If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Words to live by for the Minnesota Timberwolves, who finally beat down the Golden State Warriors’ door long and hard enough to get them to trade D’Angelo Russell, the point guard whom the Wolves had been chasing for the better part of the last seven months.
The full terms of the deal:
Minnesota receives D’Angelo Russell, Jacob Evans, and Omari Spellman.
Golden State receives Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota’s 2021 first-round pick (protected 1-3, then unprotected in 2022), and Minnesota’s 2021 second-round pick.
Given where they are and where they want to be, this deal is a massive swing for the Wolves. After a single playoff appearance in the first five years of Karl-Anthony Towns’ time with Minnesota (and that one appearance came when he wasn’t the best player on the team), there was a lot of consternation among the ranks, yet seemingly little Gersson Rosas could do about the situation. Russell spurned the Wolves in the summer, opting for a max contract in a sign-and-trade with the Warriors, but Rosas and his front office staff never gave up on getting their man. As the deadline drew near, the report came out and, just like that, their seven-month journey was complete.
There are obvious concerns about how Russell and Towns will play at the highest levels of NBA basketball. For some teams, this concern is valid – for Minnesota, they’re not ready to start thinking about how their team will fare in the conference finals. They need to start making any playoff noise at all before looking beyond that.
The Russell acquisition should help them do just that. He’s a very solid floor-raiser at the point guard position, he and Towns should immediately have good on-court chemistry (if their off-court relationship is any indication), and he fits Minnesota’s style on both ends of the floor well.
Russell, Towns, and three shooters around them should be a devastating offense in its own right and the two young stars complement one another quite well. Russell’s primary offensive weakness is his inability to take advantage of mismatches. If teams can switch against Russell, he even has trouble beating centers off the dribble, but a 1-5 switch means some poor sucker is stuck on Towns, which isn’t going to go well for the defense. Towns abuses just about everybody these days, but sticking a small guy on him will end up in quick points for the Timberwolves.
As a result, teams are going to have to play more conventionally against the Russell-Towns pick-and-roll combination, which is exactly where Russell thrives. When he is able to turn the corner in ball screen action, he’s a masterful passer and has a pull-up jumper that rivals just about anybody in the league – he finished in the 81st percentile in pull-up efficiency last year with the Nets and was in the 75th percentile with Golden State before the trade. In 2018-19, he finished No. 25 in pull-up efficiency among 92 players with at least 150 attempts on the second-highest volume in the league; only Kemba Walker took more pull-up jumpers than Russell last year. With Towns rolling hard or popping to the perimeter, Russell will get a steady diet of pull-ups that will drive defenses mad.
The other end of the floor is a very, very open question at this point. Neither Russell nor Towns have ever been what anybody would define as a good defender, but there is some hope for the pairing. Russell thrived in 2018-19 when the Nets were in a deep drop defensive scheme against pick-and-roll. Jarrett Allen patrolled the paint and Russell was charged with fighting over the ball screen and getting a hand up to challenge from behind. This works for Russell, as he’s listed at 6’5 with a 6’9 wingspan – even if he gets hung up on the screen, he’s got the length to put in a good contest. Minnesota hired former Portland Trail Blazers assistant coach David Vanterpool to run their defense this year and he’s well-known in league circles for his drop coverage in pick-and-roll defense. Russell is going to have to play with more effort defensively, to put it plainly, but there has to be a hope from Minnesota’s front office that the off-court friendship Russell and Towns share will push both to improve their areas of weakness.
The risk lies in that lightly-protected first-rounder they sent Golden State in the deal. The Warriors clearly targeted 2021 as their draft of choice, with both picks likely to convey that year, and draft experts tout the high-end talent and depth of the class. If things go wrong for the Wolves, they may send Golden State a pair of strong picks. Long-term, there’s a chance Russell’s money is just as bad as Wiggins’ – the defense may not necessarily come around or the partnership with Towns may not work. There are no on-court guarantees in the NBA and the tangible risk in this deal lies nearly entirely on Minnesota’s side of the ledger. Most of the reward does, as well, because Russell is a much, much better player than Wiggins and a better fit for what Minnesota wants to accomplish, but the downside has to be recognized as well.
I’d bet on Russell making it work with Towns on both ends more than I ever would have bet on Wiggins putting it together with the Wolves. The fact that dumping Wiggins and grabbing Russell only cost them a single first-rounder, however valuable it could be, is a win in and of itself for Minnesota. Getting off Wiggins was one of the hardest things any front office was going to have to do in the next few years, but Minnesota was able to do it and simultaneously grab the point guard they identified as the key to their short- and long-term plans.
After a flurry of moves to remake more than half their roster, Minnesota is in a good financial position going forward. They’ll pay a small amount of luxury tax this season – taking on Evans and Spellman was part of the price they paid Golden State – but they’re not going to be too bothered with the repeater tax going forward.
They’re currently projected to be $36.26 million from the 2020-21 luxury tax threshold, even with James Johnson opting in for $16.05 million for next season and a pair of first-round picks in the upcoming draft. They’ll have to use a chunk of that on newly-acquired restricted free agents Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez, but they should have more than enough money available to re-sign those guys and use their full non-taxpayer mid-level exception, should they find a player worth that investment. There may be a roster crunch on non-guaranteed players Jarred Vanderbilt, Jaylen Nowell, and Naz Reid, but that’s a price worth paying for what the Wolves are building under Rosas and his staff.
The Warriors’ side of this remains as perplexing as when it was first announced that they were going to sign-and-trade Kevin Durant to the Nets for Russell last summer. They gave up two first-rounders in the deal – one to Brooklyn for Russell and one to Memphis for taking Andre Iguodala – and now they’ve swapped out Russell for a worse player on the same contract in Wiggins and got one of those first-rounders back.
At the time they made the Russell trade, they had no idea that their season was going to go sideways – in a way, they’ve gotten lucky that the first-rounder they protected 1-20 isn’t going to convey to Brooklyn and it will instead be a second-round pick. Ultimately, the price they paid for Russell was slightly less than what they got for him in this trade, as the 2021 Minnesota picks project to be better than what the Warriors will give up in 2024 and 2025 to Memphis and Brooklyn, but Golden State also relinquished Iguodala, who isn’t coming back to them this summer after his extension with the Heat, and all of their flexibility this season, due to having to tangle with the hard cap throughout the campaign. Again, the fact that their season when off the rails as much as it did is a blessing in disguise for them, as their hard cap issues didn’t really end up making that much of a difference.
They’re also saddled with Wiggins and his terrible contract, so unless that Minnesota pick becomes liquid gold, it’s pretty easy to make the case that the Warriors are worse off now than they would have been just letting Durant walk to Brooklyn.
Once the Warriors made the mistake of acquiring Russell in the first place, the recovery they’ve made isn’t half bad. Russell was never going to fit with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. The defense was going to be untenable at a championship level, which is where the Warriors are always going to be when Curry, Thompson, and Draymond Green are healthy. The Warriors made the bet that they could acquire Russell for those two firsts in the double sign-and-trade with Durant and the Nets and they could flip him later, without realizing that Russell on a max contract is a negative asset in his own right and teams wouldn’t exactly be banging down their door to nab him. Minnesota’s horrible season, Towns’ unhappiness, and the Russell-Towns friendship pushed the Wolves to go get Russell just a few months into his tenure with the Warriors; again, it worked out for the Warriors in this instance, but the process by which they got this point was not particularly good.
There’s some indication that Wiggins will be a better fit with the Warriors’ top trio than Russell would have been. He’s bigger, at the very least, so there’s no positional issues defensively next to Curry, but it’s not like Wiggins actually uses his size on that end of the floor to bring anything resembling positive value. He’s never been one to care about putting in the effort on defense, despite his obvious athletic gifts and has by and large been a massive negative there throughout his career. Will the Warriors be able to get through to him and put him in a position to succeed? None of his four previous coaches have been able to do it, so color me skeptical that it’s even possible.
Despite having a brief flourish as a playmaker for the Wolves earlier this season, Wiggins is best used as an off-ball threat. His overall three-point percentage is poor because of how often the ball is in his hands, but his catch-and-shoot numbers aren’t nearly as bad. He’s been at or above average in each of the last three years in that department, so it’s not as though teams are going to leave him entirely alone in the corner. He can drive a closeout and make the right pass-shoot decision now, something that took him a few years to develop. The playmaking is improved, even if the Warriors aren’t going to feature him as a primary ball handler in most alignments. He can slide into a shot creator role when Curry goes to the bench, which will give the Warriors a baseline level of competence in those minutes.
The Warriors are getting a fourth option offensively who can hit shots at about an average rate, gets to the rim well, can pass a little bit, and has never shown even a fleeting interest in playing defense. There’s some athletic upside to explore and a change of scenery could be good for Wiggins, but that’s what they’re getting at this point. How valuable is that player? Could a title contender like the Warriors find a couple guys who can hit shots and make plays for cheaper than three years and $95 million? I’m going to guess they could.
Maybe they can flip what the picks got in this deal along with Wiggins this summer for a player or group of players who can actually help them win games, but continuing to make that bet is eventually going to turn up a loser. Look at how much had to go right for them to be able to flip Russell for slightly-above-even value – their season had to go in the tank so they kept their 2020 pick and so that their lack of flexibility didn’t really matter, plus Minnesota had to target Russell as seemingly the only guy in the league they wanted. And despite all that luck, they pretty much broke even; the picks they got from Minnesota are better than what they’ll eventually send out for Russell, but they lost Iguodala and now have a worse contract on their books in Wiggins.
The positive for Golden State here is that they did get out of the tax and saved somewhere in the neighborhood of $30 million in cash. They have several moves to make for this season, three of which were reported later on Thursday, but they should avoid the tax by dumping Evans and Spellman in the deal and therefore stay out of the repeater tax for the 2020-21 season. They’re well over the tax next year and will have to find a trade to use that Iguodala trade exception before it expires in early July, which of course is going to cost them assets – nobody’s going to give them a $15 million player for free, particularly one who can help them in their championship pursuits. They have the draft capital to get that done this summer, but it’s not going to come cheap, as teams with whom they negotiate will know that there’s an immense urgency behind those talks. Additionally, their position so far over the tax eliminates any sign-and-trade possibilities for that TPE; just as it did this season, a sign-and-trade would hard-cap the Warriors at a number that’s already lower than their team salary for next season, and that’s before signing-and-trading for another player.