By James Holas
15. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
No more excuses.
At 20 years old, Karl-Anthony Towns ran away with Rookie of The Year. Last season, at 21, he became the youngest player to average at least 25 points and 12 rebounds while shooting at least 36 percent from deep, joining Kevin Love as the only two players to ever reach those statistical milestones.
But while Towns’ flexed his individual muscles, last year’s Minnesota Timberwolves were a disappointment, falling well short of lofty preseason expectations. As Towns turns 22 in a few weeks, look for the Timberwolves’ franchise cornerstone to take his game to the next level.
Offensively, Towns is the complete package, with top flight footwork in the post, advanced perimeter handles and the ability to stretch the floor out to the three-point line. Unlike most stretch bigs, Towns doesn’t shy away from physicality—he finished fifth in offensive rebounding, seventh in defensive rebounding, 10th in rebounding percentage and 19th in free throw attempts, meaning he’s not afraid to mix it up on both sides of the ball.
And Towns isn’t just strong as an ox, he’s fleet of foot. His rim running is game changing. He routinely snags defensive rebounds, outlets, then lasers down the middle of the floor, leaving opposing big men in his wake and sucking defenders into the lane with him.
There aren’t many bigs better on the offensive side of the ball…but defense is another story.
As athletic and energetic as Towns plays, his uninspired defense is curious. Defensive real plus-minus estimates a player’s impact on team defense, adjusting for teammates and opponent: Karl-Anthony Towns ranked 61st out of 61 centers last season. And as Towns goes, so goes the Wolves, as Minnesota finished a healthy 10th in offensive rating, between the San Antonio Spurs and Portland Trail Blazers (both playoff teams), but a pathetic 27th in defensive rating, hemorrhaging 112 points per 100 possessions.
Adding All-Star Jimmy Butler to young gun Andrew Wiggins gives the Timberwolves one of the most physically gifted wing duos in the NBA, and veterans Taj Gibson and Jamal Crawford add grit and shot making off the bench. Coach Thibodeau has already tossed down the gauntlet:
Strong line from Wolves' Tom Thibodeau: "If you’re waiting on potential, you’re waiting on losing. We can’t wait on potential any longer."
— Sam Amick (@sam_amick) October 8, 2017
The Western conference is deep and talented, but Minnesota’s offseason upgrades mean they should be in the mix for their first playoff appearance in 13 years. Wiggins will continue to grow his game and Butler is bringing his smash mouth style to the West. None of that matters if Towns doesn’t embrace being the defensive anchor. If Karl-Anthony Towns doesn’t make a leap defensively, the Wolves will once again be outside of the playoff picture come April, searching for excuses.
14. Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies
The Grit and Grind Era is over. The Memphis Grizzlies went out kicking and clawing, giving the vaunted Spurs two losses in a spirited first round series, but its time has come.
Gone are Tony Allen, Zach Randolph and Vince Carter and with them, some predict, Memphis’ seven-year playoffs streak.
Not so fast.
Last season, Marc Gasol had arguably his finest yet. His 19.6 points, 4.6 assists, and 26.4 percent usage were all career highs. Gasol had never attempted more than 17 threes in a season until last year, when he drained 38.8 percent of his 268 triple attempts. Now, he’s a weapon from every spot on the floor, shooting a healthy 40.7 percent on long twos and 66.7 percent at the rim.
Gasol has been the bedrock of Memphis’ excellence. Last season, he became the first 7-footer to average at least 19.0 points, 6.0 rebounds, 4.5 assists and shoot at least 38 percent from deep since the inception of the three-point line. That kind of offensive versatility on one of the stingiest teams in the league is worth its weight in gold.
The uptick in offensive responsibility comes with a cost, however. The 2013 Defensive Player of the Year’s normally rock solid defense is showing signs of cracking. In 2014, Gasol was tops among centers in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus Minus. His rank since? 17th, 17th and, last year, 42nd.
In Mike Conley Jr., Memphis has one of the most underrated point guards and in Marc Gasol, the Grizzlies have the league’s most complete center. Memphis has a nigh-Spursian way of being more than the sum of their parts, bruising their ways to wins that make no sense. Coach David Fizdale vows to open up the offense and step into the space and pace era, but can Memphis maintain their elite defense edge? This season will test that theory.
But if Memphis is going to prove projections and prognostications wrong (ESPN has Memphis finishing 10th in the west; Sports Illustrated opines that they’ll be on the outside looking in at the playoffs), they’ll need 2013 defense and 2017 offense from their center—a tall order for a big man who’ll be 33 this season with a history of back and foot issues.
With modern young bigs like Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, and Karl-Anthony Towns dominating the highlight clips and discussions about the best NBA centers, it’s easy to overlook the floor game of Marc Gasol. The big man in Memphis some call “Wendigo” made do-it-all mythology cool before the new wave of “unicorn” big men. For the Grizzlies to maintain their status as one of the top franchises in the NBA, they’ll need Marc Gasol to prove that last season’s offensive burst was no hoax.
13. Paul George, Indiana Pacers
Who is Paul George? That all depends on when you watched him last season. Some nights, you see a 6-foot-9 forward ghost through the stoutest screens or zoom past a defender’s grasp, using a buttery handle and change of pace to get anywhere he wants for a dizzying array of pull-ups or tough finishes at the rim. On those nights, it’s like you’re watching one of the six or seven best basketball players in the world.
In a March game against the scrappy Charlotte Hornets, George erupted for 39 points as the Indiana Pacers smacked Charlotte by 21. George’s long angled frame and loping gait are the components of a man built for basketball.
Other nights, you saw that same player stuck in low gear. There’s a thin line between effortless and listless and too often last year, George was on the wrong side of that line. In November, those same Hornets welcomed the Pacers to Charlotte with a 22-point thrashing. George played 31 minutes but took only 12 shots, scoring a paltry 10 points.
At times, it was jarring to watch such a natural try to shove his talents into the square compartments of last year’s Pacers. From Larry Bird demanding George subject his narrow frame to pounding at power forward and taking the ball out of his hands for long stretches so Jeff Teague could try to orchestrate offense, to keeping Monta Ellis in the starting lineup, nothing really seemed to fit in Indiana last year.
Make no mistake, George deserves some blame for the uneven Pacers season. Mediocre roster or not, things are even tougher when you All-Star caliber player isn’t mentally invested and spends long stretches in “power saving” mode. And while we can debate how much effort George gave last season, he STILL had his best offensive year, statistically, setting career highs in both shots and points per game (18 and 23.7, respectively) and true shooting percentage (58.7).
George has stated winning—not stats—is what matters and now in Oklahoma City with fellow All-star Carmelo Anthony and reigning MVP Russell Westbrook, he’s certainly closer to that ultimate goal than he’s been in his last few years in Indiana. For the first time in his career, PG-13 is in an offensive ecosystem that won’t live or die on his shoulders. The attention that Westbrook and Melo draw will allow George to play in space, a foreign situation for the 27-year-old who cut his teeth with the Roy Hibbert-David West mosh pit in the lane.
With his free agency looking next summer, Paul George will be looking to remind the world exactly who he is. He’s shown he can go toe-to-toe with LeBron James and he’s been as culpable as anyone for his former franchise’s bouts of inconsistency.
Which Paul George shows up in Oklahoma City can be the key to how far the Thunder go this year.
12. Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
Draymond Green rips down a rebound out of a crowd, rumbles down the court and zips a laser to the corner into Klay Thompson’s shooting pocket. Splash. Green meets some unfortunate big man at the rim, snuffing out his dunk attempt, then fills the lane on the ensuing break, bringing the crowd to its feet by spotting up for the trail three. Splash.
Draymond Green is everything that people love about the Golden State Warriors.
The kick to Steven Adams’ kiwis. The swipe at King James’ crown jewels. The inexplicable suplex of Michael Beasley. The football tackle of Marcus Smart. The non-stop trash talk. The flexing and sneering.
Draymond Green is everything people hate about the Golden State Warriors.
And the Warriors wouldn’t have it any other way.
Looking back, questioning the fit of Kevin Durant with Golden State and “not enough balls to go around” seems silly. The Warriors were lucky enough to draft three of the most unselfish stars in the league in Thompson, Curry and Green, and Dray’s unique skill set is the transmission of the Warriors’ offensive engine.
Green has willed himself into one of the most dynamic two-way players in the league, the rare force who can control a game without scoring a point (well, by only scoring four points, as he did in his historic 12-rebound,10-assist, and 10-steal triple-double against the Grizzlies).
Green is the basketball Id to Steph Curry’s Ego and Kevin Durant’s Super-Ego. Steph is the game-bending shooter who sets defenses in a panic at half court, Durant the impossible-to-guard giant flamethrower, and Klay the deus ex machina who can drop 20 in an eye blink…but it’s Draymond Green who’s the connective tissue that makes it all work. He’s the poster boy for position-less versatility. Listed at 6-foot-7, no other player has ever matched the 7.9 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.4 blocks like Draymond did last season.
But his value goes far beyond numbers. Draymond Green’s snarling aggression gives the beautiful Warriors game a nasty edge. Green doesn’t want to just win, he wants to step on your throat and crush the opposition. His aggression both elevates and insulates the players around him. When the slings and arrows come out for Golden State, it’s Draymond front and center to absorb the brunt of them.
Green takes the toughest defensive assignment, grabs the toughest rebound and passes up the open shot so the superstars that orbit him don’t have to.
As the league around them scrambles to find an answer to the unsolvable Warriors, Golden State is comfortably on their throne at the top of the NBA. Never fear, Dubs fans, Green’s special brand of competitive insanity will ensure that complacency won’t derail the Warrior championship train.
11. Jimmy Butler, Minnesota Timberwolves
Last season, scoring the ball wasn’t an issue for the Minnesota Timberwolves. The problem was on the other side of the ball. The porous Wolves’ defense yakked up 112 points per hundred possessions, good (bad) for 27th in the league.
Enter Jimmy Butler.
In the NBA, talent usually wins out, and there are very few wings more talented than the 28-year-old Butler. Like Paul George, there are no real holes in Butler’s game. He can beat you from the perimeter, the post, or off the bounce and rises to the challenge on the other end. Last season in Chicago, Butler set career highs almost across the board. Unlike PG-13, there’s never a question about Butler’s motor. Since 2014, only seven players have played 37.5 or more minutes in a season; Butler has minutes 37.8 in that span.
Butler brings his throwback game to Minnesota, where he’ll do his best to whip the talented youth of Karl-Anthony Town and Andrew Wiggins into defensive shape.
“Guys need to get pissed off when they get scored on, guys got to want to do it,” Butler said in a recent interview. “I think it’s going to take a little bit for it to click in though.”
It certainly all clicked for Butler last year. The 76 games played was the second most of his career, and the 23.9 points, 6.3 rebounds, 5.5 assists, and 1.9 steals he put up a night put him in the elite company of the Larry Birds, LeBron Jameses, and Michael Jordans of the league.
Now flanked by the dominant young KAT and the boundless perimeter potential of Wiggins, will the Wolves shoulder their way into the upper echelon of the league? Will Butler force his way into the top 10 player conversation? Before people start those conversations, Jimmy Butler and the Wolves will prove that they can stop teams defensively.