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Free Agency Primer: How the Wolves can land D’Angelo Russell

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Working through the machinations of acquiring D’Angelo Russell

NBA: Playoffs-Brooklyn Nets at Philadelphia 76ers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

There is a lot of smoke around D’Angelo Russell and the Minnesota Timberwolves. Gersson Rosas has been continuously talking about the need to be aggressive and creating a team that helps Karl-Anthony Towns win right now. As Andrew Wiggins does not look like the second star Towns needs, the Wolves have to look elsewhere. The tantalizing big names, such as Bradley Beal and Jrue Holiday, appear to be unavailable for now. That leaves someone like Russell. It doesn’t hurt that Russell and Towns are close friends.

However, we have all been a bit nonplussed about how something like this could work. The Wolves appear confident, such as in Zach Lowe’s recent podcast where he remarked:

But the Wolves are in cap hell. Jeff Teague ($19 million), Gorgui Dieng ($16.2 million), and Andrew Wiggins ($27.5 million) have contracts that lock this team into the current roster. The Wolves, with the new draft picks, are about $6.3 million over the cap, a far cry from the $27.5 million or so in cap space they would need to sign Russell. So what do the Wolves know that no one else does? Let’s try to figure it out.

The Wolves have two paths forward to acquire Russell, signing him into cap space or through a sign-and-trade.

Option 1 - Signing Russell into Cap Space

The first option is the traditional path where the Wolves clear out enough cap space to acquire Russell (or someone like Malcolm Brogdon) in free agency with a max offer.

However, the Wolves are currently over the cap. To get to $27.5 million they either have to:

  • Trade Jeff Teague and Gorgui Dieng while receiving no new assets
  • Trade Andrew Wiggins and either Jeff Teague or Gorgui Dieng while bringing back no more than $10 million in assets

That seems very difficult. While Teague’s contract expires next year, Dieng and Wiggins have high-dollar, long-term contracts, making them two of the hardest to move in the league. Salary dumping Wiggins or Dieng would require using positive assets, such as Josh Okogie and future first round picks. It could be extremely expensive to move these players.

Also, let’s just assume that Jon Krawcynski at The Athletic is plugged in with the Wolves. He had a recent piece here on Wiggins about how this year was now or never for his development (implying he was staying). He also was tweeting about how after the Saric trade, the Wolves hope that Dieng can return to his form of pre-Thibs era.

That is one way of reading it. The other way is that those contracts are basically immovable without spending major assets. As a result, clearing enough cap space to sign Russell is likely extremely difficult and would leave the Wolves barren, as they would have to give up picks and/or players.

Additionally, this move means the Wolves have to renounce all of their current free agents, including Tyus Jones. They would be right up against the cap with Russell and have no room to fill out the roster. There is just such a high opportunity cost with this path.

There is also the disaster possibility, where the Wolves trade away players and assets and do not sign Russell or a marquee free agent. No one wants to be the Kings 2.0. Or, if the Nets do not sign Kyrie Irving, they could simply match the Wolves offer, leaving them holding nothing, particularly since the Nets could sit on the match rights and tie up the Wolves cap space throughout free agency. There are just so many risks on this path that I have a hard time believing this is the plan.

Option 2 - Sign-and-Trade with Nets

I have convinced myself this is what the Wolves are sitting on with their references to “confidence of creating space for Russell.” If the Wolves are able to pull off a sign-and-trade for Russell, they can stay over the cap, retain the match rights to Tyus Jones, the early bird rights of Taj Gibson, and still use the Mid-Level Exception and other exceptions to fill out the roster.

However, this is immediately complicated, because the Nets do not want salary back. The entire reason they may give up Russell is that they need cap space to sign free agents. Even if the Wolves send along a sweetener of a 2nd rounder into the trade, what are the Nets going to do with Jeff Teague or Andrew Wiggins? It mucks up the plan of signing two superstars.

This means there has to be a third team ready to go to take on a contract from the Wolves. The most likely option here is Jeff Teague, who has a large expiring contract. Acquiring Teague is a low-risk move for a team that would not otherwise be able to use their cap space effectively, particularly if the Wolves throw in an asset. There are going to be quite a few teams who strike out in this upcoming free agency period.

However, this brings a new problem. If Russell is signing a max contract (worth approximately $27.5 million) Teague is not enough, as that would be too much incoming salary. However, Teague plus Josh Okogie allows the Wolves to take on a near-max contract, (about $26.9 million) and Teague, Okogie, and Keita Bates-Diop/Jaylen Nowell allows the Wolves to take on a max contract. That is probably enough of a sweetener to take on Teague’s expiring $19 million.

If Russell gets less than a max, this becomes even easier. With just Teague, the Wolves could take on $24 million in Salary, so they could theoretically trade Teague and a protected first round pick for Russell, where the end trade looks something like:

  • Nets send Russell to Wolves
  • Wolves send 2nd round pick to Nets and Teague and a protected first round pick to Team X
  • Team X receives Teague and Wolves protected first round pick.

There are actually a few teams out there for who this makes sense, as most of the league is hoarding cap space right now and there are few free agents worth the money. A team that does not plan on competing could take on Teague for a first round pick or Josh Okogie. The Knicks or Hawks could easily take on Teague’s contract for an asset, or a team like the Mavericks could even think Teague may be a helpful veteran in their playoff hunt. It seems likely that all the noise about the Wolves having a plan lined up implies they have a third team ready to take on Teague.

But the timing of this is important. For this to happen, the Nets need to have Kyrie Irving commit and a solid idea that a second player would commit as well. They need to be so confident in this that before they officially sign either player, they execute a sign and trade with the Wolves, as they would be unable to sign the players without releasing Russell’s cap hold. So there is a decent amount of risk for the Nets to give up their backup plan before inking Kyrie.

However, if the Wolves are able to pull this off, it would be the best possible outcome. They would be able to get a potential second star in Russell (of course the validity in that thought process will be up for debate) to pair with Towns without giving much up beyond something similar to a protected first round pick or Josh Okogie. They would still have the ability to match offers on Tyus Jones to lock in a really strong point guard rotation of Russell and Jones and the mid-level exception to fill the hole at power forward.

It really is the only path that makes sense. Wiggins and Dieng require too high of a price to move and Teague likely has value as an expiring contract and possibly a stopgap point guard. If this works out, Wiggins will remain an ongoing question, but one that can be answered over the next year while Jarrett Culver develops.

A lot of dominoes have to fall in the right order, which includes relying on the ever-fickle Kyrie Irving. However, if it works out, the Wolves could pivot quickly from stagnation to hope with one complicated move.