Timofey Mozgov is a relatively unremarkable professional basketball player- a massive human being capable of snagging rebounds, clogging up driving lanes, and little else. Karl-Anthony Towns exists on the opposite end of the talent spectrum, a twenty-one year old coiled spring, with incomprehensibly fluid athleticism and an bottomless bag of offensive skills.
There is little reason for the latter to be jealous of the former, and yet, Mozgov possesses something that Towns would undoubtedly like to claim- the ability to function as the anchor of a quality NBA defense.
Towns is a bad defensive player. His woes have been well chronicled. You can get a good summary of his shortcomings elsewhere. We’re not here to pile on in that regard. This exercise, instead, will focus on attempting to quantify the impact that sustained defensive competence would have on Towns’ team, the Minnesota Timberwolves. Let’s take a look at just how much they could benefit should he develop into a two-way force.
I’ll note from the start that there aren’t a lot of reliable defensive metrics, and of those few, even less that hold up across contexts. We’re going to use on/off statistics (per Cleaning the Glass) as a proxy, but there is no way of truly knowing how having a center like Mozgov filling all of Towns’ defensive minutes would actually impact Minnesota’s performance.
The Towns/Mozgov structure is a fun, albeit somewhat absurd, framework for thinking about a broader question: How good would the Wolves be if they defended effectively with Towns on the court?
We’ll start by establishing a baseline. Here’s a look at the Wolves’ offensive and defensive ratings in each year that Towns has been on the team’s roster (as of 11/14/2017).
Here’s how things shift if Minnesota had defended at the same rate as Mozgov’s teams did in all of KAT’s minutes in that same time frame.
The difference is equivalent to 20 expected wins in three years (assuming that the Wolves hit their expected win/loss record come season’s end), and a trip to the playoffs in the 2016-17 campaign.
As noted above, it isn’t fair to suggest that Mozgov could lead an entirely different grouping of players to the same defensive rating he helped the Cavs, Lakers, and Nets achieve in each of the past three seasons. There are far too many exogenous variables to account for to be able to make that claim. We tweaked our methodology to attempt to account for that reality.
As an alternative approach, we ran through the same process as outlined above, but altering the Wolves’ defensive rating based on differential rather than points per 100 possessions. That is to say, using Mozgov’s individual impact on defensive rating instead his teams’ defensive ratings in the minutes that Towns played. The results were similar.
The 2016-17 season was particularly instructive. If Towns had had the same defensive impact that Mozgov did last year, the Timberwolves would have posted an expected record of 57-25, equivalent to the third best mark in the Western Conference- a massive jump from their thirteenth place finish.
That’s two separate methodologies that suggest that the Wolves would have been a playoff team a year ago if Towns’ game more closely resembled that of a man who is most well-known for getting eviscerated by Blake Griffin.
Let’s clarify a few things before wrapping this all up. First, and most importantly, Towns is already a much better player than Timofey Mozgov could ever dream of being. We’ve completely pulled out the offensive side of the game to prove a point. Mozgov is a massive negative on that end of the court, and Towns a precocious savant.
The point here isn’t that Towns is no good (he is, in fact, very very good), but rather that he could be in the conversation about who is the best player in the world if he ever became a slightly above-average defensive player.
He has all the tools to be a fantastic defender. Towns is quick, springy, and long, with all the athleticism and strength needed to function as a switchable big and rim-protector. Players that have the physical skills to fill both such roles are exceedingly rare. Those that are simultaneously capable of leading a team in scoring even more so.
Towns just turned 22 years old. He has plenty of time to figure things out, and the Wolves would be wise to practice patience with him. Trading for Jimmy Butler ramped up their timeline of expectations, but Towns’ development is their real meal ticket. Contending meaningfully in Minnesota is entirely contingent upon being able to construct a coherent defense around him.
Doing so would alter the course of the entire franchise, and reshape the competitive landscape of the league as a whole.