The Other Elite Centers: Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert

The Other Elite Centers: Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert

Written By Dane Moore (ZoneCoverage.com)
Photo Permission: Minnesota Timberwolves

The Best Center In The Game conversation has narrowed. A two-player tier seems to have formed: Anthony Davis and Joel Embiid.

Prior to the season, there was more ambiguity.

With DeMarcus Cousins in tow, Anthony Davis was trending away from the center position — where he won All-NBA First Team honors last season — to becoming a simple power forward — the next Kevin Garnett. Embiid, a seven-foot-tall question mark, was equally ambivalent given his health history. His clout registered in theory and on social media; not in on-floor performance.

Health, in different ways, switched the narrative on both players. Cousins’s season-ending injury rotated positional perception back to center for Davis — even if he has nominally been starting alongside Emeka Okafor. And in Philadelphia, Embiid has been healthy. He now plays in back-to-backs and could finish the season with as many as 71 starts. Given how the season has shaken out, the two seemingly deserve to be in a tier of their own.

What has been confusing is the slog of centers in tier two. The list for the third and final All-NBA center spot is long even after removing Cousins and Kristaps Porzingis (for injury) and DeAndre Jordan and Marc Gasol (for regression):

  • Nikola Jokic
  • Steven Adams
  • Andre Drummond
  • Al Horford
  • Karl-Anthony Towns
  • Rudy Gobert

Friday night in Utah, Towns and Gobert — top of the tier or left out of it completely, depending on who you talk to — will square off. While the matchup is one of 82 games, it seems to carry a particular weight. A heavyweight battle between two stars whose teams need a superstar.

The Jazz need to make a (second) run starting Friday night if they are to make the playoffs, as they sit at 31-30 in the 10th seed in the West. While Gobert played admirably over Utah’s 11-game winning streak into the All-Star break, it felt like Donovan Mitchell’s run. The same concept can be applied to the Wolves’ season. Jimmy Butler was the catalyst to the Wolves 37-26 start; Towns was a Robin to Butler’s Batman.

This is a difference Towns and Gobert have when compared to Davis and Embiid. The Pelicans and Sixers have nearly identical records to the Wolves and Jazz — an important distinction when measuring influence — but Davis and Embiid are clearly their team’s Batman. It isn’t just winning or roster construction that boosts the perception of the two, it is their egalitarian impact to both ends of the floor.

Their teams lose a step on both ends of the floor when they sit.

Anthony Davis Impact 2017-18

Davis On Floor 1985 Minutes 112.4 ORtg 108.6 DRtg
Davis Off Floor 953 Minutes 110.5 ORtg 116.1 DRtg
Davis Impact +1.9 ORtg -7.5 DRtg

Joel Embiid Impact 2017-18

Embiid On Floor 1519 Minutes 114.1 ORtg 103.4 DRtg
Embiid Off Floor 1342 Minutes 103.5 ORtg 111.3 DRtg
Embiid Impact +10.6 ORtg -7.9 DRtg

This is not the perception with Gobert and Towns. Gobert is regarded as a defensive monstrosity and Towns is equally monstrous on the offensive end. However, on their respective weaker ends of the floor both players are viewed to be mediocre.

Gobert’s Weakness: Offense

For Utah, they have found more success on the offensive end with Gobert off the floor than when he plays this season. While he can at times profile as an alley-oop cheat code, his scoring impact is limited.

Field goal attempts are few and far between for Gobert. Since Gobert returned in mid-January, the Jazz have been on fire (13-4) but Gobert has only shot more than 10 times twice in that stretch. This is, in part, due to the fact that he struggles to find the same utility out of his size that he implements so well on defense.

To be fair, this was the only shot Gobert missed against Houston but his inability to be a true post-up weapon is a bullet the Jazz do not have in the chamber. Again, the Pelicans and Sixers have this in spades with Davis and Embiid.

A season ago, it was fine for Utah to utilize Gobert as a tertiary weapon; they had Gordon Hayward. While Mitchell has assumed much of Hayward’s volume on offense, he does not convert at the same clip. This drives down Utah’s offensive efficiency with Gobert on the floor.

Rudy Gobert Impact 2016-17

Gobert On Floor 2709 Minutes 112.2 ORtg 103.9 DRtg

Rudy Gobert Impact 2017-18

Gobert On Floor 1075 Minutes 105.6 ORtg 103.0 DRtg

Gobert has been every ounce the defensive player he was a year ago. In the 17 games since returning from injury, the defense has been even better with Gobert on the floor (101.3). But at some point, becoming truly elite will require increasing the volume of his individually efficient offense.

Towns’ Weakness: Defense

The Wolves defense improves by 7.5 points per 100 possessions when Towns is on the floor compared to the time when he is off the floor — the same improvement as Davis and just a tick below Embiid. However, this carries less weight for a Wolves team that sits 26th in defensive rating.

That said, Towns’s defensive woes are probably overstated. The images of frenetic head-spinning in pick-and-roll action from a season ago — and early this season — are burned into the collective consciousness of Towns observers. But he has improved. The mental lapses are less prevalent.

That is not to say they are gone. Get Towns backpedaling with cutters and switches and he will, again, become overwhelmed. He still has buttons that can be pushed to activate freneticism.

Towns is an issue in the Wolves defense but he is not the only problem. Much like Gobert since Hayward’s departure, there just isn’t enough support on Towns’s weaker end of the floor. While the additions of Butler and Taj Gibson are certainly a support, there are many other leaks.

Towns has been on the floor for 480 minutes this season without Butler and 522 minutes without Gibson. In those minutes, multiples of Jeff Teague, Jamal Crawford, Nemanja Bjelica and Andrew Wiggins play — devastating for defensive effectiveness.

Karl-Anthony Towns Impact 2017-18

Towns On Floor 2184 Minutes 118.7 ORtg 111.0 DRtg
Towns On Floor w/out Butler 483 Minutes 117.5 ORtg 120.8 DRtg
Towns On Floor w/out Gibson 527 Minutes 119.5 ORtg 117.8 DRtg
Towns On Floor w/out Butler and Gibson 245 Minutes 115.1 ORtg 118.1 DRtg

Towns is a beast on offense with or without Butler and Gibson. He could use help on defense but the center position is the tent pole of team defense. Towns needs to individually improve as the pieces that insulate him aren’t changing anytime soon.

Not Far From Elite

The perception of well-roundedness regarding Davis and Embiid is not misinformed; the aesthetics and stats back up their two-way dominance. That is not the case with Towns and Gobert. The perception of their games deters their perceived dominance. But statistically, they aren’t far off. Both Towns and Gobert are on the cusp of the elite if Davis and Embiid are the standard.

Anthony Davis Impact 2017-18

Davis On Floor 1985 Minutes 112.4 ORtg 108.6 DRtg
Davis Off Floor 953 Minutes 110.5 ORtg 116.1 DRtg
Davis Impact +1.9 ORtg -7.5 DRtg

Joel Embiid Impact 2017-18

Embiid On Floor 1519 Minutes 114.1 ORtg 103.4 DRtg
Embiid Off Floor 1342 Minutes 103.5 ORtg 111.3 DRtg
Embiid Impact +10.6 ORtg -7.9 DRtg

Karl-Anthony Towns Impact 2017-18

Towns On Floor 2184 Minutes 118.7 ORtg 111.0 DRtg
Towns Off Floor 814 Minutes 109.3 ORtg 118.5 DRtg
Towns Impact +9.4 ORtg -7.5 DRtg

Rudy Gobert Impact 2016-17*

Gobert On Floor 2709 Minutes 112.2 ORtg 103.9 DRtg
Gobert Off Floor 1194 Minutes 107.3 ORtg 112.0 DRtg
Gobert Impact +4.9 ORtg -8.1 DRtg

*2016-17 data used due to incomplete data from 2017-18 due to injury

Just four seasons ago, the All-NBA centers were Joakim Noah, Dwight Howard and Al Jefferson. The NBA has changed and through that, the standards for being an elite big man have also evolved. If a center is not dynamic and diverse on both ends of the floor there is more to be desired. Sure, put Towns or Gobert in the 2013-14 NBA and they likely usurp Noah, Howard, and Jefferson. But as it stands today, with their games still incomplete, Towns and Gobert sit on the fringes of elite.


Listen to Dane on Wolves Wired!