“There are times when we carry ourselves in a way that infuriates people.” That was head coach Bernie Bickerstaff talking about his Washington Wizards, who were in the middle of a 1998 campaign that would see them miss the playoffs and trade away Chris Webber a few months later. The previous year had wrapped up with Washington winning 19 of their final 26 games and pushing the Bulls in a hard-fought first round sweep. Michael Jordan described them as an up and coming powerhouse, and while that looked to be the case when they were at their best, they didn’t operate at peak efficiency very often.
Professionalism was a term wielded freely in the 90s by crusty beat writers who wanted to scold players more or les for being young, rich, and black, but the Wiz were genuinely unprofessional. Rod Strickland was out of shape, regularly showed up late for team meetings, and once got in a hotel room rumble with Tracy Murray. Strick, Webber, and Juwan Howard all had DUI arrests on their records. The Wiz were infamous for their lack of effort in certain road games, and they partied prodigiously. They could just as easily beat up on a title contender as mail it in against a cellar dweller. “This is a team that collectively doesn't get it,” Mike Wilbon wrote in January of that 1997-98 season. “That is sorely lacking in discipline and sense of purpose.” For once, he was right.
Everybody already knew Rod Strickland was a headache, and Juwan Howard was as boring as his geometrically perfect goatee, so Webber caught the brunt of the criticism for the Wizards’ underachievement. He had, after all, forced his way to Washington after not getting along with Don Nelson in Golden State. He was getting a reputation as a malcontent, one of the most skilled big men the game had ever seen but not as dominant as he should be, either unwilling to put in the work to realize his MVP potential or afraid of discovering that his best effort wasn’t good enough. He arrived in Sacramento as a figure of lingering promise and considerable lament. S.L. Price, channeling Meredith Brooks at Sports Illustrated: “is [Webber], at 26, a winner? A rapper? A pothead? A spokesman for his race? A leader, a follower, a con artist? Out for his team or out for himself? A problem or a solution?”
Karl-Anthony Towns is 25, about to enter his sixth NBA season, and has a lot in common with Webber at the same age. He’s a less interesting figure, given that Webber was a cultural icon along with the rest of the Fab Five at Michigan, but KAT shares with mid-career C-Webb mould-breaking offensive ability, a mercurial personality, and a creeping fraudulence. The numbers look good, the highlights are spectacular, but his team can’t break through, and it’s beginning to read like an indictment of his capabilities as a franchise player. We hold Webber in pretty high esteem these days, but in 1998, he was sent to the Kings in exchange for a 33-year-old Mitch Richmond and Otis Thorpe. Don Nelson, circa then: “I really don’t know who Chris Webber is. No, I really don’t.”
Towns should probably get a mulligan on last season. The Wolves were in flux with Ryan Saunders in charge for his first (sort of) full year. Andrew Wiggins was obviously on his way out the door, and when Minnesota sent him to Golden State for D’Angelo Russell, D-Lo and KAT only got to play a single game together before Towns went out with a wrist injury. Then the pandemic swept in and washed away the rest of the calendar. Bad luck, bad timing.
To make matters worse, Towns suffered personal tragedy when his mother died of COVID in mid-April. He recently revealed that he’s lost six other family members to the virus. In a year that’s been tough on everybody, Towns has had an extraordinarily tough time.
But on the court, the Wolves have a chance to be one of the more interesting squads in the league, and if Towns can find a new level—particularly on defense, where has the ability to do a fine job but often seems uninterested—they can have a lot of fun. This means something because since the Tom Thibodeau era imploded almost as quickly as it came into being, the Wolves have been such a dour, dispiriting franchise. Towns has been a big part of that. He’s not the type to fight his way out of a poor situation. Mostly, he just sulks: puts up his stats and shrugs his shoulders as the losses pile up. “It’s disappointing that this year’s All-Star Game won’t have the 24 best players in it,” he smarmed to reporters after failing to qualify for the Western Conference roster last season. “I’ve been disrespected since I came in [the league]. It’s nothing new when I didn’t see my name up there.” That quote is from February 3rd of this year. At the time, due in part to a month-long injury layoff, Towns hadn’t played in a Wolves win since November 27th.
Thankfully cluelessness is not a permanent state. You don’t have to be what you are at 25 years old forever. Towns needs a fresh outlook. Maybe having his friend D’Angelo around will help. They should make for a great pick and roll duo, if nothing else. Where his career is headed, whether he’ll stay tethered to Minnesota, or seek pleasure elsewhere, shouldn’t be an immediate concern. He’s entering year two of a five-year contract, which means his near future is with the Wolves. We tend to forget, because the Sacramento Kings went on to become a spectacular team, that Webber didn’t particularly want to be there, nor were they overly successful in his first season. They nosed over .500 and lost in the first round of the playoffs in 1998-99. But they had hope, because something clicked for Webber. He got along well with Rick Adelman, liked playing alongside Jason Williams and Vlade Divac. For the first time since he was playing at Michigan, he felt at home. He didn’t expect to. He merely opened himself up to the possibility.
KAT, D-Lo, Josh Okogie, Malik Beasley, Ricky Rubio, Juancho Hernangomez, Jake Layman, Jaden McDaniels, and Anthony “Gridiron” Edwards. Jarrett Culver can’t possibly be as bad as he was in his rookie season. The Wolves aren’t the Miami Heat, but if Karl-Anthony Towns can’t find a way to win some games and enjoy himself a little bit with that collection of talent, that’s on him. He’s plenty gifted enough to take them places, and he has the stature and seniority to control the locker room vibes. It’s up to him what he wants to make of himself and his circumstances, which after five years in Minnesota have become inextricable from one another. “I’m not at peace with my career,” Chris Webber said upon being shipped off to Sacramento. Towns clearly isn’t either. What’s less clear is if he knows what will satisfy him.
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