For our 2017-18 NBA Season Preview, we're doing deep dives on five teams who can beat the Warriors in the next five years—and the players who can push them over the top.
The play that morphed Karl-Anthony Towns from a highly impressive rookie into a flashpoint in the progression of NBA history, inspiring visions of the recaptured transcendance of the big man, came not in a poster dunk, or game-winning shot. In fact, on that night in April, 2016, he put up a relatively average (for him) 20 points and 10 rebounds, as the lottery-bound Minnesota Timberwolves handed the historically great, 73-win Golden State Warriors their ninth loss and final of the season.
The moment that dazzled NBA junkies—and offered a glimpse that perhaps the Warriors were indeed fallible—came on defense. Late in the fourth quarter Towns switched onto Steph Curry, stayed in front of a swarm of crossovers, and contained his drive. It was all of Towns' defensive potential wrapped into a single high stakes play.
The Timberwolves are not your everyday up-and-coming NBA franchise. In fact, they are one of the few teams to have not been rendered inconsequential by the Warriors juggernaut. That's because they have on their roster the rare player who, under the right circumstances, is capable of knocking down a dynasty. It might not happen now. It might take two or three seasons. But Karl-Anthony Towns is that player.
In the NBA's annual GM survey, Towns was chosen as the "player that GM's would sign first, if starting a franchise today." He is a threat on all levels, with silky low-post moves, and a soft touch that extends beyond the arc. For a young big man, he can dish it with the best of them. The Warriors, who have an answer for everything, do not have an answer for him.
For a long time, the Timberwolves have operated with high potential and low expectations. That is no longer the case. There is Towns. There is Andrew Wiggins. Head coach Tom Thibodeau is entering his second season. Three-time All Star Jimmy Butler is on board. "If you're waiting on potential, you're waiting on losing," Thibodeau recently told USA Today's Sam Amick. "We can't wait on potential any longer."
Thibodeau and Butler were kindred spirits in Chicago. When Thibodeau was fired, Butler bristled at his new coach Fred Hoiberg's easygoing manner, and didn't hesitate to share his opinions with the media. He doesn't suffer fools, and he is intolerant of anyone who fails to meet his lofty standards. Thibodeau, a notorious grinder, meets them. He conducts legendarily tough practices and his players are always ranked famously high in league-wide minutes totals. Into this dynamic steps Karl-Anthony Towns. Towns spent his rookie year learning from Kevin Garnett, the snarling no-nonsense Hall-of-Famer who showed him the difference between working hard and working harder than everybody else. Under Thibodeau, Towns and Butler ought to coalesce into some sort of hard-nosed transcendent basketball force.
The Warriors aren't your run-of-the-mill championship team. They are on a deliberate, uninterrupted march towards perfection, with an ethos, after multiple championship runs, of self-improvement for its own sake. Any team that wishes to unseat them must, aside from having the talent to match up, be institutionally sound enough to knock them off their path.
With a core of Thibodeau, Butler and Towns, who possess an insatiable, incorruptible, drive to improve, the Wolves have the potential to be that team.
But there's a rub: Towns didn't actually make a defensive leap in his sophomore season. In fact, he may even have regressed. In the absence of Garnett, he struggled to man the paint when he was the lone big man on the court. Thibodeau's system registered as a foreign language to most of the team, leaving Towns with a larger mess to clean up.
(Towns ranked 61st out of 61 centers in Defensive Real Plus-Minus—one spot behind Jahlil Okafor—and Minnesota's defensive rating was at its best when he sat and its worst when he played.)
Cramming a big old platter of schemes and scouting reports tends to make young players inherently bad at defense. "He's a great shot blocker," says Tayshaun Prince, who played alongside Towns in his rookie year. "But a lot of times, he would be out of position. Just his basketball knowledge, basketball IQ means he can still block shots, be a big rebounder."
The Timberwolves were the second-best rebounding team in the NBA last year. In two preseason games against the Warriors, Towns ate Zaza Pachulia's lunch down low, a development made more significant by the fact that Towns is one of the only big men who can punish the Warriors when they sub out their traditional big for Green and employ the vaunted Death Lineup. The reigning Defensive Player of the Year is a mismatch nightmare for most big men, running them off the court on one end and possessing the requisite strength to outmuscle them defensively in the paint. With Towns, that isn't the case, and Green can't sag off to wreak help-side havoc, a key staple of Golden State's defense at its best.
While he has yet to harness the sum of his abilities on the defensive end, he has the tools to be a nightmare for the Warriors —a 7-footer who could hold his own down low against Draymond Green and have the quickness to switch onto Steph Curry.
More experience, more determination, and more time in Thibodeau's vaunted system, could eventually morph Towns into the defensive player everyone envisioned during his rookie year. If that happens, there will be elements to his games that no team will be able to handle. He will be a force on defense. And on offense, the Timberwolves success will simply be a matter of taking advantage when opposing defenses—Golden State's and otherwise—bend to Towns' will.
At the eight-minute mark in the first quarter of Minnesota's first preseason game of two against the Warriors, Butler faces up against Klay Thompson. He drives, but Thompson forces him to kick the ball to Jeff Teague, so he sets a pick. The Warriors switch, leaving Curry on Butler, who dives towards the paint. Teague charges into traffic and shovels the ball to Taj Gibson, who misses from deep.
But with the smaller Curry on him, Butler is able to tip the rebound over to Towns, who pitches it right. Butler pump-fakes, angling for a lay-up, and Green crashes toward the rim, leaving Towns wide open. Butler hits the most talented teammate he's ever had, then watches him evade Green's contest with a pump fake right before he nails the triple. It was the Wolves at their platonic ideal, utilizing every advantage they have over the Warriors.
The difference between the version of the Wolves that can and can't take down the Warriors is the divide between who they are, and who, fully realized, they could be. Their success, if we are to glean anything from the preseason, will rest on discipline. No more errant shots (looking at you, Wiggins). If Butler wants to roam into passing lanes on defense, he sure as hell better not do it when he's guarding Curry. If Thompson gets caught on a switch against Towns, Minnesota's hammer needs to touch the ball. When Towns, a savvy passer, is doubled, his teammates must ensure that there's an easy angle for him to find the open man. If you get a second chance opportunity, don't just chuck up the first reasonable shot to come your way. It's not house money—offensive rebounds can be, if utilized correctly, a necessary and potent weapon to weaken the Dubs. It will be, to say the least, difficult.
Maybe that's why the best way to give the Warriors trouble is to employ as many dynamic players as possible. One-dimensional players are too easily neutralized by the Golden State defense—which is what makes Teague, a crafty creator with a knack for sneaking into the paint, such a compelling fit. There is, as always, the risk of too many cooks. Then again, the Warriors employ Curry, Durant, and Green, and they seem to be doing fine.
To put it another way: the Warriors excel at neutralizing their opponent's strength. If you don't have your main skill, what can you do? And how quickly can you do it?
"[Towns] has the talent and he has all the attributes," says Prince. "It's obviously a big task for any player to take down the Warriors so to speak but I know KAT is a determined guy, and obviously Thibs is a determined coach."
In the end, it is hard to trust any team to maximize its abilities and become the best version of itself. There is a reason, after all, why the Warriors are the Warriors, and why, on the other hand, I—err, a friend of mine—recently put processed cheese and deli meat into a bagel and microwaved it.
But the Wolves aren't your average franchise, and their core is, even for the NBA, unusually driven. If there's one thing we've learned about Thibs, Butler, and Towns, it's that they're determined to reap every opportunity for what it's worth. Their success will be predicated on building a culture where every player has that instinct. It will be predicated on Towns becoming the history-altering player everybody saw switch out onto Steph Curry that night in 2016. It may take time. Even a few years. But the Timberwolves are young enough, and talented enough, that when it happens, they will be able to take down anybody.