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With $32M on the line and Timberwolves needing him more than ever, Karl-Anthony Towns coming into his own

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DETROIT – Karl-Anthony Towns unknowingly walked up on Anthony Tolliver getting interviewed about Towns in the Timberwolves’ locker room.

“Hey, what’s up, man,” Tolliver said. “I’m not talking about you or nothing.”

Towns laughed. Then, as Tolliver returned complimenting him, Towns realized Tolliver made more than a random joke.

“Wait,” Towns said. “Were you talking about me?”

Towns urged Tolliver to change topics – to Towns’ flaws, to Tolliver’s own 3-point shooting, to anything else. Towns even jokingly threatened to throw fruit at Tolliver.

This is the Towns who earlier this season resisted being labeled of one of Minnesota’s most important players. He’s prone to just trying to fit in.

But Towns has special talent. The Timberwolves need him to assert himself.

Hope of Towns co-starring with Andrew Wiggins, the reigning Rookie of Year and previous No. 1 pick when Towns got drafted No. 1, has nearly completely faded. Wiggins has stagnated (at best) since signing a max contract extension two years ago.

Jimmy Butler temporarily commandeered the scene in Minnesota. While Butler was carrying the Timberwolves to their first playoff appearance in 14 years last season, it made sense for Towns to defer. But Butler is gone, reportedly at Towns’ request (and definitely at Butler’s).

This team is now clearly Towns’ and Towns’ alone. He might finally be embracing it.

“There’s a lot on my shoulders, but good thing I’ve got broad shoulders,” Towns said.

In six games since a car crash he said could have killed him, Towns is averaging 34 points, 14 rebounds and four assists per game. Even for someone who has already established himself as a star, Towns might be turning the corner into superstardom.

The timing could be lucrative.

If Towns makes an All-NBA team this season, his upcoming extension will project to be worth $190 million over the next five years. If he misses the All-NBA teams an super-max eligibility, the extension projects to be worth $158 million – $32 million less.

Will Towns get one of three All-NBA center spots?

He appears to be in a six-man race with the Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic, Pelicans’ Anthony Davis, 76ers’ Joel Embiid, Jazz’s Rudy Gobert and Magic’s Nikola Vucevic. Here’s how they compare in points, rebounds assists, blocks and steals per game and PER, win shares and real plus-minus:

Player PPG RPG APG BPG SPG PER WS RPM
Nikola Jokic 20.5 10.8 7.7 0.6 1.4 26.9 9.9 6.5
Anthony Davis 26.8 12.3 4.0 2.5 1.6 30.5 9.4 6.1
Joel Embiid 27.3 13.5 3.5 1.9 0.6 25.4 7.2 4.3
Rudy Gobert 15.5 12.9 2.1 2.2 0.8 24.3 11.0 4.6
Karl-Anthony Towns 24.2 12.2 3.3 1.7 0.9 26.6 9.2 4.3
Nikola Vucevic 20.6 12.0 3.9 1.2 1.0 26.0 8.3 5.5

Towns will have a tough time catching Jokic, who will get onto many MVP ballots.

Davis has already missed 16 games and will receive only limited minutes the rest of the season. The negative effects of his trade request on New Orleans should count against him. But his incredible production while on the court should also matter.

Embiid has missed 11 games and counting. How quickly and how well he returns from his knee injury will swing his candidacy.

Gobert wasn’t even an All-Star, but that was determined by Western Conference coaches, not the media who’ll pick All-NBA. Gobert’s All-Star snub generated a lot of publicity that might even help his All-NBA case. Defensive-minded players like him also tend to fare better with All-NBA than All-Star, because voters are also considering Defensive Player of the Year at the end of the season. Gobert is a leading candidate for that award.

Vucevic is in his first season playing on this level. If nothing else, there will be no voter fatigue with him.

Other players like LaMarcus Aldridge, Brook Lopez, Al Horford and Andre Drummond could also get All-NBA votes. In a close race, those could determine who actually lands on the All-NBA teams.

At minimum, Towns’ All-NBA window is open.

Towns earning the pay bump would further squeeze a team with at least a couple players on undesirable contracts – Wiggins (four years, $122,242,800 remaining), Gorgui Dieng (two years, $33,516,853 remaining) and arguably Jeff Teague (one year, $19 million player option remaining). But Towns playing well down the stretch would carry its own value.

“Karl deserves to be an All-NBA player,” Timberwolves interim coach Ryan Saunders said.

By traditional big-man standards, Towns – averaging 24 points and 12 rebounds per game – looks like a lock. But he knows better.

In the previous 40 years, 25 players averaged 24-12 (minimum: 50 games). Only one didn’t make an All-NBA team – Towns in 2017.

In a system that awards five points for a first-team vote, three points for a second-team vote and one point for a third-team vote, Towns landed just four voting points behind DeAndre Jordan for third-team center. If Towns had made All-NBA that season, he would have already clinched super-max eligibility. Nothing would have been on the line this season.

Towns said he thought he’d make All-NBA in 2017.

“It was a learning experience,” said Towns, who declined to elaborate on what he learned.

So many learning experiences lie ahead for Towns, who’s just 23. He has looked sharper on defense – by far his biggest deficiency – and improved passing out of double-teams. But there’s so much more room to grow. A reason Minnesota is just 30-35 is Towns’ defensive shortcomings.

Still, he brings so much offensively. Towns is the only player making 70% of his shots at the rim and 40% of his 3-pointers (minimum: 100 attempts each). He makes it look easy.

“He’s so talented,” Timberwolves forward Taj Gibson said. “There’s nothing in this league, in the game of basketball, that I doubt him in.”

Towns has 44.1 career win shares. Since Towns entered the NBA in 2015, only four players – James Harden (54.9), Stephen Curry (47.3), LeBron James (46.9) and Kevin Durant (46.0) – have produced more win shares. But Towns is way younger than those four.

Here’s everyone who played in the NBA the last four seasons, sorted by age this season and win shares over the last four seasons. Harden, Curry, LeBron, Durant (who’s hiding behind Curry) and Towns are pictured:

image

Russell Westbrook recently trash-talked Towns during a game: “Get to the f—ing playoffs before you speak to me.” The diss was particularly cruel because the Timberwolves made the playoffs last year. But they got rolled by the Rockets in five games in the first round, Towns fading into the background of the series. It was quite forgettable.

There’s still plenty of time for Towns to make a bigger impact. Though further advancement might require roster upgrades around him, he has the tools to eventually lead the Timberwolves back into the playoffs and make a lasting impression.

Will he embrace that challenge and the accompanying spotlight or shirk the responsibility?

“He wants it,” Tolliver said. “And you can’t really say that about everybody. Some guys, they might say they want it, but their actions don’t say it. So, I think that he’s kind of a rare breed.”

Taj Gibson catches break fined $25,000 after flipping off referee, avoids suspension

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Taj Gibson got lucky.

He has somehow avoided a suspension and has been fined “just” $25,000 for “aggressively pursuing and directing an obscene gesture” — read: flipping off — a referee after a foul was called on him in the Utah game Friday night. The league announced the fine Saturday.

Gibson charged a referee then flipped him off, and walked away with the same fine Andre Iguodala got for throwing a ball into the stands. And you wonder why referees don’t think the league has their back.

Gibson has every right to be mad about the call, but he crossed the line with his reaction.

 

Watch Derrick Rose nail game-winner as Timberwolves beat Suns 116-114

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Derrick Rose and the Minnesota Timberwolves needed this one.

With 30 seconds left, Rose missed the first of two free throws and was kicking himself for failing to give his team the lead.

“I kept saying, `You’re going to get another shot,” Taj Gibson said he told his long-time teammate. Twenty-nine seconds later, Rose proved Gibson prophetic.

Rose hit an 18-footer with 0.9 seconds left to give the Wolves a 116-114 victory over the Phoenix Suns on Sunday night.

He carried his team by scoring 29 of his 31 points in the second half to help Minnesota overcome an 11-point deficit.

Gibson dunked to pull Minnesota within one with less than a minute to play. Karl-Anthony Towns intercepted a bad pass from Booker, and Rose hit the second of two foul shots to tie it at 114 with 30.5 remaining.

After giving Rose his pep talk, Gibson grabbed the loose ball after Devin Booker lost it on Phoenix’s next possession. With the shot clock off and the crowd on its feet, Rose calmly dribbled down the clock against Mikal Bridges before pulling up and hitting the final shot.

“I missed a lot. it was all up to my teammates and the coaches for giving me that confidence, putting the ball in my hands and just believing in me,” Rose said.

It was a good confidence boost for both the oft-injured guard, and a team that had lost two of its last three home games by a combined seven points.

“He needed that shot, you know what I’m saying?” Gibson said. “He’s been putting in so much work in, we’ve been in that situation a couple times this year and it didn’t go his way.”

Rose picked up the slack for Towns, who had 30 points but only two after halftime. He went 13 of 13 from the free-throw line in the half, but struggled against Phoenix’s double teams in the second.

“We just stepped it up in the second half,” said Dragan Bender, the main man charged with defending Towns. “We came out, tried to double him, try to get the ball out of his hands and make the other players make plays.”

With Towns struggling against double-teams in the second half, Rose kept the Wolves in the game on 11-for-18 shooting in the half.

 

Luka Doncic’s game-winning three, clutch baskets carry Dallas (VIDEO)

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Luka Doncic scored 29 points and hit the go-ahead 3-pointer to lead the Dallas Mavericks over the Minnesota Timberwolves 119-115 on Friday night, spoiling rookie coach Ryan Saunders’ home debut.

Doncic nearly recorded a triple-double, finishing with 12 assists and eight rebounds. He scored seven of Dallas’ final nine points.

Taj Gibson gave the Timberwolves the lead at 115-114 with a tip-in of Jeff Teague‘s miss with 35.7 seconds left. But with 22.9 to play, Doncic hit a pull-up 3 to put the Mavericks ahead for good.

Harrison Barnes scored 23 points and Dwight Powell made his first seven shots from the floor and finished with 15 points for the Mavericks. JJ Barea came off the bench to add 16 points.

Karl-Anthony Towns had 30 points and 11 rebounds for the Timberwolves, who were playing their first home game since Saunders was named interim coach.

Saunders, who received a loud ovation from the Target Center crowd before the game, took over as coach after Tom Thibodeau was relieved of his duties Sunday. he won his first game in charge Tuesday at Oklahoma City. Saunders is the son of the late Flip Saunders, the winningest coach in Timberwolves history. A banner hangs in the Target Center rafters in honor of Flip Saunders, who died in 2015.

Andrew Wiggins scored 17 points, while Josh Okogie scored 15 and hit a season-high four 3s for Minnesota.

Doncic had 15 of his 29 points in the first half to help the Mavericks take a 61-50 lead into halftime.

Dallas used a 17-4 run to open up a lead. Meanwhile, Minnesota shot just 36.4 percent from the floor in the first half.

 

Nets once thought they were trading for No. 2 overall pick, would have gotten Bulls’ second first-rounder

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A Wizards-Suns-Grizzlies trade just fell apart because the teams confused which Brooks was involved. Phoenix thought it was getting Dillon Brooks. Memphis thought it was sending MarShon Brooks.

But this isn’t the first time wires got crossed in trade discussions.

Former Nets executive Bobby Marks of ESPN:

The closest it’s ever happened – and this is a funny story – is that in 2006, we thought we getting the second overall pick in the draft from Chicago. And we were going to pick LaMarcus Aldridge. And it wound up being that Chicago was offering us their second first-round pick in the draft, which was pick 16. It turned into Rodney Carney. So, that’s the closest that we’ve ever come to backing out or a deal was agreed upon and going from there.

The Bulls might as well have sent the No. 2 to pick to the Nets. On draft night, Chicago dealt No. 2 pick LaMarcus Aldridge to the Trail Blazers for No. 4 pick Tyrus Thomas and Viktor Khryapa. The Bulls got more value from No. 16 pick Rodney Carney, trading up with the 76ers for No. 13 pick Thabo Sefolosha, who was a helpful role player in Chicago then flipped for a pick that became Taj Gibson. In that 2006 draft, the Nets picked Marcus Williams No. 22 and Josh Boone No. 23.

The big difference between this non-deal and the Brooks mishap: It didn’t reach the point active players were informed and details were leaked to the media. That’s harder to walk back and maybe part of the reason the Suns and Wizards still swapped Trevor Ariza for Kelly Oubre and Austin Rivers after the Grizzlies pulled out.