It’s been 13 years since the Minnesota Timberwolves made the NBA playoffs. That’s the longest active drought in the League. “We want to end that now,” Karl-Anthony Towns says, putting much emphasis on that final word. Now.
If that wasn’t clear before the NBA Draft, when the Wolves traded away a number of young pieces to obtain three-time All-Star Jimmy Butler, it certainly is now. But we’ll get to that. To fully understand and appreciate what that means, we have to first look at the saga of the franchise, and at the guy who truly began to turn the new page. That’s Towns.
Of course, the Wolves’ struggles began long before KAT arrived on the scene. Back in 2004, when they advanced to the Western Conference Finals (the farthest the franchise has ever been), Towns was just nine years old. It’s been downhill from there, as the team has posted a record above .500 only once since. Former Minnesota All-Stars Kevin Garnett and Kevin Love have gone on to win rings elsewhere (with the Celtics and the Cavs, respectively), making the time period that much more difficult to swallow.
Karl isn’t exactly accustomed to losing—just peep the resume. He led his high school, New Jersey’s St. Joseph High, to three consecutive state championships. In his one season at Kentucky, the team finished with a 31-0 regular season record, which remains the best start in school history. Though they eventually fell to Wisconsin in the Final Four, 38-1 is nothing to scoff at.
The unremitting lack of team success in Minnesota has only made Towns greedier to get back to the top, a detail that should not be taken lightly. Others have been derailed by sudden transitions from immense success to frustrating failure. Staying the course, remaining poised and determined, keeping a positive outlook, those type of things are not easy to do in these situations.
KAT has embraced the last two years, holding his head high and finding ways to view them constructively. He is a part of Gatorade’s “Make Defeat Your Fuel” campaign along with legendary athletes such as Michael Jordan, Peyton Manning, and Serena Williams. The message of the movement? “That some of your favorite and most accomplished athletes have went through major failures that have propelled them to future success,” Towns explains. You listening, Minnesota?
Personally, Towns had a monster 2016-17 season: 25.1 points, 12.3 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks per game, shooting 54 percent from the field and 37 percent from three. He dropped 35+ on eleven different occasions, displaying his ability to take over at any moment. Yet, Karl doesn’t want to talk about his individual success. “I don’t worry about how I played last year,” he says, “It matters that we haven’t won, and that’s the most important thing.” Many thought the “we” would progress further, perhaps putting an end to that dire drought. Instead, they went 31-51 and finished 13th in the conference. Another season riddled in defeat and disappointment.
No time to dwell on it. Yes, the roads been awfully bumpy, but the concrete is being poured, and the hollow potholes are being filled in. It’s not just about getting back to the playoffs. It’s about working towards that ultimate goal, towards that big stage that the Timberwolves have yet to grace. “We’re just trying to find ways that we can put ourselves in that talk with the Warriors every single year,” KAT says, a week prior to the acquisition of Butler. “Day by day, brick by brick. We’re building something.” Almost prophetic, no?
From a brief conversation with Karl, you can tell how hungry he is. This guy is a dogged competitor. This guy has enough fuel in the tank to never stop driving. Asked whether getting snubbed from All-NBA further motivated him, Towns responded: “I don’t need any more fire. I already had too many logs in the fire place.”
After the season ended, that sizzling fire quickly yanked Towns back to the gym. One of the most versatile players in the league supposedly has more to tap into. He might appear to have every weapon in the battery; but there are some we just aren’t aware of. He told the Star Tribune that he’s adding “secretive stuff” to his army of post-up moves, Dirk-like fadeaways, and three-point bombs. Along those lines, he told SLAM: “I got some new things up my sleeve. I always try to find things to add to my game, and this offseason is no different.” Oh boy.
And while he’s been putting in work on the court, the Timberwolves’ front office has been putting in work on the phone lines. A scary trio of Towns, Wiggins, and Butler is now in place. KAT says that the chemistry between him and Andrew has been developing at a rapid pace: “It’s at a point where we feel comfortable. We’re like reading each other’s minds.” Throw Jimmy Buckets in the mix, who has previous success with head coach Tom Thibodeau while playing under him in Chicago, and that’s going to be trouble for 29 other teams. If the Wolves were building a house, Butler just added another story.
It’s important to note that the culture in Minnesota has already been brewed. Butler isn’t hopping on some motley squad at the local Y, where one guy is trying to impress his girlfriend, another just wants to have fun, and a few only care to pass to each other. He’s joining a team with direction, with ambition, with a shared winning attitude. According to Towns, despite the struggles in 2016-17, the locker room very much reflected that attitude: “It’s a sense of we have something to accomplish. We have something we want to do. People in the locker room are just getting excited for the opportunity to go out there and compete.”
“We’re trying to win,” he adds, “It’s that simple.” Either buy in, or they don’t want you.
After Golden State won the 2017 title, guard Zach LaVine (who was shipped to Chicago in the Butler deal) posted a video on Instagram of the celebration with the caption: “Damn that got to be the best feeling ever…” Scroll through the hundreds of comments, and one sticks out. It’s from karltowns: “#comingsoon.”
— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) June 13, 2017
While LaVine is now gone, the comment hasn’t gone anywhere, and my guess is Towns would double down on it.
The last time Minnesota appeared in the playoffs, KG was their leader. The future Hall of Famer has been a mentor for Towns, helping to usher in that new era of Wolves’ basketball. So, what’s the best advice the Big Ticket has given KAT? “Stay calm, take [your] time, and be [you].”
Karl-Anthony Towns and the Minnesota Timberwolves are just getting started. Success is coming.
Alex Squadron is an Editorial Assistant at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @asquad510.