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Golden State Warriors v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

The Necessary Gamble for D’Angelo Russell

Assessing the Wolves risk in their blockbuster trade

Gersson Rosas and the new Wolves front office fundamentally altered the foundation of the Timberwolves this week, trading Andrew Wiggins for D’Angelo Russell. Wiggins has long been a cornerstone of the franchise’s plans since the last iteration of a successful Wolves team disintegrated with the departure of Kevin Love.

Since then, we’ve been through the early years of Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Zach LaVine, the Thibs and Jimmy Butler era, and now the short-lived transition era led by the acolytes of the modern NBA. Whether the zealotry of the pace-and-space system will produce sustainable success remains to be seen, but by trading Wiggins for Russell, the Wolves have made a franchise-altering gamble.

In the league-wide analysis of this trade, reporting has claimed that both sides have “won,” simply by removing an albatross from their team. The Warriors’ reportedly chafed at Russell’s abject attitude on defense and there were long-standing problems with his fit next to Steph Curry and Klay Thompson upon their return. The Wiggins concerns have been obvious for years, from an inefficient offensive repertoire to a lack of engagement.

But this was not a straight challenge trade of two woe-begotten “stars.” The leverage point in the gamble is the 2021 lightly protected first-round pick. In the minds of the Warriors and many across the league, if the Wolves continue to be bad, this trade may be a coup, as a resuscitated Wiggins and a highly coveted first-round pick may both be more valuable assets than Russell.

Therein lies the gamble for the Wolves that is not really a gamble at all. While it seems harsh to paint this move as a panic trade, that is exactly what it is. The Wolves needed to panic. The franchise has been in utter freefall this past three months and there was little hope for the future. We have just had another nine months of data that Wiggins and Towns are not enough to win basketball games, bar discussion of a contender.

By not blowing up this roster, the Wolves were staring down around 9-18 months before real discussions to trade Karl-Anthony Towns. That was already floating around the Wolves twitter-sphere. And that path was simply not viable. It’s not viable for a franchise with one playoff appearance in more than a decade. It’s not viable for a team with the lowest attendance in the league with artificially inflated ticket price-floors (I guarantee there is a 26-year old MBA in the bowels of the Target Center with charts of how close the Wolves are to a precipitous drop in revenue when the demand for tickets falls further below the price floor). And it’s not viable for a new President of Basketball Operations to somehow convince the owner that all he needs is another 4-5 years to “Trust the Prosas” by trading the Wolves star in the 2nd year of his max contract.

So if that path is closed, then the Wolves had to tear it down and make their team anew around Towns. The Warriors are betting that the Wolves will fail. That a team built around Russell and Towns has a similar chance of success as one built around Wiggins and Towns. Thus, the value of the 2021 pick.

But for the Wolves, that pick does not appear the same. In many of the reports analyzing the trade, it was constantly noted that the pick (top-3 in 2021 and then unprotected in 2022) was a juicy morsel for the Warriors to use in the draft or a trade. But if this pick ends up conveying at that high of value then something has gone dramatically wrong for the Wolves.

If the Wolves cannot convey this pick in 2021 and it still is a top pick in 2022, the chances of Rosas and Co. feeling the chagrin of the NBA intelligentsia is minimal, as two more bottom-five seasons after this one would mean everyone is out of a job. As such, the worst-case scenario for this front office after the trade is essentially the same as the worst-case scenario that was almost guaranteed without it.

Of course, there may be some quibbles around if Russell was the best player to chase as the second star next to Towns. But there are no other clear options across the league right now and no guarantee that the other options would be available at the Wolves price point and that the rest of the league was not also chasing them. There is a very limited selection of players that fit both those criteria.

We also do not have to look too far to see how the Wolves draft pick could shift from a highly valued asset to just an asset. Just last year, Boston’s ownership of Memphis’ first-round pick was one of the most coveted assets in the league. That pick was mentioned in nearly every trade scenario as the means for the Celtics to chase the likes of Anthony Davis. But then Memphis made an unexpected leap and that pick will likely convey the late teens.

In the end, yes, there are huge concerns with creating any defensive system around Towns and Russell. The rest of this roster remains in flux, and it is possible that Wiggins somehow blossoms in another culture and system. But without this move, the Wolves were about to descend into the depths of NBA hell with no light at the end of the tunnel.

Now, they have bet on themselves that they can turn this roster into at least as good as the Memphis Grizzlies next year. That’s all they have to do, be as good or better than the Grizzlies and compete for the 7th/8th seed. With Towns and Russell as the foundation, armed with assets heading into the offseason, that seems like a real possibility.

It’s not a gamble if the other option is the abyss.