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March Mania

Shipley: Maybe Karl-Anthony Towns isn’t the answer

Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) drives to the basket past Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins (20) and center Damian Jones (30) in the second half Wednesday, Feb. 5, at Target Center. Jesse Johnson / USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Timberwolves might have hitched their wagon to the wrong guy.

It’s been nearly five years since Minnesota used the No. 1 overall pick in the draft to select center Karl-Anthony Towns and the Timberwolves haven’t gotten appreciably better — which is to say, they’re still terrible.

A lot has happened since then, of course. The Timberwolves have made a lot of bad decisions since entering the NBA in 1989, and many since Towns played his first NBA season in 2015-16. But at some point you have to wonder whether Towns isn’t one of them.

Is KAT still the guy the Wolves want to build around? The Timberwolves haven’t won a game with Towns on the court since Thanksgiving, 17 straight losses after Wednesday night’s 127-120 loss to the Atlanta Hawks at Target Center.

Towns is Minnesota’s best player, averaging a team-high 26.9 points and 10.8 rebounds, but players on max contracts should be something more than a team’s best player — a locker room leader, for instance, or the guy a team can count on to score in a tight game down the stretch.

Vince Carter, making his last Target Center appearance after nearly 24 years in the NBA, did that Wednesday, hitting a contested 3-pointer to seal the victory with 34.5 seconds remaining. Towns, for the most part, looked half-interested in what was going on around him.

Late in the second half, for instance, the Hawks raced upcourt in transition, missed an uncontested layup and quickly scored on an uncontested putback. Towns, pleading with an official who didn’t call a foul when the Wolves’ center missed a layup on the previous possession, never made it to halfcourt.

If you’re not going to be a team leader, or the guy who routinely scores the winning basket, at least don’t be that guy — not when you’re making a guaranteed $158 million through 2023-24.

Look, the Timberwolves have a lot of problems right now. They’re small, can’t shoot, can’t run, don’t have a genuine point guard and on Tuesday lost a third of the roster when president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas traded away anything that wasn’t nailed down because his team had just lost for the 12th consecutive time.

Make that 13.

Now, if you’re averaging roughly 27 points and 11 rebounds a game as Towns is, it’s probably easy to think, “Hey, man, it’s not me.” But the Timberwolves aren’t losing despite Towns. He is, for instance, one of the NBA’s worst defensive players, giving up an average of 115.2 points per 100 possessions.

By the eye test, he gives up too much ground in the paint and doesn’t consistently guard on the pick and roll, the bread and butter of NBA offenses. ESPN’s defensive real plus-minus ranks Towns 474th among 479 ranked players. So, you know, that’s an issue.

Some of this is just because Towns is who he is, a 6-foot-11, 250-pound center in a run-and-gun, 3-point heavy league — more Bill Cartwright than Kevin Garnett. Towns is built for K.C. Jones’ Celtics, not, say, the current Houston Rockets, whence comes Rosas.

Towns proved valuable when the Timberwolves ended a 14-year playoff skid in 2017-18, but that was Jimmy Butler’s team — and the Wolves nearly missed the playoffs when Butler missed a bunch of games late before he returned to help Minnesota win a do-or-die regular-season finale against Denver.

The Nuggets and Timberwolves are now on different trajectories. Denver won 54 games and a playoff series last season and at 35-16 are third in the Western Conference. Minnesota missed the playoffs last season and fell to 15-40 after Wednesday’s loss to the worst team in the Eastern Conference.

At home.

This isn’t all Towns’ fault by any stretch, but now that Rosas has officially started looking beyond 2019-20, it’s not unreasonable for him to wonder if Towns is still the cornerstone of his rebuild.