The idea of twin towers has been around ever since Sauron and Saruman teamed up to try to start a dynasty in the third age of Middle Earth. The two towers ultimately failed in Middle Earth, but they’ve been a little more potent 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 three-point shooting and spacing have taken over the league, the Minnesota Timberwolves are trying to throw things back by pairing Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert to bully their way to a championship. It’s an interesting strategy that has had mixed results in the past.
To fully understand if Minnesota’s beefed-up frontcourt is a good idea, let’s look at the history of twin towers in the NBA.
Championship teams built around a larger-than-life center who carried a bunch of smallies to a title littered the early days of the NBA. George Mikan, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar dominated the game from the ’40s through the ’70s and ’80s. The ticket to a championship is one skilled giant in the post. But the idea was if you stuck another behemoth in the paint next to him, it would clog the lane 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 bigs was born.
Unseld and Hayes were mountainous men in their heyday but hardly counted as twin towers. They were closer to a large mound (Unseld) and a chiseled granite rockface (Hayes). Washington listed Unseld at 6’7″ and Hayes as 6’9″, but it was one of the first times in NBA history that two tall players were the two biggest stars on their team. Unseld and Hayes led the Bullets to the 1978 NBA championship and obliterated the idea that two bigs would ruin your offense.
The twin towers were truly born in 1984. The Houston Rockets had selected 7’4″ string bean Ralph Sampson first overall in 1983 and then took fellow 7-footer Hakeem Olajuwon with the first pick in 1984. They took the league by storm. Sampson and Olajuwon averaged more than 20 points, 10 rebounds, and two blocks per game in Olajuwon’s rookie season, leading the Rockets back to the playoffs.
The two tall boys kicked things into 12th gear the following season when they took Houston to the NBA Finals. However, they lost to the greatest Boston Celtics team in six games. Unfortunately, things didn’t last long for the OG tallies. Sampson’s legs buckled under his immense height, and Houston quickly traded him to the Golden State Warriors. While they didn’t win a championship together, Sampson and Olajuwon paved the way for other twin towers to pop up around the league.
Michael Jordan defined the next decade of the NBA. No matter how big a team tried to get, MJ would jump over them on his way to six championships in the ’90s. Upon his retirement in 1998, the NBA was finally ready for two of the greatest big men of all time to team up.
In the late 90s, the San Antonio Spurs weren’t the model franchise we know them as today. They were first-round fodders in the two decades since they joined the NBA from the ABA. Then came David Robinson, a 7’0″ sailor carved out of marble and went to battle every night against the likes of Olajuwon, Shaq, Patrick Ewing, and Alonzo Mourning in the golden age of centers. All that work took its toll, and Robinson played just six games in 1996-97, thanks to a broken foot.
What should have been a death knell for a middle-of-the-road franchise was a blessing in disguise. They took a swimmer-turned-basketball player by the name of Tim Duncan with the first pick of the draft. The rest is history. The Admiral and the Big Fundamental led the Spurs to their first championship in the strike-shortened 1999 season and grabbed a second ring in Robinson’s final season. Yes, he was a shell of his former self at the end, but the twin towers agenda worked as well as anyone could have dreamed in San Antonio.
Then nothing. The 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 teamed up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Then it finally happened. A true jump-shooting team, the 2015 Warriors, won a championship. And that was it; the twin tower movement was over. Everyone was going small and adding more three-point shooters instead of bigs to gobble up roast beef, which is rebounds.
Teams tried to go big. The New Orleans Pelicans added DeMarcus Cousins to a roster led by Anthony Davis. It was a fun year, but the Pelicans bowed out in the second round and dismantled their frontcourt. In the years since, the center position has seen a resurgence with the likes of Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Towns, and Gobert.
Now that the latter two centers have teamed up in Minnesota, is going big the counter-culture movement that can lead the Timberwolves to the promised land? For those who think the days of two bigs leading a championship team are dead, remember that Towns isn’t your normal lane-clogging, heavy-footed center who doesn’t venture outside the paint. He’s part of the three-point shooting revolution, and the player front offices thought was going to break the NBA. Towns is the self-appointed greatest shooting big man of all time and moving to power forward this season.
Maybe this isn’t 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 figured out how to put two giant humans together on the same basketball court in a way we haven’t seen before.