The Minnesota Timberwolves’ offense has been a hot mess through the first eight games of the NBA season. The Wolves’ 109.9 offensive rating ranks 23rd in the league, and everything has looked awkward and clunky on that end.
There are a lot of reasons for the offense’s issues, but they start with the man who runs the show. D’Angelo Russell was a major positive force on Minnesota’s offense last year despite struggling with scoring efficiency because he orchestrated the offense with his signature pace and playmaking. So far this season, though, Russell’s style has clashed with that of the Wolves and their other personnel, resulting in a disorganized attack that is perennially stuck in the mud.
Minnesota’s pace goes from 100.4 possessions per 48 minutes with Russell to 104.4 when Russell is off the court per PBP Stats. That may not sound like a lot, but it’s the difference between the third-highest paced team (Golden State Warriors) and the 18th (Orlando Magic).
When Russell is in, the Wolves are slow to get into half-court offense. This corners them into desperate decisions that create contested shots, turnovers and opposing run-outs. Everyone is just kinda standing around, looking at the ball and waiting for something to happen; that’s not specific to Russell, but he is one of the main perpetrators.
That lethargy is apparent in the numbers. Minnesota’s offensive rating plummets from 118.8 without Russell to 105.5 with him according to PBP Stats.
The slow start shouldn’t all be pinned on Russell. But while it’s true that the other Wolves starters are struggling, Rudy Gobert is the only other one of the five with a negative double-digit mark in on/off offensive rating. Given that his minutes are generally paired with Russell, that doesn’t feel like a coincidence.
The pick-and-roll partnership with Gobert was supposed to be a salve for Russell, but instead it has been a source of frustration. The chemistry between the two is way off, leading to ill-timed passes and seemingly simple dishes clanging off Gobert’s hands.
Russell’s individual numbers paint an ugly picture. Last season, he averaged a career-high 7.1 assists and limited turnovers to 2.5 per game per Basketball-Reference; this year, those numbers are 5.8 and 3.1, respectively. His assist-to-turnover ratio would be his worst mark since his third season, before he was an All-Star.
Some of his most frustrating giveaways have come when he does try to push the ball in transitioning from defense to offense.
These are sloppy mistakes, and they cut the legs out from the type of high-octane play that Minnesota’s athletes thrived in last season.
The below clip against the Suns is a pretty good encapsulation of D-Lo and the offense’s problems: Everything is haphazard and apathetic, and it hurts the Wolves on both ends.
Russell’s scoring woes aren’t helping, either. He’s shooting just 46.2% on shots between zero and three feet from the basket according to Basketball-Reference, and he’s still taking a very small share of his shots from that range after attacking the rim more often in the preseason.
This lack of explosion hampers Minnesota, and is particularly evident in the clip below. Two open looks at the basket turn into lofting floaters/jumpers. He’s just not a guy who puts pressure on the basket.
The long ball is also a source of concern for Russell’s game. Not only is he shooting an uncharacteristically subpar 27.9% from 3, Basketball-Reference indicates his 3-point attempt rate (41.3%) is his lowest since his rookie season. If you’re searching for the reason Russell’s points per game has dropped from 18.1 to 14.0, that’s the place to start.
I believe there is a mechanical fix that will help elevate Russell’s accuracy, if he addresses it. On misses, Russell often seems to wait too long to release, ruining the momentum of his form and causing him to leave shots short. When Russell shoots while still using his upward force, the shot has a much smoother rhythm and is more likely to go in.
Some natural progression in shot-making will help alleviate these problems; Russell is simply a better player than he has shown in this small sample size. But what can he and the Wolves do to get him — and, they hope, the offense with him — out of this funk?
Aside from refocusing his shooting mechanics, Minnesota’s staff could run him more pick-and-roll plays. The only way to establish chemistry with Gobert is game reps, but Russell isn’t even running the play type as frequently as he did last year per NBA.com. In fact, even Anthony Edwards is playing as the pick-and-roll ball handler more often than Russell.
Another tactic Chris Finch and Co. should consider is playing Russell more often with Minnesota’s pace-pushers. Both Jaylen Nowell and Taurean Prince have a pace differential of at least plus-three possessions per PBP Stats; perhaps matching Russell’s minutes to theirs would encourage him to elevate the tempo.
Jordan McLaughlin is plus-1.4 in pace and can take some point guard duties off Russell’s shoulders. Ultimately, though, Russell needs to consciously work on getting Minnesota into its sets with more urgency.
Given how much the ball is in his hands, the Timberwolves’ offense will, at least to some degree, go as Russell goes. That means figuring out the adjustments that will unlock him should be Finch’s top priority.
The good news is there’s still plenty of time for that to happen.