February 7, 2020, 3:33 am
The Timberwolves have not been shy about their pursuit of D’Angelo Russell. As soon as Kevin Durant chose the Nets and set the dominos in motion, Minnesota has been at the forefront of all Russell conversations, trying desperately to get the guard that they envisioned as the perfect running mate for Karl-Anthony Towns.
After pitching woo in free agency, waiting several months, reports of a wide gulf between the Wolves and Warriors, an earlier trade to open up space and add a pick, and a busy Thursday afternoon, the Wolves finally struck a deal to bring Russell north.
In addition to acquiring their holy grail, the Wolves also traded Andrew Wiggins, the frustrating first overall pick who still has yet to put it all together, tied to one of the worst contracts in the league. It must’ve felt like Christmas.
The persistence of Wolves president Gersson Rosas paid off, with the Warriors’ hasty acquisition of Russell clearly leading to a trade down the road, no matter how much Golden State protested. They said repeatedly that Russell was part of the core; that they were excited to see how he would fit next to Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Ultimately, prying Russell from the Warriors took less than was rumored – the albatross Wiggins contract, a first-round pick in 2021 and a second-round selection in 2021.
This season was supposed to be a reset, with the Wolves looking to find pieces that could complement and elevate Towns. It’s been a trying year, with Towns visibly frustrated by Minnesota’s collective ineptitude. At its most basic level, this trade delivers the franchise player one of his best friends and should at least buy the team some time to keep building. It was beginning to look touch-and-go, with everyone tiring of losses where the Wolves, Towns occasionally included, displayed a disturbing level of lethargy.
The hope is that Russell’s arrival provides a jolt of energy to the entire organization, Towns specifically. The team’s flashy new point guard, the best fit for KAT that he’s ever played with, will be a rising tide that floats all boats in a perfect world. Russell will also bring reprieve for Jarrett Culver and give the team a real facilitator; someone they can count on to keep the offense moving. Making real headway will require more additions and more roster turnover, but this is a major first step.
It’s also completely fair to question how exactly Russell, who has never been an efficient player and is horrific on the defensive end, can mask or erase some of this team’s flaws. A Towns-Russell duo will be a grand buffet for any decent offensive team. Enjoying your job and liking your coworkers certainly lends a certain verve for the tasks at hand, but there are limits to how much that emotional boost can impact play on the court. Neither player has been a leader of a team that was legitimately good. Whether pairing up can change that remains to be seen, but it’s a huge bet by the Wolves.
Despite the era of good vibes that is coming up, there will be an adjustment period.
Towns has become more of a perimeter player throughout his career. This season he has 237 above-the-break threes compared to 215 shots from the restricted area. 44.6% of his field goals are 3-pointers. Those of you who play fantasy basketball have been bemoaning that trend for a while, but Towns has been able to stave off major criticism simply because he’s an excellent shooter. Of the 14 players who have averaged at least eight 3-pointers per game, Towns ranks second in the league with a .406 conversion rate, trailing only Davis Bertans.
Could Towns dominate most opponents in the paint? Probably. Has he needed to? Not really.
That might be due for a change given Russell’s shot profile.
Per the NBA’s tracking data, Russell has taken 89 shots of his 635 shots off drives (driving layups, floaters, dunks, etc.) – about 14% of his total shots. He’s taken 48 in the restricted area, good for 7.6%. Russell is shooting 47.8% on shots in the paint, which make up about 29% of his shot share overall. He’s never had the strength to finish through contact and is far more comfortable hoisting from the mid-range and beyond. Russell’s a tremendous floor-spacer and tough shot-maker, but both he and Towns are predisposed to the pick-and-pop game given their shooting prowess. If the pairing can make more use of Towns as a roll man, it could unlock a new dimension for the Wolves.
His 3-point shooting is a necessary addition for the system that Ryan Saunders is trying to instill, and some of the new bench players will also help that endeavor significantly. Perhaps Towns will gravitate towards the hoop now that he won’t be the team’s only legitimate spacing threat out of pick-and-roll action.
By net rating, Russell has been a positive player just once in his career. That’s an imperfect measure since Russell has dealt with injuries and played mostly on terrible teams. Fittingly, the one time he was positive (plus-0.2) was with last season’s Nets, the first half decent team he’s ever rolled with.
When Russell was off the court, the Nets still had a plus-0.2 net rating.
Despite his reputation for clutch play, Russell shrunk in his lone postseason appearance. He averaged 19.4 points on 35.9% shooting against the Sixers, with a minus-27.9 net rating in his 148 playoff minutes. He should get used to a full season of intensity, the likes of which he just hasn’t had to deal with after playing for two terrible Western outfits and a first-round fodder team in a weak East. Unlike this year’s Warriors, opponents will take the Wolves seriously enough to focus up and not just let him cook.
The move is not without risks, and significant ones at that. The Wolves’ new duo represents progress, and the organization can finally shake the ghosts of the Wiggins era and try to move forward with a reenergized Towns on board with the plan, but surrendering a first-round pick that’s merely top-3 protected in what’s expected to be a loaded 2021 draft class is a big gamble.
There’s plenty of roster building still left to be done, but Russell and Towns will be tasked with the sort of heavy lifting that’s going to require more than gaudy numbers and highlights. Neither player has shown the ability to rise to that level with consistency yet. If the progress is slow, Minnesota may be losing a high lottery pick. The Wolves might have to progress at a clip faster than “moderate” given the depth and competitiveness of the Western Conference. There will be no easy nights, and there are more than enough flaws to think that those problems can simply be outscored by two wonderfully gifted offensive players.
Beyond the new star pairing, Rosas has also completely reshaped the team’s bench. He did well to remake their roster despite having limited assets of actual trade value. They got a pretty good haul out of the Robert Covington trade, and perhaps the extra pick they added persuaded them to include that 2021 selection to finally get Russell. You can see how the pieces are supposed to fit together, but everyone will be learning to play together and speed bumps should be expected.
Though Minnesota also added Jacob Evans and Omari Spellman, this deal is clearly about one incoming player and one outgoing player. Though the floor could drop out if Russell and Towns can’t turn their off-court chemistry into wins, this is a deal that the Wolves would make 100 times out of 100. To move on from the Wiggins era and get the player you’ve coveted for so long at the same time is a coup, even if it blows up in their faces. It’s rare that the old vision board actually works like this.
Minnesota now has a star to pair with Towns, and one that figures to be eager to play with his pal and finally settle down with one organization. It isn’t a perfect pairing but it’s a worthwhile start. The Wolves are on their way again, with part one of the plan officially in the books.