Karl-Anthony Towns is Back and Better Than Ever

Since the Jimmy Butler trade, Karl-Anthony Towns is looking as good as ever.

Entering last season, a poll of NBA General Managers revealed that Karl-Anthony Towns was the top response to the question "Who would be your first pick to start a franchise around?" However, the mood surrounding Towns entering this season took a dramatic turn as the critical mob grew. There were concerns around Towns’ toughness, ability to lead, and if he was just a good-stats-bad-team type of player. As the season started, Towns’ got off to an uninspiring start. Instead of quelling the concerns and criticisms, he added gasoline to the fire by delivering meager performances and looking entirely disinterested. Basketball no longer seemed to be enjoyable and his general demeanor reflected that of a scolded schoolboy. But Christmas came early for Towns on November 12th. The trading of Jimmy Butler immediately transformed Towns back into the boisterous young man who captivated fans’ imaginations. After the Butler trade, Towns’ numbers, effort levels, and sense of joy improved across the board.

  Points Rebounds Def Rating True Shooting % Usage Net Rating
Pre-Trade 19.9 10.8 114.6 58.8 24.1 -5.3
Post-Trade 21.4 13.5 102.2 62.1 26.1 6.1

As you can see, Towns struggled to find his rhythm while trying to outlast the antics of Butler. His offensive involvement would often disappear when Butler entered the game, his defensive effort was inconsistent at best, and his aggressiveness on the boards was practically nonexistent. Now that he is once again the clear number one option, he is demanding and working for the ball on offense, his engagement and communication on defense has improved, and he has recorded multiple 20-plus rebound games.

Butler’s presence clearly affected Towns early in the season. The biggest struggle was most evident in his post-ups. He struggled to establish threatening post positioning. Bigger defenders would push him away from the paint with ease while smaller defenders didn’t have a problem fronting him and denying an entry pass. On the rare occurrences when Towns was able to get the ball deep in the post, it would often end up in a sloppy turnover, heavily contested shot, or an offensive foul. In the below clip we see the difficulty Towns has trying to back down a stronger defender in Tyson Chandler, which was a common theme throughout this entire game.

Towns receives the ball on the block and attempts to drive to the middle of the paint. Chandler’s strong defense immediately disrupts this move. Towns then looks to pass out of it but hesitates and loses the ball right into the hands of Brandon Ingram, who has only collapsed to the paint because Butler has tried to set a down screen on Rajon Rondo. This decision by Butler completely ruined their spacing and brought three defenders to Towns.

The theme of Towns struggling to post up stronger players was pretty consistent. Below we see how he is unable to move Tristan Thompson at all. Towns gets the ball in a pretty good position but proceeds to take four power dribbles straight into Thompson’s chest. The result is Thompson ceding zero ground and Towns taking an off-hand hook shot while he falls toward the baseline.

When Towns tries to post up stronger defenders, he struggles to move them. He also struggles to gain solid post position to begin with, often pushed all the way back out to the perimeter. Below we see an example of how Dwight Powell was able to easily defend Towns. Powell is a similar size to Towns so Towns should have been able to establish a positive position in the post. Instead, he lazily posts up in the deep mid-range, has to take a step outside the arc to receive the pass, and immediately throws up a contested, off-balance three.

The defenders in these clips didn’t do anything extraordinary to disrupt Towns. The struggles came from Towns’s lack of creativity in the post, inability to work for better positioning, and general complacency. His post-ups lacked imagination, his outside shooting was lackadaisical, and his drives were reckless.

Since the Butler trade though, Towns’s offensive game has regained the versatility that has made him one of the most lethal offensive talents in the league. Since the departure of Butler, Towns has displayed a much more versatile post game. Instead of forcing the issue, we are seeing more examples of him setting up specific moves and playing off of the defenders' positioning. In the below clip we see Towns knock down a mid-range jumper. Jusuf Nurkic is a really strong defender and someone that Towns has always had issues with in the post. As the ball swings to his side, Towns decides that instead of trying to wrestle with Nurkic on the block, he is just going to face-up as he receives the ball. This subtle movement while the pass is in the air creates separation from Nurkic and leads to Towns knocking down the jumper.

Earlier we saw Towns struggle against Thompson in the post, but in the below clip Towns is able to get the advantage. The beginning of this post up appears almost identical to the clip we saw earlier. Towns takes a couple back-down dribbles right at Thompson, who doesn’t give an inch. While these appear to be the same, they are in fact vastly different. In the earlier clip Towns was trying to move Thompson through pure force. It didn't work. In this clip, the dribbles are to set Thompson up, not move him. Instead of turning for an off-handed hook shot like the earlier clip, Towns spins for a fall-away jumper that Thompson has no chance of disrupting. We can even see that Thompson is anticipating a different move from Towns based on how he stutter-steps as Towns turns.

The increased activity and creativity for Towns hasn’t been limited to only his post-up game. Before the Butler trade Towns was averaging 4.9 three-point attempts per game. This has dropped to 4.2 attempts per game since the trade. This drop in attempts isn’t because Towns is spending less time on the perimeter; it is because he is using his threat from three in a more elaborate way. Leaving Towns open from three is a mistake. Teams must guard him tightly and close out hard on him. He has started to use this to his advantage. Instead of just shooting a three every time, he has started to attack hard closeouts. The below clip is a clear example of Towns using his agility and versatility to attack the rim. As Jaren Jackson Jr. closes out on Towns, Towns executes just a slight pump fake. This freezes Jackson for just a second and opens a lane for Towns to attack. Towns is able to get Jackson on his hip and finish at the rim.

Since the Jimmy Butler trade, Towns has been a completely different player on offense. He has been far more assertive and involved. His usage rate post-trade has risen almost three percent while his true shooting percentage has risen from 58.8 pre-trade to 62.1 post-trade. Towns has done a better job of not forcing the issue and instead manipulating what the defenders give him.

Even though there were concerns about Towns' offensive struggles, the assumption was that his weapons would return. The biggest concern was how appalling his defensive effort had been. Since entering the league Towns has struggled on defense. The most encouraging development of the post-Butler era has been Towns' leap on the defensive end.

In the early stages of this season, Towns was posting the worst defensive rating of his career at 114.6. Through November 9th, this was the worst defensive rating among healthy centers that played more than 15 minutes per game. Towns' downtrodden demeanor exacerbated his bad habits from previous seasons. His rotations were late, his pick and roll defense was lazy, and his shot block attempts were uncontrolled. In the below clip we see an example of the uninspiring effort Towns was displaying in the pick and roll. In most pick and roll situations, Towns will play drop coverage where he sags back towards the rim to take away the roll-man and invite the ball handler to attack the rim. As Montrezl Harrell sets the pick, Towns and Taj Gibson seem on the same page about when to switch. Gibson is able to stick with Harrell as he rolls, but once Tobias Harris gets switched onto Towns, he knows that he has an easy basket.

All Harris had to do on this play was accelerate slightly. There was no inventive dribbling or balletic footwork. Harris recognized Towns was on his heels and not ready to play actual defense. This indifference towards defense was not isolated to this play either.

The below clip is a prime example of a play that just makes fans pull out their hair and truly question what the point of Towns on defense is. This play is doomed from the start as Tyus Jones is guarding two men at once. Jordan Bell, unguarded, sets a pick for Steph Curry to dribble into acres of open floor. As Curry comes off the pick, Towns decides to slowly walk towards Curry (I refuse to call this a closeout) and leave his man wide open under the rim. All Curry has to do is deliver an easy bounce pass for a wide open dunk.

After the play, Towns looks at Andrew Wiggins with his hands up wondering why he didn’t make the rotation. Towns isn’t necessarily wrong here but he failed to recognize that Wiggins was out of position from the start as he was running back after a made basket. Out of Towns' three options on this play, he made the only wrong decision: doing nothing. He needed to commit to one player and live with the result. Instead, he play-acted a closeout and gave up an easy basket.

It was pretty obvious that Towns just wasn’t trying at all on defense in the early season. However, this nightmare quickly turned after the Butler trade. Since Butler was traded, Towns has posted an impressive defensive rating of 102.2. The transformation has been incredible. It appears that he is finally implementing the tools he’s always had to be a good defender.

Here we see the much-improved pick and roll defense that Towns has exhibited since the trade. Instead of switching onto the quicker player, Towns plays his typical drop coverage. He is able to stay low in his stance so he can easily move side-to-side and he keeps his hands up to disrupt passing lanes. Once he is confident that Wiggins has recovered, he drops back onto LaMarcus Aldridge for the steal.

Towns' increased effort and execution in the pick and roll game has been a huge reason why the Timberwolves have had one of the league’s best defenses since the Butler trade. His positioning has improved, his instincts are leading him in the right direction, and he is finally taking defense seriously.

Even though it hasn’t been the biggest sample size, I expect these numbers for Towns to hold throughout the year. His energy has been lifted and he looks like a completely different player on the court. His offensive game will continue to evolve and mature. His defensive numbers may get slightly worse but there are no signs that they should fall back to the abysmal performances of the past. The departure of Butler has been like an exorcism for Towns. He is free to be himself and play with his fun-loving spirit. He has been very impressive on both ends of the floor so don’t be surprised when he is in the conversation for All-NBA teams at the end of the year.

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