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The Minnesota Timberwolves Need to Extend D’Angelo Russell

Russell has been (at times) labeled as overpaid and underwhelming in his time in Minnesota, but that shouldn’t stop the Wolves from extending his tenure with the team.

NBA: Playoffs-Los Angeles Clippers at Minnesota Timberwolves Nick Wosika-USA TODAY Sports

D’Angelo Russell was a target of former Minnesota Timberwolves President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas for quite some time. Rosas pushed hard to sign Russell in free agency during the summer of 2019, but Russell eventually chose the Golden State Warriors as his next home, even after Wolves’ executives pulled out all the stops.

Nonetheless, Rosas did not quit his stalking - err, I mean pursuit - of Russell and eventually got the Golden State Warriors to agree to a trade package that was centered around a Russell for Andrew Wiggins swap. That part of the move was not one that many Wolves fans had a problem with. However, the outgoing draft capital and the fact that Minnesota had to go into the luxury tax to obtain him were the main reasons many had issues with the swap.

Since arriving in Minneapolis, Russell has been an up-and-down player. First, the Wolves struggled to get Towns and Russell to share the floor due to some unfortunate injury and ilness luck. Then, Russell reportedly butted heads with former head coach Ryan Saunders. During those low points in Russell’s Timberwolves career, many Wolves fans were begging for him to be traded.

But, after Chris Finch came along, Russell upped his play and delivered one of the best seasons of his career last year. The shooting splits were not great in the 2021-22 season, but Russell impacted the game in numerous other ways. The former All-Star pieced together his best defensive season and his best playmaking season thus far. With all of that, including a Play-In Tournament berth, all signs pointed upwards for Russell, who was proving doubters wrong. Couple that with an outstanding performance against the Clippers to secure the No. 7 seed, and Russell seemed like a surefire extension candidate during the 2022 offseason.

Then it all came crashing down. Hard.

Russell struggled mightily against a Memphis Grizzlies team that he torched during the regular season. His averages of 31 points and 6.8 assists on 70.8% true shooting plummeted to 12 points and 6.7 assists per game on 45.5% true shooting. Coach Finch elected to bench Russell down the stretch in game 6 of the series. That seemed like some definitive writing on the wall.

Heading into the summer, the Timberwolves were reportedly “shopping” Russell to other teams in the league.

With no bites at the apple, new president of basketball operation Tim Connelly made a shocking move. They pivoted from trying to get off of the Russell contract, to bringing in a significant piece that would raise the play of their point guard. This move, of course, is the Rudy Gobert trade that the Wolves made with the Utah Jazz in July.

NBA: Preseason-Brooklyn Nets at Minnesota Timberwolves Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

By acquiring Gobert, the Wolves can heighten certain aspects of Russell’s game that he does well - pick and roll playmaking being the most notable - and cover up his deficiencies - defense and rebounding.

This was a shrewd move for the Minnesota front office to make. Why take back pennies on the dollar for a player whose value is way down when you can make a different move to benefit that player Gobert is one of the best, if not the best, pick and roll big men in the league? He gives Russell an actual roll threat that he did not have with Karl-Anthony Towns. He also is one of the best rim protectors of all time, which will help erase many of Russell’s - and the rest of the team’s - mistakes.

On the surface, this might look like a move to help the Wolves get through the final year of Russell’s deal and then cut bait next summer. But, in reality, it is not that simple.

Currently, Minnesota has 10 players signed for the 2023-24 season; Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert, Anthony Edwards, Jaden McDaniels, Taurean Prince, Kyle Anderson, Jordan McLaughlin, Nathan Knight, Wendell Moore Jr., and Josh Minott. Those 10 players, if Prince and McLaughlin’s contracts are fully guaranteed and Knight’s team option is picked up, will account for $119.8 million of the projected $134 million projected salary cap.

Imagine the Wolves fill out their roster with 2 players on veteran minimum contracts for a combined $4.5 million. That leaves the Wolves with $9.7 million in cap space before they use their Mid-Level Exception and Bi-Annual Exception to fill out the last two roster spots.

That is the scenario you are likely looking at if the Timberwolves choose not to extend D’Angelo Russell this season or in free agency.

While you might be able to find a decent player for ~$10 million, you probably won’t find a good point guard. These are the upcoming free agent point guards that could potentially be had on a contract around that salary figure: Cory Joseph, Ish Smith, and George Hill. The rest of the free agents are either A) worth more than that or B) much worse than those three.

I get the argument of starting Jordan McLaughlin and bringing in one of those types of players as a backup, but I think you’d be doing a disservice if that was the route you chose. McLaughlin is one of the better backup point guards in the league, but he would immediately become one of, if not the, worst starters in the league. I don’t mean that to sound like a huge knock on him, but I feel it is a fair assessment.

McLaughlin does a lot of things well. He pushes the pace and gets into the offense early. He also rarely makes mistakes. He’s very Tyus Jones-esque in that sense. But, he also has limitations that should prevent him from being an every night starter and a 30 minute per night point guard. While he is a great facilitator out of the pick and roll, he is a very poor scorer in those actions. He also has been a very inconsistent shooter and does not provide much pressure on the rim.

The Wolves own D’Angelo Russell’s bird rights, with allows the team to re-sign him and go over the salary cap while doing so. They do not have the ability to sign other players and go over the cap unless they are using the Mid-Level Exception or the Bi-Annual Exception, which project to be around $11 million and $4.3 million respectively for the 2023-24 NBA season. With Russell’s bird rights, the Wolves can sign him to any amount and go over the salary cap.

One argument for doing this is to ensure that you have some talent at the point guard spot. We already went over the alternatives that could be signed this summer, which were underwhelming, to say the least.

Another argument can be made for extending Russell as well. This argument centers around a trade. If the Wolves re-sign Russell, they keep the possibility open of trading for another high paid player down the line. You can’t trade a player that you signed for $10 million on the Mid-Level Exception for a player making $30 million, but you could trade D’Angelo Russell on a $25 million contract for that theoretical player.

I don’t know who that player could be, or when that move would potentially come, but I do know that a move like that would be impossible to make if Russell isn’t re-signed, unless you’re wanting to trade away one of Gobert or Towns.

The last argument for extending DLo is that he might just be a really good player for this team. Like I brought up earlier, Russell is a very good pick and roll playmaker. He also had one of the best seasons of his career last year despite some poor shooting numbers. We can expect that those numbers should go up this year. He might also have the best playmaking season of his career. Not to mention, his defensive woes might matter less than they ever have. Early returns thus far this season also show Russell’s ability to get to the rim seems to be elevated, which is something that wasn’t a huge part of his game. Everything is shaping up for him to have the most impactful and successful year of his career thus far.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

Now, the biggest question will come down to finding a number that both sides can agree on. It seems that D’Angelo Russell is happy and would like to remain in Minnesota. Who could blame him? This is the most talented team he has ever played on. But also, he’s been on 4 teams in his 7 years in the league. Maybe he wants to be able to settle down in one spot for a while.

There isn’t a deadline for Russell to sign an extension. It can happen all the way at the end of the league year, after the playoffs. But, if the new league year starts, Russell will hit unrestricted free agency, meaning the Wolves have no option to match an offer sheet from another team.

So, with that said, the Wolves don’t have much incentive to extend him just yet, which is likely why it hasn’t happened. If they wait it out and Russell’s season doesn’t end up being the success story I’ve laid out, then it might make sense to let him walk. If he does play really well, then the Wolves have that confirmation and feel good about tacking on some years to his contract midseason.

But, when it comes time to meet at the negotiating table, I think the Wolves and Russell could find a common ground to land on.

Very recently, Andrew Wiggins signed an extension with the Golden State Warriors after his impressive run in the 2022 NBA Playoffs. That extension was for 4 years and $109 million, an average of $27.25 million per season. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope also signed a 2 year, $30 million extension with the Denver Nuggets.

Russell’s impact as a player likely falls somewhere between Wiggins’ and Caldwell-Pope’s. If I had to guess on a figure that Russell and the Wolves agree to, I’d lean toward closer to Wiggins’ side of the scale. It seems that Wiggins took somewhat of a pay cut to stay in Golden State, so hi value could be closer to $30 million or slightly more per season.

Let’s just say Russell lands around $25 million. Over four years, that would be a $100 million extension. I think that is a number that both sides could feasibly agree on. While that might seem like a lot if you don’t believe in Russell’s ability to help this team get to the next level, you have to put it in the perspective of the percentage of the salary cap, rather than a raw number. With a new TV deal coming for the NBA after the 2024-25 season, the NBA’s salary cap could jump significantly. There’s potential that the salary cap could be over $170 million. If Russell was to make $25 million during the 2025-26 season, with a cap of $160 million - to be on the safe side - he would be making just 15.6% of the team’s allotted salary cap. That would equal out to a $19.3 million contract in today’s NBA, which would seem like a good value for D’Angelo Russell.

That 2025-26 season would be the last of Rudy Gobert’s current contract if he accepts his player option and the third of five seasons on Towns’ extension that he signed this summer. Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels would both be on the second year of their rookie extensions.

The best thing the Wolves can do, in my opinion, is get Russell locked up on a long-term deal before Edwards and McDaniels have their extensions kick in. Then, the Minnesota Timberwolves will be in the luxury tax, but also likely in position to compete for championships.