Karl-Anthony Towns, coming off of two consecutive All-Star appearances, is averaging a career-best 26.9 points per game this season. His 4.2 assists per game are a career-high, as are efficiency numbers such as effective field goal percentage (.604, thanks in large part to 41.2% three-point shooting on an easily career-high 8.2 attempts per game).
He’s become a nearly fully realized best version of his offensive self in the Wolves’ new offensive system.
So naturally, when Western Conference All-Star reserves were announced Thursday, Towns … didn’t make the cut.
Well, probably a few factors. But here’s one theory: Reserves are picked by coaches, and those coaches are increasingly paying attention to a player’s contributions on both ends of the court.
Towns, Devin Booker, Zach LaVine and Bradley Beal are the only players averaging 25 points or more per game who weren’t selected as All-Stars and showed up prominently on a lot of lists, long and short, of all-star snubs.
It’s more nuanced than just saying “defense cost them,” since all four also play for teams not currently occupying a top-8 playoff spot in their respective conferences.
And Towns in particular was certainly impacted by missing 17 of the Wolves’ 47 games so far this season.
But it’s still fair to wonder how much of a role defensive acumen, or a lack thereof, cost them.
It used to be harder to quantify defensive contributions, but now a number of different metrics at least attempt to do so. And one particularly damning one for all four of those players – particularly Towns and Beal – is defensive real plus-minus, defined via ESPN.com as a “player’s estimated on-court impact on team defensive performance, measured in points allowed per 100 defensive possessions.”
All four players are on the minus side of the ledger, dragging down their overall plus-minus stats that are propped up by strong offensive numbers.
Towns has the wildest splits. Among 65 centers, he is a clear-cut No. 1 in offensive real plus-minus (4.76, with the next-highest player not even above 2). But he is dead last on the defensive side (minus-3.02).
In making the all-star team each of the previous two seasons, Towns wasn’t a great defensive player. But he at least finished each season with a positive defensive RPM even if he ranked in the bottom third of centers both years.
The two true centers picked as West reserves, by the way, rank No. 1 (Rudy Gobert) and No. 6 (Nikola Jokic) in defensive RPM.
Booker ranks No. 107 out of 124 shooting guards, but that’s actually good compared to Beal. His mark of minus-4.47 is dead last among shooting guards.
LaVine is a below-average No. 53 out of 86 point guards at minus-0.4, and his defensive reputation is even worse.
Defense can be a hard thing to isolate, and it’s fair to note that Towns has been learning a new system this season alongside his teammates. But in the 15 consecutive games he missed recently, the Wolves had the third-best defensive rating in the NBA. And Towns has the worst defensive rating (individual efficiency rating related to points allowed per 100 possessions) among Wolves regulars.
It’s fair to say that until he consistently shores up that part of his game – at least pushing into a territory that’s adequate alongside his otherworldly offensive gifts – Towns might be viewed a certain way around the league.
One-dimensional might have been good enough to be an All-Star in the past, but in many cases it wasn’t this year.