The idea of the Twin Towers has been around since Sauron and Saruman teamed up in an attempt to found a dynasty in the Third Age of Middle-earth. Both Towers ultimately failed in Middle-earth, but they were a bit more powerful in the NBA.
For decades the NBA was dominated by big men, but more often than not they were a lonely mountain surrounded by guards. Now that shooting and three-point spacing have taken over the league, the Minnesota Timberwolves are trying to turn the tide by pairing Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert to fight their way to a championship. It’s an interesting strategy that has had mixed results in the past.
To fully understand whether Minnesota’s reinforced frontcourt is a good idea, let’s look at the history of the NBA Twin Towers.
Championship teams built around a larger-than-life center that carried a small group of players to a title littered in the early days of the NBA. George Mikan, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar dominated the game from the 1940s through the 1970s and 80s. The ticket to a championship is a post-qualified giant. But the idea was that if you stuck another juggernaut in the paint next to it, it would obstruct the way and bog down the rest of your team. It wasn’t until the Washington Bullets paired Elvin Hayes with Wes Unseld in the mid-’70s that the idea of building around two greats was born.
Unseld and Hayes were mountaineers in their heyday but barely counted as twin towers. They were closer to a large mound (Unseld) and a chiseled granite rock face (Hayes). Washington ranked Unseld at 6’7″ and Hayes at 6’9″, but it was one of the first times in NBA history that two great players were their team’s two biggest stars. Unseld and Hayes led the Bullets to the 1978 NBA championship and erased the idea that two greats would ruin your offense.
The Twin Towers were truly born in 1984. The Houston Rockets first selected 7’4″ bean Ralph Sampson overall in 1983, then took fellow 7-footer Hakeem Olajuwon with the No. 1 pick in 1984. They have taken the league by storm. Sampson and Olajuwon averaged over 20 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks per game in Olajuwon’s rookie season, leading the Rockets back to the playoffs.
The two big boys shifted into 12th gear the following season when they took Houston to the NBA Finals. However, they lost to the greatest team Boston Celtics in six games. Unfortunately, things didn’t last long for OG counts. Sampson’s legs buckled under his immense height, and Houston quickly traded him to the Golden State Warriors. Although they did not win a championship together, Sampson and Olajuwon paved the way for other Twin Towers to appear in the league.
Michael Jordan defined the next decade of the NBA. No matter how big a team was trying to get, MJ was jumping over it on his way to six championships in the 90s. Upon his retirement in 1998, the NBA was finally ready for two of the greatest men of all times team up.
Back in the late ’90s, the San Antonio Spurs weren’t the model franchise we know today. They’ve been first-round fodder in the two decades since joining the NBA from the ABA. Then came David Robinson, a 7’0″ sailor cut from marble who fought every night against Olajuwon, Shaq, Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning in the heyday of centers. All that work took its toll, and Robinson only played six games in 1996-97, thanks to a broken foot.
What should have been a death knell for a middling franchise was a blessing in disguise. They took a swimmer-turned-basketball player by the name of Tim Duncan with the first draft pick. The rest is history. Admiral and Big Fundamental led Spurs to their first championship in the strike-shortened 1999 season and won a second ring in Robinson’s final season. Yes, he was a shell of himself in the end, but the Twin Towers program worked as well as anyone could have dreamed of in San Antonio.
Then nothing. Spurs continued to rack up titles with Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Kevin Garnett formed a Big 3 with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. LeBron James has teamed up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Then it finally happened. A real obstacle shooting team, the 2015 Warriors won a championship. And that was it; the twin towers movement was over. Everyone was getting small and adding more three-point shooters instead of big ones to gobble up roast beef, bouncing.
The teams tried to think big. The New Orleans Pelicans have added DeMarcus Cousins to a roster led by Anthony Davis. It was a fun year, but the Pelicans pulled out in the second round and dismantled their frontcourt. In the years that followed, the central position saw a resurgence with Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Towns and Gobert.
Now that these latter two centers have teamed up in Minnesota, is the counterculture movement that can lead the Timberwolves to the promised land gaining momentum? For those who think the days of two greats leading a championship team are over, remember Towns isn’t your normal lane-clogging center who doesn’t venture outside the paint. He’s part of the three-point shooting revolution, and player front offices thought he was going to break the NBA. Towns is the self-proclaimed greatest shooter of all time and is stepping up to the fore this season.
This may not be the resurgence of the Twin Towers, but the start of something new. Like the ’78 Bullets with Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld, perhaps the 2022-23 Timberwolves have figured out how to bring two giant humans together on the same basketball court in a way we’ve never seen before.