fifth in 3-point attempt rate, 18th to ninth in proportion of shots at the rim, and second to 25th in mid-range attempt frequency. That Minnesota ranks just 18th in offensive efficiency is less an indictment of their talent or system and more a product of shots simply not falling. Though they shoot plenty of 3s the Wolves are making just a third of those attempts, and their effective field goal percentage is nearly two full points lower than expected, per Cleaning the Glass’ shot-tracking data.
Though the entire system is run through Towns, no player exemplifies Minnesota’s transformation more than Andrew Wiggins, who has reworked his shot selection and decision-making so as to become almost unrecognizable. Long maligned as one of the most willing and least effective mid-range shooters in the NBA, Wiggins has refocused his shot selection and his mindset in his first full season under Saunders. “I do see a different mentality with him,” Saunders said. “He understands this is a big year for him. We talked about that this summer when we were asked about Andrew. He knows that, we know that as an organization, and it’s just a credit to him the way he’s stepped up in this first chunk of games.”
He hasn’t suddenly become some Moreyan disciple, but reallocating some of his most inefficient shots — and simply making more of them — has been enough to lift him to the best season of his career. Wiggins is taking the highest volume of 3-pointers and the lowest share of mid-range attempts of his career while carrying a heavier usage rate and stepping into a more prominent playmaking role. Most importantly, the Wolves are over 10 points per 100 possessions better offensively with him on the court.
Centering an offense around Towns and Wiggins, two fairly high-usage players, doesn’t leave room for many other creators, but none of Minnesota’s role players use the ball enough to infringe upon the space of the stars. Since moving rookie Jarrett Culver into the starting lineup for Jeff Teague, the Wolves effectively start four wings around Towns, which gives him both the room to work inside and release options when the defense sends two, or even three, bodies toward him. Saunders’ willingness to play small not only creates more space on offense but gives the Wolves a more versatile defense that prevents layups and 3s while forcing opponents into the third-most mid-range attempts of any team in the league. Minnesota ranks 12th in defensive efficiency and owns the sixth-lowest defensive shot quality in the NBA.
Those figures are a far cry from the team’s abysmal defensive numbers of the previous era. Towns is no longer a liability on that end, having finally grasped the concepts and schemes the team asks him to execute. Robert Covington, who almost singlehandedly turned Minnesota’s defense around last season, remains one of the best perimeter defenders in the league and Wiggins looks more engaged than ever. Minnesota’s bench has held opposing second units under a point per possession with Towns, Wiggins, and Covington on the bench (the team’s offense has been wretched in those minutes). “There is a level of commitment that you need to have, and we’ve had great buy-in from our group this year,” Saunders said.
Some of these early returns could be subject to regression as the season moves along and sample sizes grow. Whether Wiggins sustains his current level of play may be the most pressing question for Minnesota, and the answer will have implications on what sort of infrastructure the team builds around Towns during his prime. When there are five years of evidence pointing to a certain conclusion, it takes more than an encouraging month to prove that real change has occurred. Is trusting in Wiggins’ metamorphosis and Culver’s long-term development really the best path toward maximizing Towns’ prime? Minnesota would be justified in seeing Wiggins’ transformation through, but may also have an opportunity to trade him when his value is highest.
These answers will bear themselves out in due course. So long as Towns is healthy and committed, the Timberwolves should be making every move with championship contention in mind. All Minnesota can do in the meantime is trust in the progress it has made and the direction its new (and, in some cases, improved) leadership has charted. “You just have to deal with what’s in front of you,” Saunders said. “That’s what I think our group does a great job with. One of the great things about these players is that they genuinely care about each other, and with that buy-in to each other, not just to the group, you can get things accomplished. We’ve been fortunate to have that so far, but we’re not satisfied.”