After three pitiful playoff games, on Saturday Karl-Anthony Towns put together the best game of his brief playoff career, finishing with 33 points and 14 rebounds on 47 percent shooting. And wouldn’t you know it, the Timberwolves won the game, tying the series at 2-2. Much has been written about Towns’ personal struggles, losing eight relatives to Covid, including his mother. A certain amount of grace should be given to the young star in what surely has been a difficult mental and emotional journey.
But Towns’ struggles in the playoffs, and lack of ability to reach the playoffs, have been plaguing him since the five-game series in 2018 against the Houston Rockets. In that series, Towns averaged 15 and 13 and shot a horrific 27 percent from the perimeter. Before Saturday’s win, he hadn’t been playing much better through three games. After dropping 29 points in game one, he followed it with a 15-point outing in Game 2 and then a shocking eight-point performance in game three.
So far, Towns has only reached the playoffs twice in his seven-year career. Not all of that is his fault. For almost two decades, the TWolves have been one of the worst-run franchises in all of sports. They’ve routinely botched trades (almost every trade since drafting KAT except the two that brought them D’Angelo Russell and Patrick Beverley), whiffed on draft picks (Kris Dunn, Josh Okogie, Leandro Bolmaro), and hired the wrong coaches. But as the team’s best player, Towns has routinely failed to put the team on his back and lead them to the playoffs. When they finally returned to the playoffs in 2018 after missing the postseason for 14 years, it was behind Jimmy Butler’s leadership and play, as Butler finished his short stint with the TWolves as their leading scorer.
This year, it’s been the play of second-year player Anthony Edwards that’s catapulted the Timberwolves back into the playoffs. Towns might have led the team in scoring during the regular season, but Edwards is the leading scorer in the playoffs and has been phenomenal against the Grizzlies. This is the second time owns has been outplayed by a teammate come playoff time. This, coupled with his inability to reach the playoffs at a consistent rate, have changed his status as a number one option. It’s time to acknowledge the difficult truth: The number one overall pick in 2015 might not be the franchise player we thought him to be. That’s not to say he isn’t a star, his offensive repertoire proves he is an elite weapon on that end.
But the lack of playoff appearances, and poor play when they do, has laid bare Towns might be best utilized in a secondary role. There’s no shame in being a second star on a contending team. Plenty of great players have filled that role for championship winners. Recent All-Stars like Pau Gasol, Kevin Love, and Anthony Davis went from being “the man” on their own teams to joining up with a true alpha dawg as second fiddle. Davis was named to the Top 75 Anniversary team. Love and Gasol put up gaudy stats and made All-Star teams with Minnesota and Memphis respectively. These dudes were beasts as the main cog but failed to consistently reach or make noise in the playoffs. Before winning two championships next to Kobe Bryant, Gasol was swept three years in a row in the first round with Memphis. Davis got to the playoffs twice in seven seasons with New Orleans, reaching the second round only once. Love didn’t experience the playoffs at all until joining LeBron James and the Cavaliers after six losing seasons in Minnesota. But once they were regulated to Robin status, each adapted their games and won a title. The best example might be Chris Bosh, who only reached the playoffs twice in seven years with Toronto. Once he joined Dwyane Wade and LeBron James in Miami, he improved his three-point shooting and became the floor-spacing center in Miami’s small ball lineup of death, helping to win two championships.
There’s no shame in Towns needing to defer the first option role to a better player. The question is whether it will happen in Minnesota or elsewhere. Edwards is looking like a future superstar in only his second season. If he continues to ascend, it would be the easiest transition for Towns to slide to the second option and let Edwards take over the team. It would be great to see Minnesota return to relevance, not seen since the days of Kevin Garnett’s early 2000’s dominance.
Speaking of Garnett, he is the only true number one option the TWolves have had in their franchise history. He led a mostly role-player roster, save for Sam Cassell, Latrell Sprewell, and Wally Szczerbiak to the Western Conference Finals in 2004. He also led the team to eight straight playoff appearances while becoming one of five NBA players to have won both the NBA Most Valuable Player Award and the NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award. During his time in Minnesota, he never had the supporting cast to win a championship and had to find it after by teaming up with Ray Allen and Paul Pierce in Boston. If this current TWolves roster can continue to build around their two stars, they might have something special. The dynamic duo of Edwards and Towns, along with D’Angelo Russell, Patrick Beverley, and Malik Beasley could end up being the best TWolves roster in their 33-year history.
In order to achieve that, the pecking order must be re-established between Edwards and Towns. Towns will have to accept his role as the secondary star and concede end-of-game shot-making to Edwards, who is better suited for those moments anyways. Towns is still the best player taken in the 2015 Lottery, and the second-best player taken overall, after Devin Booker. He has accomplished an All-Star-level career while surrounded by terrible rosters and front office dysfunction in Minnesota. He’s remained loyal to the franchise, rarely complaining and stating repeatedly that he wants to bring a championship to the small market TWolves. For a miracle like that to happen, it might take the ultimate sacrifice of Towns’ ego.