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The D’Angelo Russell Conundrum

The nature of Russell’s game makes him polarizing in trade discussions

Dallas Mavericks v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

There are many polarizing players in the NBA, but there are few who produce a wider gap between their aesthetic and #hooper perception of their game compared to how much the advanced numbers suggest a player is contributing towards winning than D’Angelo Russell.

Visually, Russell can be a very pleasing player to watch. He’s smooth, long, and is able to make difficult jumpers from all over the floor. He’s rarely sped up by defenses, and because he’s a 6’5” combo-guard with a 6’10” wingspan, he is rarely bothered by a hand in his face. If Russell wants to get his shot off, he can do so.

The flip-side, however, is that while he can make those contested jumpers at a decent rate, he’s still never really made them at a rate that has justified the volume with which he has taken them. That, combined with what can nicely be described as inconsistent effort on defense, makes Russell a difficult player to discuss rationally on the internet.

For the Timberwolves, he’s also a difficult player to evaluate in trade discussions for Ben Simmons. For all of his warts, Russell is a genuinely valuable piece of this team. He fits here pretty well because of his ability to play with the ball as well as without it.

His pick-and-roll chemistry with Karl-Anthony Towns is legitimate, as is his ability to be a threat on the weak-side when Anthony Edwards or a different guard handles the ball in similar actions. Specifically, his shooting gravity while Edwards handles is something that the Wolves will likely lean into more and more as Edwards grows.

His defense still can be detrimental to the team, but there are legitimate on-court reasons why he helps the Timberwolves.

The problem for the Timberwolves is that the rest of the league doesn’t view him as favorably as they do, which is a problem when it comes to the Ben Simmons negotiations.

Russell is just inherently more valuable to Minnesota than the rest of the league for a few reasons.

For one, the off-court relationship that Russell has to Karl-Anthony Towns matters, at least a little bit. The two have been close friends for a long time, and it would be foolish to think that at least part of prior leadership’s obsession over Russell had nothing to do with this dynamic. It may not make a massive difference in terms of Towns’ happiness in Minnesota in comparison to the quality of the team, but it definitely doesn’t hurt.

The other consideration with D’Lo is his contract. Russell makes the max, and is currently on the books for $30,013,500 this season as well as $31,377,750 next year. While nobody would confuse the Timberwolves with the Oklahoma City Thunder in terms of cap flexibility, Anthony Edwards being a good player on a rookie-scale contract does somewhat help offset Russell’s cap number. Considering that the Timberwolves would feel ecstatic to flip Russell’s deal for Simmons’, you’d have to imagine Philadelphia feels the opposite way.

Sure enough, Philadelphia would not be as lucky. The Sixers are already in the luxury tax, and simply swapping Russell for Simmons would only save Philadelphia about $3 million before you consider that the likely package to Philly would also include Malik Beasley. Having both Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris on the books on max-or-near-max deals makes it harder for Philadelphia to offset whatever the gap is between Russell’s on-court value and his cap hit.

That’s where the hang-up likely comes in for Philly, because in terms of basketball fit, Russell fits in fine with Embiid. Russell’s shooting and play-making would help the offense in Philadelphia, especially in crunch-time when teams need a perimeter creator who can go get a tough bucket or run a real PnR with Embiid from the three-point line.

On the other end of the floor, I think it’s a little more complicated than just assuming that Joel Embiid covers for everyone on that end of the floor. I mean, that’s sort of true. Embiid is an absolute monster defensively, and just might be the most impactful defensive player in the league when he’s healthy, but part of what has made the Sixers so good the past few years is having two elite defenders on the floor (Simmons, Embiid).

When you replace Simmons with Russell on that end, things get a little bit more concerning. Maybe Philadelphia would be able to mask his deficiencies on that end by playing him with Danny Green and Matisse Thybulle, but the Sixers give up a lot on offense there. As Zach Lowe referenced on a recent podcast, they risk turning into the 2020 Utah Jazz who rely too heavily on their All-World center to erase every defensive mistake.

If I had to make a prediction, I’d guess that Russell ends up being involved in a deal that Philadelphia ultimately accepts for Ben Simmons, but I get the hang-up. There are legitimate reasons why Russell makes better basketball sense in Minnesota than he does elsewhere, and that gap in his perceived value is always going to make trade discussions difficult. I like Russell and do think he’s a useful player, but he’s a hard player to accept as the headliner in return for an All-NBA player, albeit an estranged one.

This will probably drag out for a while, but the reality is the Sixers can’t really afford to call Simmons bluff for too long. If they begin the season without Simmons playing, the Sixers will still be a good team because of how fantastic Embiid is, but just how good is unclear. Is Joel Embiid going to be content knowing that the Sixers can bring in reinforcements, but are choosing to let Simmons just sit-out instead? I doubt it. Again, it’s not an ideal package for the Sixers. They’re absolutely not getting fair value, but it just might be the best that they’re going to get at this point. I struggle to see a scenario where Simmons trade value across the league increases as play resumes.

Let’s grab some popcorn and see how this all plays out.