Why trading D’Angelo Russell is so complicated for the Timberwolves (2024)

A quick trivia question: how many guards are currently averaging 17 points, six assists, and shot better than 36 percent from three-point range?

The answer is six: Tyrese Haliburton, Darius Garland, Damian Lillard, Jrue Holiday, Jalen Brunson ... and D’Angelo Russell.

Several of those guards are in the All-Star conversation this season, while the Minnesota Timberwolves point guard finds himself reportedly on the trading block. It’s only been four years since Russell was an All-Star in his own right for the Brooklyn Nets, and ever since he’s bounced around playing third or fourth fiddle.

D’Angelo will turn 27 years old before February and has been mentioned frequently this past week as a trade candidate. The Timberwolves have struggled to gain chemistry or stay healthy with their new nucleus which includes Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert, and Anthony Edwards. The Towns and Gobert pairing draws the most attention and skepticism due to its nature since both are 7-footers who have previously played center. Ever since President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly acquired Gobert, he’s constructed an environment where everything needs to be built around getting that twin towers lineup to succeed without impeding the growth of future star Anthony Edwards.

That very much leaves Russell on the outside, somewhat underappreciated and cast aside. He will be a free agent this summer, and almost certainly will not command a salary close to the $31.3 million he’s getting right now. However, the Timberwolves cannot afford to let Russell walk out the door this July for nothing, especially considering the cap crunch they have put themselves in by dealing all their future assets to land Gobert.

Understanding the trade likelihoods for Russell requires a look at both sides of the coin: the on-court offerings and the cap mechanics which dictate how the Timberwolves must operate on the market.

On-Court

By almost any metric, D’Angelo is having one of the most efficient scoring seasons of his career. He’s always been an above-average three-point shooter capable of working next to a more ball-dominant piece and killing teams that go under high ball screens. Russell has been much more crafty and consistent as a finisher on the inside, boasting a career-high 52.9 percent on shots between three and 10-feet, according to his basketball-reference page. Synergy Sports Tech logs him as shooting 67 percent at the rim, by far the best of his career.

Russell has never been a blistering athlete, often struggling to separate one-on-one from his man. Roll gravity bigs or great screeners have always been good partners of his, and finding ways to get him the ball on the move helps negate a poor first step from a standstill. Russell is great at playing with a very crafty verve and has mastered head fakes, angles, and ways to get to his left hand for finishes.

My personal favorite little trick Russell pulls out is a look-away as he’s attacking, freezing help defenders and rim protectors in their tracks:

While that helps D’Angelo finish at the basket, he often needs help getting there — even when playing off-ball. What he resorts to now is the most exaggerated shot fake in the league and is giving real Al Jefferson vibes. Russell will lift the ball about four inches above his head and hope that the defender creeps up just enough to provide an advantage.

Somehow it works.

Russell’s shot fake is believable because he’s always been a consistently above-average shooter. He’s made 38.8 percent of his catch-and-shoot looks this year, and has made over 35 percent from deep in his time with the Timberwolves. He slides in so well next to any scoring guard (like Edwards) because he can play off-ball, and has learned to be an excellent cutter to complement frontcourt creators as well. Gone are the days when he should be averaging 20 points a night. He’s proven himself to be a high-quality third or fourth option, though.

For Russell, offense has always been the easy part. He’s once again posting efficient scoring clips, decent raw assist-to-turnover metrics, and is steadily improving at aspects of his game that have been criticized (his finishing, mainly). Yet the Timberwolves are a net negative with Russell on the floor, playing as a -5.8 per 100 possessions when he’s in.

Defense has never been Russell’s calling card. He’s a subpar athlete 6’4 combo without quick-twitch athleticism and heavy feet, making him an easy target. The presence of Rudy Gobert as a rim protector would, in theory, give a higher margin for error and erase some of those mistakes with a great piece on the backside. In reality, that hasn’t helped Russell this year.

In the pre-Gobert days, the Timberwolves found ways to become competent in the regular season based on an aggressive scheme where Russell was playing the quarterback from the weak side. They finished 13th in net defensive rating before having the flaws of a KAT-centric defense ruin their playoff chances. Everything hinged on Russell’s IQ and identification skills, 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 that quarterback role and instead chases opposing guards over screens, a less-than-ideal role for him. While the Wolves defense has remained consistent, Russell has been deemed more expendable against certain lineups or when teammates play well while he’s on the bench. He can go from sitting the final 16 minutes of one game to hitting the game-tying last-minute basket the next.

That’s not 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 huge volume of reps, Russell is a piece that fits well into a lot of NBA offenses and could be a sought-after piece at the deadline. By my measure, he remains one of the more underrated third-option producers in the league. With the right defensive infrastructure that utilizes him off-ball as much as on-ball and doesn’t ask him to do too much one-on-one creation, Russell could stand to gain a lot from a new environment.

The Contract

The Wolves have treated Russell — for better or for worse — as their fourth priority and fourth option on their current team. Chemistry has not been great on-court for this group to start their tenure as they hover around .500. Connelly has spent a great deal of capital to get the collection of talent together, and Russell is the likely first one to be jettisoned off to a new location if a change has to be made.

Russell is on an expiring contract, meaning he can walk away this summer if he chooses. The Timberwolves would then get nothing in return if Russell chose to leave, and that would be a disaster scenario for this front office.

As of now, the Timberwolves’ salary for the 2022-23 season is at $147.2 million, just shy of the $150 million luxury tax number but well over the cap. Next year, the Wolves have $119.7 million on their books, a figure that does not include the point guard free-agent-to-be. Most estimates put the cap at $134 million for next season, meaning the Timberwolves would have about $14 million — not quite in the realm of starter money — to replace Russell on the open market. With only 10 players signed for next year and no 2023 draft pick, it’s likely the Wolves wouldn’t be able to spend all that cap money on one high-caliber player.

Future flexibility is not on the horizon either. Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels are extension eligible this summer, and just one max extension from Edwards all but zaps their ability to find a starting point guard on the market. In 2024-25, Gobert and Towns will make a combined $94 million, just as Edwards’ max would kick in.

In essence, Connelly and the front office have to decide now what happens with Russell this summer. If there is confidence they can and want to keep him, his Bird Rights (which allow the team to stay over the salary cap to sign his next deal) are a tremendous asset. However, rocky terrain with the inconsistent role on-court and lack of extension traction off it don’t lead to that being a likely scenario. If the Timberwolves want to cover their asses to prevent a disaster this summer and beyond, dealing Russell now makes a ton of sense.

Even if the Timberwolves are somewhat held hostage by the need to make sure Russell doesn’t walk away in July, they still would need the right type of player and haul to get back in a trade this February. Russell’s large and expiring contract complicates those matters. NBA trade rules require matching salaries, so the Timberwolves cannot take back more or less than 125 percent of Russell’s salary when dealing with a fellow tax team. With the current season dismantled by injuries and mired in mediocrity, it’s difficult to see ownership okaying a deal that would vault Minnesota over the $150 million luxury tax threshold, of which they are less than $3 million shy currently.

Remember, the Timberwolves are essentially out of future first-round picks to trade thanks to their Gobert deal. There are very few ways to attach a future asset with Russell to get a major upgrade. They could get a comparable player perhaps, but likely an older one, as names like Mike Conley (35 years old) and Kyle Lowry (turning 37 in March) are most frequently brought up in a potential Russell swap.

Any team acquiring Russell is unlikely to give up too much substantive value unless they feel confident in striking a new contract with D’Angelo this summer. All these factors make it incredibly difficult to come up with the right move for the Timberwolves to make. At the end of the day, Connelly is in a place with no margin for error. He has to keenly navigate the next few weeks (or, if they keep Russell, few months) to make sure the Wolves don’t lose arguably their most important contractual asset as they push the chips all-in on the Gobert, Towns, and Edwards experiment.

As an expert in basketball analysis, I can provide a comprehensive breakdown of the concepts discussed in the article. The article primarily focuses on D'Angelo Russell, the Minnesota Timberwolves point guard, and delves into various aspects such as his on-court performance, defensive capabilities, contract situation, and the potential trade scenarios surrounding him.

On-Court Performance: The article highlights D'Angelo Russell's efficiency as a scorer, especially from three-point range, and his ability to work alongside ball-dominant players. It emphasizes his craftiness, consistency as a finisher, and improvement in scoring efficiency, showcasing statistics such as his career-high 52.9 percent on shots between three and 10 feet. The analysis includes insights into Russell's playing style, including his shot fake technique and his proficiency in catch-and-shoot situations. Despite his offensive contributions, the article notes that the Timberwolves have a net negative performance with Russell on the floor, questioning his overall impact.

Defensive Challenges: The article acknowledges Russell's defensive limitations, describing him as a subpar athlete without quick-twitch athleticism. It discusses the shift in his defensive role since the acquisition of Rudy Gobert, moving from a quarterback role to chasing opposing guards over screens. Despite Gobert's presence as a rim protector, the article suggests that Russell's defensive struggles persist, making him seem more expendable in certain lineups.

Contract Situation: The piece emphasizes the delicate contract situation of D'Angelo Russell. It mentions that he is on an expiring contract, creating a scenario where he could leave the Timberwolves in the upcoming summer, potentially without compensation for the team. The article outlines the Timberwolves' salary cap status, indicating they are close to the luxury tax threshold for the current and upcoming seasons. It explains the importance of Russell's Bird Rights for future negotiations and the challenges the team faces in terms of salary cap and roster flexibility.

Trade Scenarios and Challenges: The article discusses the trade possibilities for Russell, considering both on-court performance and the financial aspects. It highlights the difficulty in finding a suitable trade given Russell's large and expiring contract. NBA trade rules requiring salary matching pose challenges for the Timberwolves, especially considering their current cap situation and lack of future first-round picks due to the Rudy Gobert deal. The article suggests that any potential trade would require careful consideration to avoid exceeding the luxury tax threshold and potentially compromising future roster flexibility.

Front Office Decision-Making: The article concludes by emphasizing the importance of the Timberwolves' front office in deciding Russell's future with the team. It underscores the need for strategic decision-making in the next few weeks or months to ensure they don't lose Russell as a contractual asset while navigating the challenges of the current roster configuration centered around Gobert, Towns, and Edwards.

In summary, the article provides a thorough analysis of D'Angelo Russell's situation, encompassing his on-court contributions, defensive challenges, contract status, and the complexities surrounding potential trade scenarios for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Why trading D’Angelo Russell is so complicated for the Timberwolves (2024)

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