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Ok Fine, Let’s Talk About D’Angelo Russell

Following his third season in Minnesota, discussion of Russell’s future with the team has come to the forefront.

Memphis Grizzlies v Minnesota Timberwolves - Game Six Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

When D’Angelo Russell was acquired by the Minnesota Timberwolves on Feb. 7, 2020, Wolves fans’ prayers had been answered. They traded for not only a solid point guard, but someone that would hopefully keep superstar Karl-Anthony Towns in Minneapolis for years to come. So far so good in that department.

Now, some are ready to move on. How’d we get here?

2021-22: A Step Forward? Backward? To the Side? Depends Who You Ask

In his seventh season in the NBA, the No. 2 overall pick in 2015 NBA Draft averaged 18.1 points per game, his lowest since the 2017-18 season.

There’s been plenty of talk about Russell’s inefficiency and/or inconsistent shooting, but his numbers from this season aren’t too far off his career averages.

I make this table not to say Russell’s a great shooter, but to say we shouldn’t be surprised by his scoring this season. He’s been inconsistent and he’s never been an elite three-point shooter (add 10-20 games to his total of 42 last year and I don’t think he finishes at 38.7%), so why would we expect anything other than what he did in his first six seasons?

Because of his contract, Russell is held to an unreasonably high standard. His “value” in terms of dollars is a discussion for another day, but to expect him to play at a level to justify his salary creates room for significant disappointment. I pose the question(s): what would he have to do to justify his salary? What would “taking the next step” be?

Replicating his 2018-19 and/or 2019-20 numbers (21.1 PPG, 51% eFG and 23.1 PPG, 52% eFG)? He was on teams that had minimal other scoring options, which led to him shouldering the load (hence better scoring numbers).

So — now that he’s in an offense with other scorers, what can he do to elevate?

Memphis Grizzlies v Minnesota Timberwolves - Game Four Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Shoot 40% from three? He’s never done that in his career, which makes it a dangerous assumption he hits that mark. This is the strongest argument — and I agree he could/should be a more efficient shooter — but it opens the door for disappointment, considering he’s only shot higher than 37% from three one time in his career (last year).

Become an average defender? He kind of did that this year. Actually did quite well considering his physical limitations.

Become a better passer? Again, kind of did that this year. He averaged a career-high 7.1 assists per game, despite a frustrating amount of unforced turnovers.

The argument I’m trying to make is that we’re expecting too much from him. Expecting him to elevate to a $31.2 million level is unreasonable. He doesn’t have the opportunity to score more on this team, given the other options.

Shooting more efficiently is reasonable, yet it’s unlikely considering his past. His shot selection could certainly improve, though. I’m not a fan of D-Lo’s semi-transition, walk-in threes at inopportune times. You know the ones I’m talking about, the we’re-on-a-run-but-I’m-gonna-pull-this-with-18-seconds-left-on-the-shot-clock-type ones.

In addition to shooting more efficiently, he should try and get to the cup more often. He doesn’t do it much, but doing so would get him to the line more (he’s a good free throw shooter), create opportunities to kick to shooters, and improve his shooting by making defenders respect the drive.

But to his credit, he improved in other important areas: distributing and defending.

Do those improvements get him to a $30 million level? No. But, he’s doing what he can to improve in this situation. There’s not much more you can ask for.

Portland Trail Blazers v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Sachin Gupta’s (Or New POBO’s) Options: Extend Him?

For a player that’s completed seven NBA seasons, the most a player can be paid is 30% of the salary cap (projected to be $122 million) or 105% of their salary (would be $32.9 million) for the previous season.

Therefore, the max deal the Wolves could offer Russell would be a four-year extension worth roughly $36.6 million per season (~$146 million).

That would shake out to be (roughly) a top-20 salary in the NBA. If he were to sign that deal, he’d theoretically be under contract for the next five seasons (player or club options might be in play).

If the Wolves sign Russell to that deal, as well as give Karl-Anthony Towns his super max extension (the exact amount gets complex, so for sake of time just know it’s a lot), the money dries up pretty quick. With extensions for Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels on the horizon, the situation gets even more complicated.

Extending Russell would be the ultimate vote of confidence in the eighth-year guard, which would be quite surprising. I say that assuming this extension would be the max amount previously mentioned (I don’t think Russell accepts anything that’s significantly less than the max).

Minnesota Timberwolves v Sacramento Kings Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Trade Him?

This could take hours, but the bottom line is that the Ohio State standout’s value is as low as it’s been in a while.

The Wolves could trade Russell this offseason, which could leave a hole at point guard. If Jordan McLaughlin didn’t have those two or three stellar playoff games, how would we feel about him stepping into a much larger role? I hate looking into hypotheticals, and also don’t want to downplay how well J-Mac played in those games, but it’s something to think about. Of course, Minnesota would likely address the position if Russell is traded.

Another option is to wait for Russell to build up his value in the beginning of next season, and then revisit trade ideas before the deadline. There should be plenty of teams wanting to swap contracts, as Russell’s $31 million coming off the books at the end of 2022-23 is a valuable asset.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Miami Heat Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

So, What’s Most Likely?

The Wolves could always let Russell play out the final year of his contract and then revisit talks about a new deal one year from now. The obvious risk with that is that Russell could leave Minneapolis with the Wolves getting nothing in return.

I’m no expert, but it seems as if the Wolves have two real options: overpay for Russell and hope he continues his journey to well-roundedness — and be perpetually disappointed because he isn’t capable of playing at a $35-40 million level —, or trade him for players that address other needs (power forward/rim protection/rebounding) and worry about point guard later.

There will be takers for him and his contract. However, if he’s traded this offseason or during next season, the return might not be as great as Wolves fans would hope. With an expiring deal, teams probably won’t be willing to give up young assets that are under contract for multiple seasons.

To be clear: Russell isn’t a bad player, the expectations are just too high. I’m not arguing to not pay him, because you basically have to, but attaching yourself to someone like Russell — someone who, at their absolute peak, probably isn’t $35-40 million-caliber — is very limiting.

Since being traded here, Russell has been vocal about finding a “home” after moving from team to team in his first five seasons. The Wolves fanbase, as well as the organization itself, showed him love that previous cities have not. Gersson Rosas and the city of Minneapolis expected, and wanted, him to be here long-term. It’s clear he appreciated that gesture.

He bought a house in Minnesota, establishing some sense of home. In previous years, he’d rented and kept his bags packed, waiting for next call that made him call the moving company.

This sentiment shouldn’t be forgotten during this time, but we’re now more than two years removed from his arrival.

My hope is that Russell can appreciate the previous actions of this city, team and front office during potential extension talks, and prove that he genuinely wants to make Minnesota home.