There is no question that D’Angelo Russell was the most polarizing member of the 2021-22 Minnesota Timberwolves, and understandably so.
However, there is also no question that the Timberwolves would not have had the opportunity to host a memorable play-in game and three exhilarating playoff games without the services of their starting point guard.
Minnesota registered a record of 39-26 in the 65 games D-Lo played in this season, good for a team-high 60.0% winning percentage. Say what you want about his performance in those games, but it is not an accident that the Timberwolves were, generally speaking, better in the record department because of Russell’s play. The Wolves were 3.1 points per 100 possessions better with Russell on the floor than off, per Cleaning the Glass, the best mark of his career; for the second time in his career, the team played better defense with him on the floor than off of it, too.
There is a great player inside the man who wears the Wolves 0 threads, but unfortunately we only saw glimpses of it this past season, for several reasons.
First, Minnesota only had its Big 3 intact to play 57 of 82 games together in which the team went 34-23 (49-win pace). It’s difficult to find a rhythm with game action that is periodically interrupted by injuries and COVID.
Second, Russell went through extreme hot and cold streaks, which are tougher to correct with so many players in and out of the lineup. As a result, his role changed from night to night based on who was available. Russell simply didn’t play with enough confidence in his game within the context of the offense, regardless of role, to be a consistently positive impact. That was evident in the first-round playoff series against the Memphis Grizzlies. That’s not to say he can’t in the future if the team has better fortune in the health department, though.
Last, he struggled to string great quarters together. We saw too many exciting first quarters from D-Lo, followed by sub-optimal second and third frames. I understand his desire to use his scoring gravity to open things up for his teammates, but at the end of the day, Russell is a max player with max player talent. He has to be assertive when he’s rolling, and not just in the fourth quarter.
There is zero excuse for his dreadful playoff performance. Zero.
But keep in mind that you — like I did — thought the Timberwolves’ season went down the drain when Karl-Anthony Towns fouled out of the play-in game against the Los Angeles Clippers with 7:34 to play and a seven-point deficit facing them.
If we’ve seen the last of Russell wearing WOLVES across his chest, I’ll always remember fondly the way he played in the fourth quarter to fill in KAT’s size 20 shoes to secure the Wolves a playoff spot as the No. 7 seed.
He was excellent in the fourth, delivering exactly what Minnesota needed on a special night at Target Center.
Russell averaged a career-high 7.1 assists and a career-low 2.5 turnovers per game in what was a tangible step forward as a playmaking lead guard. Among players who played in at least 65 games and averaged at least 4.0 assists per game, Russell ranked seventh in assist-to-turnover ratio with a career-best mark of 2.8.
When D-Lo decides to a floor general point guard, he is tremendous in the role because he possesses excellent court vision, high-level passing ability, and a great understanding of how defenses will react. Minnesota will need more of that from Russell if his name is in the starting lineup on opening night, because he truly does make everyone around him better when he gets rolling as a passer.
Minnesota’s effective field goal percentage rose by 1.7% with Russell on the floor this season, placing him in the 77th percentile among all players per Cleaning the Glass. The way he creates easy shots for his teammates shines through especially when he is able to get down-hill coming around a ball screen.
This season, Russell generated 0.93 points per possession as a ball-handler in the pick-and-roll, good for the 73rd percentile, per Synergy Sports. Those actions represented 34.4 percent of the total actions he was apart of in 2021-22.
But, if Minnesota wants a better D-Lo next season, that rate will have to rise.
It’s a make or miss league and at the end of the day, you have to make shots. You simply can’t go far in the playoffs if you don’t have ball handlers that can create their own shot.
Russell isn’t the most efficient player in the world in clutch situations, but defenses respect his big-time shot ability and he put that on display in plenty of situations this season. If Russell were to cut his mid-range diet, he’d be more successful in late-game situations, as most of his worst and heavily contested shots came there.
D-Lo shot 19/26 (73%) in the last six minutes of games (including OT and 2OT) at the rim, and 35.2% from 3 on 71 attempts. His 37.5% mark in the mid-range held the Wolves back in crucial moments, notably late in games against Memphis in the playoffs.
His effective field goal percentage in that time frame is 51.4%, equivalent to the 68th percentile among point guards for overall shot attempts. If he took half as many mid-range shots and split them evenly between shots at the rim and from 3 — and made those shots at the same rate, a reasonable expectation — his eFG% would jump to 55.6%, good for the 90th percentile, the same mark as Stephen Curry.
Obviously, basketball is not a math equation. But that just highlights how D-Lo’s shot diet holds him back from being a more efficient, impactful scorer. He is who he is at this point and is unlikely to change, barring some ultimatum that keeps him on the team in exchange for making that switch.
But even if he doesn’t change his shot distribution — at least late in games — his output is still pretty impressive and was important to the Wolves this season. If the Wolves traded Russell, they would surely miss him late in games when they need someone to take and make big shots on an island.
Minnesota was 16-12 in the regular season in games with clutch time (score within five points with less than five minutes left), in large part due to Russell, who averaged more than twice as many clutch points as anyone else on the roster.
Biggest Improvement in 2021-22
Russell improved his off-ball defense more than any other skill this season. D-Lo was a crucial piece of the Timberwolves’ high-wall defensive scheme, in which he often functioned as a free safety in the middle of the floor. From there, he used his 6-foot-5 height and 6-foot-10 wingspan to clog passing lanes and directed the defense both verbally and non-verbally. His leadership on the defensive end this season was one of the more under-heralded aspects of the Wolves’ success, but was very evident if you attended a game at Target Center.
Russell had 123 deflections this year, the third-best mark in his career and fifth-best mark on the team this year. Furthermore, Russell contested 296 shots this season, also the third-best season in his career thus far, per NBA.com. A more active and vocal D-Lo paid dividends on the defensive end, which is where the Wolves also took their biggest collective step — up to 13th (111.6) this season in defensive rating from 27th (116.2) last season.
Where Can He Improve Next Season?
The biggest area D-Lo can improve next season is in his two-man game synergy with Towns. They didn’t quite find a consistent rhythm in two-man action this season, but the flashes were certainly there. Some of that is on Towns, of course, for not setting a good screen or struggling to get open on the block without fouling.
Nonetheless, there are things Russell can do better if he wants to mesh better as a playmaker with the Wolves’ No. 1 scoring threat. What’s crazy, yet encouraging, is that the Wolves were the best offense in the league after January 1, despite their two max players at times not fitting well beside each other. There were too many possessions like this one.
“I think it was rocky, to be honest. I think we were figuring it out and then we had either COVID or something happen and it kind of caused him to be out, caused me to be out,” Russell said during his end-of-season presser about his on-court partnership with Towns. “I think we’re such fans of each other that we found a way to make it work in moments where you probably didn’t have the chemistry because we didn’t play together as much as we would have thought. So I just think over the time of us playing our chemistry is continuing to grow, and he makes the game easy when you’re out there playing against some of these teams.”
Russell only had four assists to Towns as a result of actions involving a Towns screen over the six-game series with the Memphis Grizzlies; he had none in Games 4, 5 or 6.
Unsurprisingly, the quarter in which D-Lo received the most screens from KAT (1Q of G3), Russell had his best output: 10 points, four rebounds and two assists.
“I’ve never really been in that position where I’m going into the game knowing that the teams probably not worried about me as much. It gives me that lane to kind of look at it from a different perspective and try to attack it from a different way because they’re prepared for this guy, that guy, that hit, that punch,” Russell said during his exit interview about playing alongside Towns and Edwards as a No. 3. “So this year they put me in a role of just figuring out how I was gonna attack, attack things out. So that allowed our chemistry to be just a little up and down.”
Simplifying things for Russell in terms of giving him more space to do what he’s best at (attack a spread floor after receiving a screen) may be the best way forward. That, plus running simple plays while D-Lo is off-ball to create more space for utilizing Russell’s passing ability in order to more effectively get Towns open looks from 3, like this:
Wolves Head Coach Chris Finch agreed with that sentiment following the first-round series, especially because of how tight Memphis guarded Russell.
“Well, we still think the fit [between KAT and D-Lo] is great. [Russell’s] skill set, his playmaking, all that stuff hasn’t changed. We’ve just got to figure out maybe some different sets or structures that kind of accentuate those things too,” Finch said during his exit interview after the Game 6 loss to Memphis. “One thing I felt – I could’ve done a better job of trying to get him into the series a little bit more with some plays for him maybe off the ball.”
After re-watching every single clip of Towns setting a screen for Russell, it is pretty crazy to see how many open 3s KAT creates for D-Lo, too.
Summer School Assignment
With the KAT/D-Lo two-man game in mind, I would love to see Russell improve upon his 34.0% 3-point shooting accuracy. It was the second-worst mark of his career after shooting a career-best 38.7% on 7.4 attempts per game in 2020-21.
Russell has shown a propensity to take difficult 3s, which is no surprise to anyone who watched more than a handful of Wolves games last season. That likely will not go away, which is unfortunate.
But, D-Lo also shot 33.7% on 4.4 “open” 3s per game, which are classified as shots with the nearest defender anywhere from four-to-six feet away, per NBA Stats. On 2.5 nightly “wide open” (six-plus feet from nearest defender) fires from deep, Russell shot 34.5%. He shot 50% on wide open looks last season.
If Russell can get back to making open and wide open 3s at an elite rate, there is another dimension of the Timberwolves’ offense to be unlocked, especially as Edwards inevitably — and correctly — has the ball in his hands more in the half-court. If Russell shot 37% from 3, his scoring efficiency numbers would look much better and the team would be tougher to defend, too. Russell sees himself as a combo guard; in order to make that combo a good thing for Minnesota, his 3-point shooting has to improve.
Where Does D-Lo Go From Here?
Personally, I want D’Angelo Russell to be back at Target Center with trees around his waist in 2022-23.
If they part ways with their starting point guard, it will come at a price and the Timberwolves understand that. Minnesota will have a hole to fill at its starting point guard spot and take back significant salary in the meantime. That’s a tough combination to deal with in an offseason that is as pivotal as any one single offseason in the last 20 years of Timberwolves basketball. I’m not a fan of overreacting, and despite benching him in Game 6 of an elimination game, I still think trading him — at least this summer — would be an overreaction. The Wolves should have won their first-round series in five games and that’s without good play from Russell. But they didn’t, and they need to get better; I just don’t think trading Russell is the route to get there. The return is likely to be worse than D-Lo while also not providing the same financial flexibility for next summer that his expiring contract does.
There has been reported interest from multiple teams, but none of that will matter until the Wolves broach the topic of a Russell extension. Russell is set to enter unrestricted free agency in 2023, which makes him eligible to sign a contract extension this summer. Most max players do not handle well signing a new contract for less than the max. I anticipate that being the same response for Russell, whose performance this season has etched plenty of bullet points on the “pros” side of the ledger.
I would like to see Russell find long-term success here, but that may come by way of D-Lo taking a pay cut. It is hard to argue for Russell signing another four-year, $120M-ish contract; but if he signed a one-year, $20-$25 million extension this summer, I think it’d be hard to argue against that. His combination of high-end skill and leadership come at a premium in this league, even with the statistical inconsistency.
If Russell is unable to come to terms with the Wolves on a contract extension, or one is not offered at all, a trade may then feel somewhat imminent, depending on what the return may be. Even if the Wolves do not find an actionable return for Russell prior to next season, a $31.4 million expiring contract could be an asset come the first week of February at the trade deadline. No Russell extension, but no Russell trade prior to the beginning of next season feels like the most likely outcome here.
The only potential downside of that path is that Russell feeling slighted by not getting an extension and then bouncing in unrestricted free agency next summer, even if he has a great season in 2022-23. But that downside is not one the Wolves can (or should) make plans to save themselves from now if it restricts their summer of 2023 flexibility.
While I fully understand the criticism of Russell — and don’t necessarily disagree with any of the theses on which the naysaying is built upon — I believe that the best is yet to come for a dynamic scorer and lead playmaker who is just now entering his prime as a seven-year veteran.
The only real scenario in which I would endorse a move that results in D-Lo suiting up for another team is in a sign-and-trade for Zach LaVine. Russell may very well be the best player the Chicago Bulls can get back for LaVine (who is a free agent), if he chooses to leave. Russell would fit there as a guard that can play with or without the ball next to Lonzo Ball and admirably fill some of the scoring void left in the wake of LaVine’s potential exit. But even then, it’s iffy for me given the lingering knee issues LaVine has endured this season combined with him being a worse defender than Russell.
There are some extremely complex trade mechanics in a deal of that nature that I will not delve into right now, but one can presume there are LaVine fans in the Wolves’ organization and his close friendship with Towns is well-documented.
LaVine is also a Klutch Sports Group client, the same agency that represents Edwards. Perhaps most notably, Wolves’ Chief Experience Officer Marquise Watts used to work closely with LaVine during his time at adidas as a sports marketing maven that represented several NBA stars on the brand and sponsorship side before making the jump to Klutch in 2018.
If we've seen the last of D-Lo in a Wolves jersey, I'll always be grateful for his fourth quarter performance in the play-in game.— Jack Borman (@jrborman13) June 4, 2022
He delivered exactly what Minnesota needed in that moment. Special night pic.twitter.com/VVUULU2Qb4
If this is it for Russell in a Wolves jersey, I do hope fans here remember him fondly. He served as a crucial bridge that helped keep Towns in Minnesota through a couple of disappointing seasons before ultimately helping get the Wolves back in the playoffs. Not to mention his very public challenge of the Minnesota fan base worked wonders and resulted in Target Center becoming an incredibly loud, palpable home court advantage down the stretch of the season.
But now his fate is in Tim Connelly’s hands, and all we can do is wait to see how the dominos fall.