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The Whiteboard: Timberwolves running out of time to make Karl-Anthony Towns happy

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No, Karl-Anthony Towns isn’t getting traded anytime soon. And with three years and $101.5 million left on his contract after this season, the only trade chatter we’ll hear over the next few weeks will come from NBA Twitter fans eager for their team to “#FreeKAT.”

The Minnesota Timberwolves know they have a legitimate franchise player, and no matter how bad the situation is right now, you ride it out until you reach the end of the road and your hand is forced.

With that being said, Wolves fans have seen this story play out before. They’ve seen franchise-altering talent fail to win championships or even make the playoffs. They’ve seen certified stars grow tired of wasting away in the frozen tundra as the front office bungles decision after decision. And they’ve seen organizational dysfunction, lack of team success and greener grass on the other side drive superstars out of Minnesota.

For both Kevin Garnett and Kevin Love, it felt inevitable during their last few seasons up north that they would eventually leave to win titles. Both eventually did … and Towns is rapidly starting to feel like the next in line to join that group.

Karl-Anthony Towns and the Timberwolves are not in a good place

Heading into Wednesday night’s tilt with the Charlotte Hornets, the Wolves are, by all accounts, the worst team in the association. They own the league’s worst record (7-28), worst point differential (minus-8.4) and have lost eight straight games. They’re also the NBA’s worst road team (3-16), have the fewest number of home wins (4-12) and rank 28th in offensive rating and 24th in defensive rating.

Switching from Ryan Saunders to new head coach Chris Finch (in scandalous, revealing fashion, we must add) hasn’t made much of a difference either; while Minnesota’s 3-point attempts have shot up by five per game, the team’s defensive rating (118.3) is about six points per 100 possessions worse than it was under the prior regime, and the offense (103.2) has been nearly three points per 100 possessions worse. Four games is a small sample size, but still, it hasn’t been an encouraging start after the team humiliated Saunders — the son of the late Flip Saunders, whom KAT admired and loved — by lining up his replacement before even giving him the boot.

Towns missing 20 of the team’s 35 games obviously has a lot to do with the Wolves’ horrendous start, as does D’Angelo Russell’s absence for 15 games and Malik Beasley’s ongoing 12-game suspension. Regardless of the unfortunate circumstances that have brought us here, though, that familiar sense of dread has started to creep in again.

We’ve got to make this guy happy, and soon, or he’s going to leave first chance he gets.

It should be noted that KAT hasn’t been his usually dominant self either. So far this season, he’s averaging 22.4 points, 10.7 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.8 blocks per game on 49.8 percent shooting from the field and 38.7 percent from 3-point range — good numbers, to be fair, but with the exception of blocks, all of those are slightly down from last year. That’s worrisome, since these dipping numbers are coming on such an impotent team that’s gone 1-10 since his return.

And this is where Towns’ unbelievably brutal 2020 and 2021 have to be mentioned. The emotional, mental and physical toll of losing one’s mother and several family members to COVID-19, and then being infected with the virus, all while dealing with the anxiety of this country’s racial reckoning, stressful presidential election and every other awful thing that went wrong last year, has no doubt made it difficult to concentrate on basketball.

There are far more important things in life than this game, and it’s clear from his on-court body language, lack of defensive focuspostgame responses and the general state of the Timberwolves that no one is having a good time right now. When the team’s own starting point guard, Ricky Rubio, is saying it doesn’t feel like Minnesota is building anything, the alarm bells should be going off in everyone’s head — especially because he’s right, and it’s hard to blame anyone involved for feeling the same way. The public outcry for good players to be rescued from bad teams only amplifies those feelings as time goes on. (Looking at you, embattled Phoenix Suns fans.)

But even though it’s unrealistic and unfair to expect the Wolves — or the general concept of winning — to suddenly make Karl-Anthony Towns happy again when there’s far more at work here than just basketball, this team is not heading in the right direction, and neither is its relationship with its franchise star. When consistent losing piles on top of a superstar player who already has more than enough on his mental plate, it’s only a matter of time before something’s got to give.

The question is how the Wolves right the ship. Getting through the acclimation process with Finch should help (unless he really is as bad as the first week looked). Having a healthy Russell and Beasley back on the floor will too, especially since KAT and Russell have still only played a handful of games together. Beyond that, the youngsters like Anthony Edwards, Jarrett Culver and Josh Okogie need to grow up and contribute to winning basketball before Towns’ patience runs out.

As of right now, however, it increasingly feels like we’re heading toward a breaking point.

Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, and maybe not even next season. But this is a guy who’s watched his team return to irrelevance after one season with Jimmy Butler leading the way, so unless the Wolves take drastic steps forward, and soon, it won’t be long before those whispers of a disgruntled superstar grow into the dull roar of actual trade demands.

This isn’t the first time the Minnesota Timberwolves have traversed this unfortunate path. And if they’re not careful in addressing their miserable culture of losing by creating their own fork in the road, it won’t be the last time either.

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