After the best Timberwolves season in the last 18 years, this team is now in a severely precarious spot. One of the things that made this past Timberwolves season so great, was the lack of expectations. I will be the first person to praise everyone on the roster and staff for contributing to such a thrilling season of basketball. After coming off of a 23 win year, and bouncing back with 46 wins the next season despite little personnel changes is a shocking leap in today's NBA, especially for a small market team. While we all relished this year of Timberwolves basketball, making the first round of the playoffs is impressive, but surely not the objective of an NBA franchise. A large aspect of what made this season so enjoyable, was observing the potential greatness that this youthful group of guys could achieve. Now, after a successful year of basketball, we all need to set our expectations for this upcoming season. With the combination of Anthony Edwards’ rising talent, Karl-Anthony Towns’ All-NBA caliber skill, and a strong supporting cast around them, what more does this team need to do to achieve "greatness?"
Now that the Timberwolves have hired President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly, there are some crucial personnel decisions that need to be made. The dilemma that currently poses the greatest concern for the Timberwolves, is deciding what should be done with D’Angelo Russell. Russell currently has one year left on his $31 million max contract, which means that he is now eligible for a contract extension. After a roller coaster year for Russell consisting of colossal ups and downs, he has made it clear that he is not deserving of another max contract. While he produced in many ways that were unexpected, such as showing his playmaking prowess, and a much improved defensive effort, he was also lacking in many ways. Since being drafted with the second pick in 2015, he has grown a reputation as a top notch shot creator and clutch shooter. With his strange ball handling tactics, and shockingly slow windup to his jumper, he can still create his own shots on offense in any given situation. He even notched one all-star selection in 2018 to his seven year NBA career, the same year he led the Brooklyn Nets to the playoffs. In 2019, Russell was traded from the Warriors to the Timberwolves for Andrew Wiggins and the Wolves 2020-21 first round pick that eventually became Jonathan Kuminga. Despite Wiggins being an integral cog to the Warriors who are currently in the NBA finals, I still feel as though it was the right choice to move on from him. Regardless, looking back on this trade, it is fair to say that there truly was a "winner," and it wasn’t our Timberwolves. Russell immediately battled injury issues as well as Towns, and they made it halfway through the 2020-21 season having played under 10 games together. After firing coach Ryan Saunders and getting Chris Finch, the Wolves were given new life 41 games into the season. They finished the year with an awful 23 win total, but showed that there was still potential in the team that they had, especially after Anthony Edwards’ marvelous close to the year.
Though the Timberwolves formulated a great comeback season, Russell left much to be desired. He shot a below league average three point percentage and field goal percentage. Though his efficiency was a problem, just like Russell always does, he had his moments when he would appear as an elite point guard in this league. He had a phenomenal game in Philadelphia, in which he had 35 points and won the game in double overtime. He was also a key contributor in the play-in victory over the Clippers, and had several other great performances throughout the season due to his playmaking and ability to get hot from beyond the arc. Overall, he was certainly a positive influence on the regular season success of the team, but there were many negatives along the way, and they appear even worse with the asterisk of his contract. Despite his overall positive contribution in the regular season, his playoff performance came as a shock. Throughout the series against the Grizzlies, he was dead silent like a ghost running up and down the court. He shot 33.3% from the field on 12 points per game over the six game series. Great players, and especially those on max contracts, are expected to improve in the playoffs, but Russell did no such thing. Throughout the series, he averaged a lower points per game, assists per game, rebounds per game, and field goal percentage than his regular season averages despite playing more minutes.
Now, it comes down to Tim Connelly to decide what will happen with Russell’s contract. At this point, Russell is not providing a reason to offer him a contract as large as his current one, especially if the Wolves expect to once again make the playoffs. Many NBA players are often offended when given an offer lower than their previous contract, because it represents a message that they aren’t worth what they were being paid. If Connelly lets Russell slip into free agency, or plans to trade him at the deadline, Russell will be less inclined to work hard for the team. There is also the fear that Towns would be upset because the two of them have been friends since high school. Looking into Connelly’s history with the Nuggets, he has a tendency to offer large contracts whether they are warranted or not. He believes in building a family style organization, and often shows players that they have his full respect and trust through the use of contracts. He recently gave Michael Porter Jr. a premature max contract, and shortly after he suffered an injury that left him only playing nine games this past season. This could mean that Connelly is more likely to offer Russell a $20+ million contract due to his recent history. However, Connelly’s family style might not apply to Russell because he didn’t draft him.
Of the assets that the Timberwolves do have for Tim Connelly to play around with, the greatest are the large supply of draft picks in this 2022 draft. With picks 19, 40, 48, and 50 Connelly is perfectly set up for what he does best. Throughout his time with the rebuilding Nuggets, he formed a contending team without making many large trades, but instead with his draft expertise. In one of the greatest draft performances in NBA history, with picks 11, 41, and 56 he walked away with Jusuf Nurkic, Gary Harris, and best of all, two time MVP Nikola Jokic. This was the ideal time to welcome Connelly into this franchise now that the Wolves have an aggregate of draft picks. Currently, the Wolves are most in need of a power forward that can preferably stretch the floor, but who knows what Connelly will come up with in this draft or how he will approach it.
Overall, the Timberwolves are in a good spot with stars Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns, along with the supporting cast of feisty role players like Patrick Beverly and young defensive specialist Jaden McDaniels. This team is certainly headed in the right direction as long as they don’t attempt to get over the top with front office moves, but instead make subtle changes to build around Towns and Edwards and give them time to flourish. I’m confident that Finch and Connelly are going to be perfectly compatible and allow each other to do what they each do best, so I’m excited to see what this team has in store over the next decade.