After the smoke had cleared and enough time had passed to digest the Rudy Gobert mega-trade in full, I couldn’t help but be so optimistic about what the 7-foot-1 Frenchman could do for one Timberwolf in general. D’Angelo Russell’s stock is low right now, but there is no big man in the entire NBA better suited to get the most out of Russell than the one the Minnesota Timberwolves introduced yesterday.
This isn’t a fit that you have to talk yourself into, primarily on offense. This is the single cleanest fit with Gobert on the entire roster, with Russell serving as the Wolves best pick-and-roll player by a wide margin. Karl-Anthony Towns may be the best player on the team, but two areas that he struggles with are setting screens and operating as a roll man. He’s just not a good screen-setter in general, and while he can be an effective roller, he very clearly prefers to pop, catch, and play from the perimeter.
There’s good reason for Towns to play that way, as he’s deadly off the catch, but it also just isn’t the best way to maximize Russell. The former Ohio State star is at his best in the PnR, specifically when teams play drop. He’s an incredible passer, and is capable of both making the pocket pass to lead the big on the short roll as well as throwing perfectly placed lobs for dunks.
Over his time in Minnesota, Russell has really only been able to showcase his ability to throw that pocket pass when Naz Reid has been on the floor, but D’Lo and Reid developed a really nice chemistry in that sense. It’s part of what made D’Lo plus the bench a successful arrangement. The Wolves haven’t really had any lob threat at all, so that club has mostly been left in his bag, but we’ve seen his ability to throw pin-point lobs on his nifty passes to Jaden McDaniels after they fake their hand-off on the wing.
Last season, Minnesota completed five alley-oops, while Gobert threw down 87 on his own, as Timberwolves Head Coach Chris Finch cited during Wednesday’s media availabilities.
D'Angelo Russell fromt he 3-line, sets up an alley-oop for Jaden McDaniels on the baseline. pic.twitter.com/GoCH3e0VfU— hoops bot (@hoops_bot) February 16, 2022
The point being, you don’t have to watch the Wolves very closely to see that Russell’s passing and playmaking is underutilized. He showcased his ability to play with a rim-running big man in Brooklyn with Jarrett Allen, where the two played a beautiful two-man game that led to a surprise All-Star berth for Russell and playoff appearance for the Nets.
Brooklyn Nets - Cross Ghost Ballscreen— Hayden Harkins (@CoachHarkins) August 1, 2019
Once Harris comes off Allen’s screen and runs out of a Ghost screen for Russell, Allen follows with a Ballscreen on the wing for Russell to attack the paint. With a sharp shooter like Harris lifting, it opens up the back side for a dunk. pic.twitter.com/GtGJgvYuEo
Enter Rudy freaking Gobert.
The 10 highest volume pick and roll roll men, ranked by points per possession generated in that action last season (per Synergy)— Dane Moore (@DaneMooreNBA) July 6, 2022
Gobert: 1.320 PPP
Carter Jr.: 1.062
Gobert is not Nikola Jokić offensively, but he understands his role and is remarkably good at it. Much is made of Gobert being a “walking top-10 defense”, but not enough is made about how important a role he plays in good team offense. It is not a coincidence that the Jazz were first in offense this past year, fourth in 2021, and ninth in 2020. Utah’s offense had multiple ball-handlers, which is what got their offense humming, but the entire operation was built upon running multiple PnR actions on any given possession around Gobert.
He is the best screen-setter in the league, and while that’s not as sexy as a step-back 3, it’s still really helpful in running good offense. To go further, it’s especially helpful for skilled ball-handlers who have issues creating separation. In Utah, that was helpful for Mike Conley and Joe Ingles. Who does that sound like in Minnesota?
Yeah, D’Angelo Russell is going to love the space that a Gobert screen creates for him. Even if it just takes the on-ball defender an extra half-second to get over the screen, that’s a ton of time for someone as skilled in the mid-range as Russell not only as a scorer, but especially as a playmaker. Teams must play drop coverage to account for Gobert’s rim-running ability, and the quality of his screens will only create more space for D’Lo.
I’m not sure I’d force Russell to play out this year on an expiring contract (more on that later), but I would certainly be more open to that now if I were Russell. He’s a good bet to set a career-high in assists this year, and his shooting percentages should rise with the higher quality shots he’s going to get.
Rudy Gobert on his fit with Anthony Edwards + D’Angelo Russell:— Timberwolves Clips (@WolvesClips) July 6, 2022
“I think the spacing we can get for them with my screening, with my rim gravity when I roll to the basket…
they haven’t been throwing a lot of lobs over the last few years, we are going to work on that” pic.twitter.com/M2CXwQP1jk
One other silver lining? Even when D’Lo has a poor night shooting the ball, guess who’s going to be standing under the basket to rebound the missed middy’s? Russell has a volatile shot profile, so poor shooting nights are going to happen. The presence of one of the best rebounders in the NBA will help provide a floor for the offense even when the shot isn’t falling.
The offensive fit is marvelous, but Gobert is obviously a huge help for Russell on defense too. He’s the weak link in the starting lineup defensively, so teams will generally try to target him, but it’s harder to do so now that both Rudy and Jaden McDaniels will be in the starting lineup. There’s generally one guard or wing player in any given starting lineup that you can feasibly hide a player on, and there’s much more flexibility for Minnesota to do so now.
Of course, you won’t want to just get beat on the perimeter over and over, and count on Gobert to clean up everything; but part of the advantage of having the best rim protector in the NBA on your roster is that he does clean up a ton of messes. Utah stretched that to its practical limit towards the end of his tenure, but Minnesota has enough good defenders that they will be better equipped now to make up for Russell’s physical deficiencies on that end.
To put a bow on all of this, I would’ve thought a D’Lo contract extension was an absolutely bonkers idea a few days ago, but I now believe it makes a ton of sense for both sides. Russell has surely always wanted an extension, but now, the roster around him in Minnesota makes much more sense. He is in a much better position to succeed than he was just a week ago. With Gobert in the fold, Minnesota can feel better about keeping Russell in their plans moving forward.
Aside from the practical on-court reasons that support a Russell, it also pragmatic from a financial, team-building sense. Part of the hesitation of an extension before this trade was that it would eat into the cap space the Wolves were slated to have next offseason. Well, they just traded for a player who will make $41 million in 2023-24, so it’s much more likely that the team is better off operating as an above-the-cap team moving forward.
Here's my updated Wolves cap sheet after the Rudy Gobert trade— Dane Moore (@DaneMooreNBA) July 1, 2022
- 3 open roster spots (4 if Minott is a 2-way)
- $8.7M below the tax line (to fill out roster)
- Can add players with: remaining MLE (about $1.5M); minimum deals; matching a Knight RFA offer
- 22-23 cap space is gone pic.twitter.com/uRlCnCVANL
Part of operating as an above-the-cap team is that your primary means of replacing talent is via trade compared to free agency, so it’s important to maintain larger salary slots on the roster if for no other reason than to have outgoing salary for another trade. The best example I can think of to explain why the Wolves would want to operate this way is to take a look at what just happened between Jalen Brunson and the Dallas Mavericks. The Mavericks are over the salary cap moving forward, which meant that the downside to Brunson walking in free agency was massive for them. They have no means to replace him, and the only way they could’ve gotten anything back for him was via sign-and-trade. That didn’t occur, so the Mavs lost an important player for literally nothing.
While Russell may not be as good as Brunson, or at least hasn’t acquitted himself as well in the playoffs, the Wolves run a similar risk now if they let Russell walk in free agency. They’ll lose their starting point guard, without any real way to replace him. That’s a risk they simply cannot run. It’s time to get an extension done with D’Angelo Russell, and then figure the rest out later. If they don’t they run the risk of losing an important player on what projects to be a very good team, for absolutely nothing, with no way to replace him. That just can’t happen.