Karl-Anthony Towns and Nikola Jokic excite most NBA fans. The future usually excites most sports fans more than the present. The NBA typically thrives off two things: elitism and hope. We’ve seen eras dominated like the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980s, Michael Jordan in the 1990s or the Shaq-Kobe Lakers in the early 2000s. Fans often discuss these moments in the NBA with great reverence because greatness gets celebrated in sports. Currently, the league belongs to the Golden State Warriors until a mutation in strategy or player development among young stars occurs.
That’s where the hope comes in. Whenever a new player comes into the league and catches our eye, the hope begins brewing that they’ll one day topple the incumbent elite. Towns jumped into the league as a star right away. The No. 1 pick in the 2015 draft didn’t take long to show how special he can could become. Towns put up rookie numbers akin to Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal, David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon. While Andrew Wiggins bred excitement after his rookie campaign, Towns seemed to breed inevitability that even the Minnesota Timberwolves might be OK long-term.
In Denver, the Nuggets discovered fairly early that they had a true gem in Jokic as their big man of the present and future. In the second half of his rookie season, Jokic started showing Denver they didn’t have any need for Jusuf Nurkic long-term. Then last season happened and Jokic exploded onto the NBA scene. He started drawing comparisons to European legends like Arvydas Sabonis and Vlade Divac with his passing ability. Jokic slinging the ball around the court became a League Pass fetish for basketball diehards. His presence galvanized the Nuggets and nearly led them to the postseason.
With both players in their second seasons, fans celebrated these two young big men far more than they criticized them. A reprieve of scrutiny existed because it’s really hard for young guys to lead teams to victories. However, that reprieve only lasts for so long. As both big men entered their third year, the warts and scars of their first two years started getting discussed a lot more. Jokic and Towns severely struggle on the defensive end of the floor. Jokic has rarely been a presence there, even for small stretches, in his first two years. Towns showed some promising stuff under Kevin Garnett’s tutelage his rookie season and then regressed extremely in his second season.
If Joel Embiid’s qualifier for greatness is based on staying on the court, Towns and Jokic’s futures navigate the prospect of them never “getting it” on defense. Sure, they can be otherworldly talents on the offensive end of the floor. Jokic is already one of the most gifted passers we’ve ever seen for a big man and could be the best ever in that respect. Towns is one of 12 players in NBA history to average 25 points and 12 rebounds in his second season. He’s the only one to do it as a 3-point threat, knocking down 101 3-pointers. David Robinson is second on that list with 1 make that season.
The early returns for Season 3 on defense for each player have been mostly negative. Even with it just being a couple of weeks into the season, growth and understanding on that end of the floor elude them. So what’s wrong with each player?
Let’s take a look:
(I would normally pry into some of the NBA.com tracking data, but the implementation of the new tracking system hasn’t brought about reliable numbers this season. Avoid using those until they get ironed out.)
KAT’s struggles on defense
One of the biggest challenges to Towns going from playing under Sam Mitchell to Tom Thibodeau has been accountability and trust. In Mitchell’s interim season in Minneapolis, the Wolves didn’t have expectations. They were enduring the passing of Flip Saunders and just throwing things against the wall to see what would stick. The youth of the Wolves was both the team’s most lucrative currency and its greatest drawback. There was a chaos to everything the Wolves did on the court. When Towns made defensive plays, he often did so by freelancing within a play and shooting the lane on a pass or flashing to the rim on a shot inside. When it worked, it looked like he possessed a sixth sense.
That doesn’t exist in Thibodeau’s system. Freelancing and making your own play compromises the defensive system built to limit pick-and-roll consequences. Some people around the NBA wonder if Thibodeau’s system is maybe a little outdated to the modern game. Others wonder if we can actually know that when so many young players are just screwing it up on a nightly basis since he took over in Minnesota. The answer probably lies somewhere in between. Most of that starts with Towns and his ability or inability to direct what happens on the floor.
So much of what Thibodeau wants out of a defensive possession is dictating what the offense settles for. Towns’ job starts with calling out pick coverages and then helping execute them. But often, we see him reacting to the offense instead of dictating what they should do. That comes from a sloppy hedge on a pick or not covering the drive to the basket or even going the wrong way in an incomprehensible way in defending a pick situation.
Through seven games, the Wolves are 2.8 points per 100 possessions better defensively without Towns on the floor. But both numbers are horrendous so it’s definitely a teamwide issue — not just tied to KAT.
There are other problems, too, that center around transition defense. Towns gives up far too many rim runs in transition for someone as athletic as he is. Big men know they can take off right at the change of possession and Towns will often be slow to react to it. Not all of this is tied to Towns’ struggles, but the Wolves are 30th in defense after allowing a defensive rebound and after turning the ball over. They rank just 24th in defense after making a shot. Synergy Sports clocks their half-court defense as the worst in the NBA.
Outside of the transition problems, Towns’ biggest issues come in the form of plays from the video above. We’ll see flashes of where he needs to start heading, like the second half of their most recent win against Oklahoma City. Not only did Towns block shots, but he also managed to cut off drives to the basket. Too often, we fail to see consistency in KAT stringing together those stretches. He has to expend a lot of energy on the offensive end of the floor and he’s currently sixth in defensive rebounding percentage. He does his job rebounding the ball and being the focal point of the offense. But the defense is what will separate him from “wow, this guy can play” and “wow, this guy plays at a historic level.”
Jokic’s struggles on defense
Jokic looks like a statue on a lot of defensive possessions. A big part of that comes from not being an athletic big man. His skill set rivals just about every other big man in the NBA. It impresses to the point of not requiring him to play athletically to affect the offensive end of the floor. The defensive side of the floor requires more than he often shows. On the surface, the early returns for his on/off splits don’t look bad. Through seven games, the Nuggets aren’t just 12 points better per 100 possessions on defense with Jokic on the court. They’ve actually had a great defensive rating with him. So everything must be fine, right?
Not if you dig a little deeper. A big chunk of that defensive rating benefits from a fluke game against the Sacramento Kings. It isn’t a fluke that Denver and Jokic played well against Sacramento. That certainly happens a lot over the last decade with most teams. The fluke comes from Denver having an unheard of 61.7 defensive rating with Jokic on the floor in that game. That skews the early numbers in such a small theater of sample size. Outside of that, he and Denver had good efforts against New York, Atlanta and Brooklyn. Things were mostly fine against Washington. They put up apocalyptic failures against Utah and Charlotte.
A lot of Jokic’s struggles this year and in years past happened because he does a lot of standing around. He also rarely jumps to challenge shots. When he does jump, Jokic doesn’t exactly remind us of Connie Hawkins. The not-jumping part can be fine as long as he positions himself to use his size and length to get in the way of shots. Problem is he doesn’t often do that enough to make you feel like progress is happening.
Much like Towns, Jokic struggles to play proper defense by just reacting. Towns usually moves quickly enough to arrive just a little too late to affect the shot inside. If Jokic doesn’t position himself perfectly in help, his energy is better served moving himself up the floor to the offensive end if he’s reacting late. Jokic possesses ridiculous vision on offense. He sees things develop in a way that most others can’t see until he’s made the play. Somehow, finding a way to harness that same anticipation on defense needs to occur.
Surrounding Jokic with defensive-minded players will lessen a lot, but teams know they can put him in a pick-and-roll and watch Denver scramble. We see the exact same type of present/potential dynamic with Jokic as we do with Towns. His production at such a young age gives you hope. But potential doesn’t become realized unless those players can do the work early on every defensive possession to not be a total liability.
How the present shapes up
So how do things shake out in the interim? Towns turns 22 years old in a couple of weeks. Jokic will turn 23 years old the day after the All-Star Game. Neither player should be judged as a finished product any time soon. They have a lot of growth in their games and understanding of NBA basketball. However, NBA games aren’t graded on a curve. Towns helping give up 120 points some night doesn’t downgrade to 108 points because of youth. Jokic allowing 60 percent at the rim doesn’t change to 45 percent because of youth.
Both teams can currently win enough to make the postseason as constructed. That should serve as a good enough step in the right direction for this season. The Wolves would snap the longest postseason drought in the NBA by cracking the top 8 in the West. Denver hasn’t made the playoffs since its 57-win regular-season run in 2013 before the Warriors torched them in the first round. The Wolves and the Nuggets just need to show real improvement on defense to look like progress will happen. A lot of that starts with Towns and Jokic starting to understand how to make their flashes into constant beams of light.
Denver can’t be the 29th-worst defense in the NBA like we saw last season. Minnesota probably has to find its way into the top 20 in defense and let the offense do the rest of the work. Both teams can put up points in a hurry. Those points look a lot more hollow when followed up by an answer from the opponent.