Why you should care
Today: Steph Curry’s Warriors. Tomorrow: Karl-Anthony Towns’ Timberwolves.
The sharpest basketball minds will tell you: The way to challenge the NBA’s presumptive back-to-back champions, the Golden State Warriors, is not to be the Golden State Warriors. There is only one Steph Curry, and emulating their exact style of small ball — five elite shooters on the floor, with multitalented and impossible-to-guard center Draymond Green — cannot be done.
Instead, teams might rise to the top by being the anti-Warriors (like the enormously tall Oklahoma City Thunder, who nearly toppled the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals) or a souped-up version of the Warriors. That’s the path of the Minnesota Timberwolves. To wit: Play small but don’t be small, spread the floor with shooters but do it with taller, more athletic players. The winning formula is to anchor a team with players like Karl-Anthony Towns — “positionless, multiposition and long players,” Towns’ college coach John Calipari tells OZY.
The Timberwolves’ future (29–53 this season, 44 games behind the Warriors in the Western Conference) will revolve around the towering Towns, a man who is Steph Curry’s opposite: a seven-footer who can shoot from deep, handle on the perimeter and hang tough in the post. In his rookie season, Towns averaged 18.5 points and 10.5 rebounds and ranked 14th in the NBA in player efficiency rating — four spots behind the former Kentucky player whose game Towns emulates, the New Orleans Pelicans’ Anthony Davis.
The budding Minnesota Timberwolves superstar’s transformation from a smooth-shooting guard stuck in a seven-footer’s body to the unanimous Rookie of the Year dates back two years now. That’s when Towns entered the University of Kentucky’s campus for his freshman year. Towns spent that season hovering around the basket, learning the skills that may turn him into the apotheosis of the modern NBA big man. “What Karl does — in the league right now, that’s what they want,” Calipari said.
But if Minnesota is to become the best in the league, it’s clear they’ll need more than one superstar. Already, Towns is surrounded by a tantalizing core that fits the anti-Warriors bill. Andrew Wiggins was the 2014 No. 1 pick, one of the most explosive athletes in the NBA whose basketball IQ and three-point shooting is improving every game. Zach LaVine is a raw but enormously talented dunk champ. Ricky Rubio is a steady hand at point guard (and is hungry to make it to the playoffs). And this year, with the fifth pick in the draft, the Timberwolves could add an elite shooter. So how about Kentucky’s Jamal Murray or Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield? Last month, the Timberwolves snagged former Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, a defensive genius known for building a winning culture, regardless of what he has. And now he has something special.
A tough-minded coach plus one more elite shooter could give this team its missing pieces. “If you have a floor that’s spaced with a versatile player like Towns,” Baylor head coach Scott Drew says, “it allows other guys who can get to the basket to shine more.” That’s the winning path in Minnesota for the foreseeable future — a path that could reverberate all the way across the country to the East Bay.