Quick trivia question: How many guards currently average 17 points, six assists, and shoot better than 36 percent from three-point range?
The answer is six: Therese Haliburton, Darius Garland, Damian Lillard, Junior Holiday, Galen Bronson … and D’Angelo Russell.
Several of these guards are in the All-Star conversation this season, instead Minnesota Timberwolves Point guard finds itself as reported in the trade block. It’s only been four years since Russell was an All-Star in his own right for the Brooklyn NetworksAnd since he bounced around playing the third or fourth violin.
D’Angelo will turn 27 before February and it’s been mentioned a lot in the past week as a commercial candidate. The Timberwolves have struggled to gain chemistry or stay healthy with their new core featuring Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert, and Anthony Edwards. Towns and Gobert’s pairing attracts the most attention and skepticism due to its nature as they are both 7-footers and previously played quarterback. Since Joubert was acquired by Chief of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly, he has built an environment in which everything needs to be built around the success of the Twin Towers lineup without hindering the growth of future superstar Anthony Edwards.
This leaves Russell out there, somewhat unappreciated and brushed aside. He’ll be a free agent this summer, and he almost certainly won’t get a salary close to the $31.3 million he’s getting now. However, the Timberwolves can’t let Russell walk out the door in July for nothing, especially given the cover crisis they’ve put themselves in by dealing all of their future assets on Gobert’s land.
Understanding the odds of a trade for Russell requires looking at both sides of the coin: the bids on the court and the cap mechanisms that dictate how the Timberwolves operate in the market.
On the court, on the court
By almost any measure, D’Angelo has one of the most efficient scoring seasons of his career. He has always been an above-average three-point shooter capable of working alongside a ball-dominant piece and killing teams going under high-ball screens. Russell has been a more consistent and adept as an inside finisher, boasting a 52.9 percent shooting percentage between three and 10 feet, According to his basketball reference page. Synergy Sports Tech records him shooting 67 percent on the rim, a career best.
Russell has never been a terrible athlete, and often struggles to separate one-on-ones from his man. Big gravity players or great prospectors have always been good partners for him, and finding ways to get the ball on the move helps negate a bad first move from stopping. Russell is great at playing with very crafty dynamism and has mastered header fakes, angles and accesses with his left hand for the finishing touches.
My personal favorite little trick that Russell pulls is to look away while attacking and freeze to help defenders and edge guards in their tracks:
While this helps D’Angelo finish to the basket, he often needs help getting there – even when playing off the ball. What he now resorts to is the most exaggerated fake shot in the league and gives it away The Jeffersons’ true feelings. Russell will lift the ball about four inches above his head and hope the defender will crawl enough to provide an advantage.
Somehow it works.
Russell’s fake shot is believable as he has always been an above average shooter. He’s made 38.8 percent of his catches this year, and he’s hit more than 35 percent of his depths his time with the Timberwolves. He slides well next to any goal-keeper (such as Edwards) because he can play off the ball, and has learned to be an excellent cutter to complement the front-field builders as well. Gone are the days when you had to average 20 pips a night. However, it has proven to be a higher quality third or fourth choice.
For Russell, the offense was always the easy part. He again posts effective scoring streaks, good turn-assist metrics, and is steadily improving on the aspects of his game that have been criticized (his end, mainly). However, the Timberwolves are a net negative with Russell on the ground, playing at -5.8 per 100 possessions when on the inside.
Defense was never Russell’s calling card. He’s a sub-par athletic 6’4 without quick-jerk athleticism and heavy feet, which makes him an easy target. Having Rudy Gobert as the rim protector would, in theory, give a higher margin for error and erase some of those errors with a hunk on the backside. In fact, it didn’t help Russell this year.
In the pre-Joubert days, the Timberwolves found ways to become regular season eligible based on a strict scheme where Russell would play center on the weak side. They finished 13th net in the defensive rankings before deficiencies in the KAT defense focused defense destroyed their playoff chances. Everything hinged on Russell’s skills of intelligence and identification, and he was able to do all the little things to make that work well.
Since the Timberwolves acquired Gobert, Russell hasn’t been needed in this quarterback role and instead chases opposing guards to screens, a less-than-ideal role for him. While Wolves’ defense remained steadfast, Russell was considered more expendable against certain formations or when teammates were playing well while on the bench. He can go from Sitting the last 16 minutes of one game to hit Last minute basket next one.
This isn’t exactly the role the Timberwolves would be looking for from a $31.3 million contract looking to get another payday. Because he’s efficient as a scorer and doesn’t need a ton of reps, Russell is a piece that fits in well with a lot of NBA offense and could be a needed piece at the deadline. By my measure, he’s still one of the league’s lowest-rated third-choice producers. With the right defensive infrastructure that uses him off the ball as much as on the ball and doesn’t require him to do too much individual creativity, Russell could gain a lot from a new environment.
Wolves have treated Russell – for better or for worse – as fourth priority and fourth option in their current squad. The chemistry wasn’t great on the field for this group to start their stint hovering around .500. Connelly has spent quite a bit of capital bringing the talent together, and Russell is probably the first person to be dumped to a new location if a change had to be made.
Russell is on an expired contract, which means he can leave this summer if he chooses. The Timberwolves would then get nothing in return if Russell chose to leave, and that would be a disastrous scenario for this front office.
As of now, the Timberwolves’ salary for the 2022-23 season is $147.2 million, less than the fancy tax figure of $150 million, but well over the cap. Next year, the Wolves have $119.7 million on their books, a number that doesn’t include the free agent point guard. most estimates Putting the cap at $134 million for next season, which means the Timberwolves will have about $14 million — not quite in the realm of starting money — to replace Russell on the open market. With only 10 players signed for next year and no draft in 2023, the Wolves likely won’t be able to spend all that cap money on one player of this caliber.
Future flexibility is not on the horizon either. Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels are eligible for extensions this summer, and only one extension maxed out by Edwards, all of which impair their ability to find a starting point in the market. In 2024-25, Joubert and Towns will make a combined $94 million, just as Max Edwards will start.
In essence, Connelly and the front office now have to decide what happens with Russell this summer. If there is confidence that they can and want to keep him, his bird rights (which allow the team to stay above the salary cap to sign his next deal) is a tremendous asset. However, the rocky terrain with the inconsistent turn on the pitch and the lack of extended thrust does not lead to this being a likely scenario. If the Timberwolves want to cover their asses to prevent disaster this summer and beyond, dealing with Russell now makes sense.
Even if the Timberwolves are somewhat held hostage by having to make sure Russell doesn’t walk away in July, they still need the right kind of players and drivers to get back into the trade in February. Russell’s large and expired contract complicates these matters. NBA trade rules require matching salaries, so the Timberwolves can’t recover more or less than 125 percent of Russell’s salary when dealing with a fellow tax team. With the current season broken up by injuries and midfield egos, it’s hard to see the ownership agreeing to a deal that would see Minnesota pass the $150 million luxury tax threshold, which it’s currently worth less than $3 million.
Remember, the Timberwolves are basically out of future first-round draft picks thanks to their Gobert deal. There are very few ways to attach a future asset to a Russell for a major upgrade. They could get a similar player maybe, but potentially an older player, because names like Mike Conley (35) and Kyle Lowry (37 in March) are frequently brought up in a potential Russell swap.
It is unlikely that any team acquiring Russell would give up much intrinsic value unless they feel confident in striking a new contract with D’Angelo this summer. All of these factors make it very difficult to come up with the right move for the Timberwolves to make. At the end of the day, Connelly is in a place where there is no margin for error. He has to fervently navigate the next few weeks (or, if they keep Russell, for a few months) to make sure Wolves don’t lose out on arguably their most important contract asset and drive the chips with everything in the Gobert, Towns and Edwards experience.