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Examining potential trade destinations for D'Angelo Russell

Examining potential trade destinations for D'Angelo Russell

Changes are coming in Minnesota.

Fresh off a 46-36 campaign and competitive first-round exit, the Timberwolves have already gone swinging. There's a new sheriff in town, with former Denver Nuggets president Tim Connelly joining the team in a similar role. The price was huge: a five-year deal worth north of $40 million and  — and! — equity in the organization, per The Athletic. It's a monstrous deal with the potential for more — a deal, as my Dunker Spot co-host Steve Jones Jr. described on our latest episode, that the Nuggets weren't likely to match.

There's obvious intrigue in Connelly's move to Minnesota, namely him leaving a successful division rival that currently rosters a back-to-back MVP in Nikola Jokic to do so. But the interest for me has come with the reporting around the move. Take this passage from The Athletic's Jon Krawczynski and Shams Charania as negotiations were heating up between the two sides.

Leaving the two-time MVP for upstart Minnesota would be a bold move. But the Timberwolves do have a pair of building blocks in Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards, promising young talent in Jaden McDaniels and Jarred Vanderbilt, a coach who is revered throughout the organization and an ownership group that appears to be motivated to invest in the organization.

Hmm... notice anyone missing? Also, the "ownership group that appears to be motivated to invest" portion could be seen as subtle shade toward the organization that was on track to lose Masai Ujiri (killing it in Toronto since 2014) and Connelly due to being outbid. 

And how about this one, from Krawczynski and Charania again, after the deal was done

There are reasons beyond financial for him to be optimistic about the situation in Minnesota. Connelly will be taking over a team with two stars in Towns and Edwards, promising young players in Jaden McDaniels and Vanderbilt and a top-notch coach in Chris Finch, who spent one season working with Connelly in Denver as an assistant on Malone’s staff. D’Angelo Russell had a strong season before struggling in the playoffs and Patrick Beverley asserted himself as a tough, veteran leader for a young group.

Ah, there's the name. But you see why my brow is raised, right? Towns and Edwards represent the core. McDaniels and Vanderbilt are the young pieces dubbed to grow alongside them. The 26 year-old Russell — one of Towns' best friends making north of $30 million this season — went from not being mentioned at all in the lead-up piece, to essentially getting a throw-in line with Beverley in the update five days later.

Oh, it doesn't help that Jordan McLaughlin was closing out playoff games while a healthy Russell watched in Round 1. Add in the fact that Russell's future has already been questioned, and I think it's fair to assume what the big roster swing for the Wolves will be. 

Any team acquiring him will be on the hook for over $31 million next season, though that's the only year left on Russell's deal. 

WHAT RUSSELL BRINGS

Russell remains a smooth operator. He's a proactive passer, one who's able to see and fire into a gap before most players know what's happening. You'll see it with his transition hit-aheads, as well as some of the reads he'll make in pick-and-roll.

And about pick-and-roll: Not many players blend pull-up shooting and high-level passing like Russell does. You can't afford to duck under against him, or drop your big back too far. He will absolutely waltz into jumpers. Once he gets hot, you're forced to press up — and that opens up even more passing windows for him.

Russell was one of 31 players to receive at least 1,500 on-ball picks this season, per Second Spectrum. Russell-led ball screens were good for nearly 1.03 points per possession (PPP), a top-10ish mark in NBA among high volume ball-handlers.

You can thank the jumper for that — Russell converted 37% of the pull-up threes he attempted out of pick-and-roll, per InStat tracking. For comparison, that put him in line with high volume pull-up artists like Stephen Curry (38.9%) and Trae Young (37.0%).

(Also: Shout out to Darius Garland for bombing away at a 42.5% clip. That guy's getting paid.

LIMITATIONS

Russell is what I'd describe as a two-level scorer. He's comfortable firing from deep, and he's able to snake and hunt shots around the elbow area with the best of them. Rim pressure is... simply not his thing. Only 16% of Russell's shots came at the rim last season, a mark that ranks in the 16th percentile per Cleaning The Glass. (Not great!)

And as someone who rarely got to the rim, Russell didn't draw many shooting fouls either. The lack of "easy points" lends to a boom-or-bust nature in Russell's game. His pull-up jumper is a legit weapon, but things kinda crater for him if it isn't falling in a way that isn't helpful for your lead ball-handler. 

I think a truth has become (more) clear — Russell needs to be paired with a ball-dominant rim threat to get the best out of him.

That was the intrigue around Edwards taking more of a lead role in the second half of the season. In theory, Edwards ability to touch the paint on any given possession would lead to easier catch-and-shoot — or catch-and-drive — opportunities for Russell. A team trading for Russell should have a similar infrastructure in place.

Defensively, Russell found his home as a middle linebacker. Most teams rely on their primary rim-protector to call out coverages and actions. For Minnesota, that responsibility was Russell's. It was an odd dynamic, but one that worked. He was often seen and heard barking out instructions while he zoned up behind the action.

I remained worried about him in more conservative defensive schemes. Russell isn't the quickest laterally. And while he's improved a bit from his rookie season (I'd hope so!), screen navigation remains an issue for him overall.

With the Wolves, Russell was blessed with the opportunity to roam off-ball (his ideal role) while having the screen navigation issues limited due to his big hedging ball-screens with him. If Russell's dumped into a drop scheme, the onus flips back on him to stay attached to ball-handlers. That could be a tricky bet.

LANDING SPOTS

Due to Russell's contract and the context needed to unlock him on both ends, it's hard to imagine 20+ teams blowing up the phones in Minnesota. There are a few teams that:

1) Make theoretical sense for Russell's game

2) Have the contracts to at least get conversations started

The New York Knicks have been searching for a calming presence at point guard for ages; at the very least, a guy that can grease the wheels of an offense with pick-and-roll play. While an in-house option is staring them in the faceI'm with you, Knick fans — it wouldn't shock me to see the Knicks take a flier on a talent like Russell, especially if it doesn't cost a core piece. 

The contracts of Alec Burks, Derrick Rose, and Nerlens Noel get you in the ballpark of Russell's number. The Knicks have the Mavericks' first rounder in 2023 — a likely low 20s pick — to toss in if the Wolves don't think that's enough.

In theory, you'd have Russell playing off the rim-battering of RJ Barrett and Julius Randle. Maybe you get a more unlocked Randle with someone that can thread the needle on tight-window passes more consistently. 

The Wolves would be able to bolster their depth, adding some rim pressure (Rose), movement shooting (Burks) and a big that can do work in an aggressive scheme (Noel). The Knicks losing the latter would be buffered by the retention of Mitchell Robinson and the likely growth from Jericho Sims.

Quick question: Who's the best passer for the Los Angeles Clippers? Follow-up question: How many names did you list before naming an actual guard? The combined deals of Reggie Jackson and Luke Kennard get you in the door. I can hear arguments about that already being too much for L.A. I'd argue that Russell gives you more on the playmaking front, gives you more size in the backcourt and helps your defense without tapping into your wing depth. Again, there's at least a conversation to be had.

If you're looking to pair Russell with a ball-dominant rim threat, how about Luka Doncic and Dallas? At worst, Russell could serve as a buffer to Jalen Brunson signing elsewhere. Tim Hardaway Jr. and Dwight Powell would give the Wolves the movement shooting, plus big-man depth combination to bolster their supporting cast. I'd argue the Mavericks may have to throw in a pick, though they're a little light on that front.

Lastly, would you rather have Russell or Cole Anthony? Actually, don't answer that.

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