Karl-Anthony Towns is a wonderful offensive player who is growing further and further into a Nikola Jokic-like role for the Minnesota Timberwolves. They still don’t run as much through him as I’d like, but the five-out system they ran against the Brooklyn Nets in their opening game featured Towns as the trailing big man at the top of the key, through whom much of the offense can run. He was everything for the Wolves’ offense in the first game of the new campaign, opening up opportunities for his teammates with his mere presence on the floor.
The other end of the court, however, was an entirely different story. Towns has always been maligned for his defense and it looks like very little has changed in that department. He had a few moments early on and late, but for the most part he was as ineffective as he has been throughout his career.
Minnesota went with a deep drop system in pick-and-roll against the Nets on Wednesday night, a defensive setup that affords the Wolves a few key advantages: Towns can keep everything in front of him, the pick-and-roll can be guarded with the two defenders primarily involved in the action while everybody else stays home on the perimeter, and it’s easier on Towns physically, as he doesn’t have to move nearly as much as he would in a more aggressive system.
The primary issue with the deep drop system is that it allows two primary avenues of attack for the ball handler. Since Towns is so far back in the paint, the pull-up jumper is readily available essentially whenever the ball handler wants it and the ball handler can get a head of steam attacking the rim, which can be a problem for Towns if he’s not able to physically hold up against strong drives.
These two factors played directly into the Nets’ hands, as they employ perhaps the best pick-and-roll scorer in the league in Kyrie Irving. Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, and Kemba Walker would all be in that conversation too, but there’s no arguing that Irving is an elite three-level pick-and-roll scorer. Irving torched the Wolves for 50 points, a ton of which came in pick-and-roll, where Minnesota afforded him the space to rise up for his lethal jumper:
Spencer Dinwiddie got in on the act as well, though he and Caris LeVert weren’t as effective in making Minnesota pay for their deep drop defense. Irving, on the other hand, had a field day – the Wolves’ defense might as well have not been on the floor for many possessions.
Another factor in Minnesota’s porous pick-and-roll defense is that their point guards are no help to Towns in contesting Irving’s jumpers. Both Jeff Teague and Shabazz Napier were essentially useless getting through screens and making Irving’s life difficult and combined with Towns’ positioning deep in the paint, Irving was able to get to his jumper with ease. The lone time Teague fought hard through the ball screen and stayed aggressive with Irving on the perimeter, he was baited into a three-shot foul late in the fourth quarter.
When the Nets’ guards didn’t immediately have the pull-up available, they had no trouble attacking Towns at the basket, who showed very little resistance when they did so:
If Towns is going to hang back in the paint, he’s got to be able to wall off the rim effectively and rebound the basketball. He was a poor rim protector throughout the game (as you can see from the above video) and got beat by Jarrett Allen to two offensive rebounds in the overtime period:
Part of Towns’ issues last night had to do with his poor recognition, which hurt him on the second play in the above video in addition to some other moments last night:
On the first play, Towns is very slow to see that Taurean Prince is rolling to the rim and that he’ll have a wide-open layup if Towns doesn’t react accordingly. Allen is not a potent threat from beyond the three-point line, which is why Towns is already on the block with Prince catches the ball, but that’s where the defense mostly ends for him and Prince skates by for a layup.
On the second play, Towns is a little higher up on the ball screen than he had been for most of regulation, but when Irving rejects the screen and beats Teague, Towns is nowhere to be found on the help. Irving had Teague beat at the three-point line, which should give Towns plenty of time to get to the basket and affect Irving’s finish, but he never moves.
There were positive recognition moments, which are an encouraging sign for his development as a defender:
Later in the overtime period, Irving did the same thing he did that got him a layup earlier. By rejecting the screen, he leaves Towns on the right side and with ground to make up, but this time Towns figures out that Irving has beaten Teague and he has to help at the rim. He beats Irving to the spot and Irving caroms the layup off the bottom of the rim.
The massive positives Towns brings to the offensive end of the floor still makes him a star player, but if he’s going to turn the corner to be a true superstar, he needs to be more capable, more versatile, or both on the defensive end. Through four years of his career, there’s precious little evidence that he’s ever going to get there, even though there have been incremental improvements over the years. It’s never smart to make sweeping generalizations after just one game, but when that one game fits a career-long trend, it can be instructive to look at how a player performs in certain key areas. In the areas of rim protection, defensive versatility, and recognition, Towns continued to flounder in the opening game of his fifth season.