Late in the Timberwolves season, Karl-Anthony Towns professed optimism about where the Wolves were as a team, even though they had missed the playoffs for the third time in his four pro seasons.
“I think we’re heading up,” Towns said. “You’ve seen the team heading down, not in the best of spots and then you’re seeing it in a good spot. I think we’re going the right direction, from all aspects.”
Towns didn’t say it, but one of the reasons for optimism amid a tempestuous season was Towns’ play, specifically the second half of the season. After signing his maximum, five-year contract extension in September amid the Jimmy Butler trade drama, Towns quieted any lingering doubt over his long-term commitment to the Wolves.
He had a rocky start to the season, and while Towns always downplayed his early struggles having anything to do with Butler, the numbers suggest otherwise. While Butler was still with the team, Towns averaged 19.9 points per game on 46% shooting. Compare that to the rest of the season: 25.3 points per game on 53% shooting.
After Towns returned from a car accident that cost him two games after the All-Star break, his year really took off — even as the Wolves’ playoff hopes crumpled. He averaged 28.1 points and 13.4 rebounds on 53% shooting. It was that stretch that may have earned Towns millions of dollars more on his next contract.
If Towns makes an All-NBA team, it will be his second All-NBA team while he was playing on his rookie contract. That would trigger the so-called “Rose Rule,” named after Wolves free agent Derrick Rose, which says that a player with Towns’ amount of service time could make up to 30% of the salary cap for a single season as opposed to 25% if, among other caveats, he was named MVP once, an All-Star starter or All-NBA twice.
Achieving All-NBA status again would mean making around $190 million as opposed to $156 million, adding a little more stress for the Wolves as it pertains to the salary cap. Towns said contract implications didn’t motivate his second-half surge, which also coincided with interim coach Ryan Saunders getting his promotion in early January. After taking over, Saunders said he wanted the Wolves to play with a faster tempo and shoot more three-pointers.
That didn’t happen. Under Saunders, the Wolves played at a slower pace (101.2 possessions compared to 100.8) and only shot slightly more threes (29 to 28.5 per game) than they had under Tom Thibodeau. Perhaps some of that has to do with revolving the offense around Towns. Getting a center his shots can require ball movement and time for him to operate in the post, both of which extend possessions.
Towns is a capable three-point shooter, and shot 40% on 4.6 attempts per game this year, but perhaps it was telling that the Wolves took 42 threes — their third-most all season — in a game against the Raptors on April 9, one of the two games Towns sat out at the end of the season. If Saunders is named the permanent coach, the offense might have to undergo some tweaks if Saunders wants to accomplish his goals of more threes and a faster pace while not diminishing Towns’ role.
Overall, Towns was happy with where the Wolves were at late in the season under Saunders’ direction.
“Stability is such a big, key component of winning in the NBA,” Towns said. “So, hopefully, this summer we can find that stability and that culture, staff and everything. And find a way to come back ready to go and have a head start.”