And you may find yourself listed on the injury report while trade rumors fly
And you may find yourself behind three players in the pecking order
And you may find yourself benched, in the fourth quarter, as a max player
And you may ask yourself, “Well, how did I get here?”
Much has been said about Minnesota Timberwolves point guard D'Angelo Russell recently. From following or unfollowing the Wolves' Instagram account to being held out of games for an illness that most speculated was a precaution before a trade, most of the conversations about D-Lo have been negative. While the rest of NBA fandom blames Gobert, it seems that Wolves Twitter has decided to make Russell the scapegoat. And I am certainly not one to stop them.
I haven't necessarily been a huge fan of the former Ohio State guard during his time in Minnesota. I was a staunch Wiggins defender pre- and post-trade, and I still remember that February trade deadline. I made sheet pan pizza at a non-NBA friend's house, sat down with them, explained the previous day's four-team trade, spoke of who I called the next Ron Artest in Jarred Vanderbilt, and sat back to watch some TV. What I got instead was a notification on what would be the most conflicting move during my Wolves fandom since I convinced myself that Josh Okogie was the future in order to buy his jersey.
As we entered the 2020 off-season, some of us convinced ourselves that Russell was an offensive fulcrum, a centerpiece like he was during his 2019 All-Star campaign as a member of the Brooklyn Nets. When the Wolves got the No. 1 overall pick in 2020, it was D-Lo's presence that made LaMelo Ball an impossible pick. Now, that resulted in a better player in Anthony Edwards, but the question still stood, what role does Russell play going forward, and how does that play into Edwards’ development?
Enter Ricky Rubio, and then Patrick Beverley. This year's random veteran guard to connect with Edwards on and off the court is Austin Rivers. This is not to say that Edwards’ chemistry with Russell has been bad ─ they've provided fun moments as well, from photoshoots to fast break dump offs for dunks ─ but it hasn't had the same level of ease.
The same can be said about the on-court product. The saving grace of what has been a trying start to the season has been the pair of third year leaps from Edwards and Jaden McDaniels, and, far more importantly, the development of Point Ant. That experiment led to the Russell benching in the first place. It's what has Wolves fans posting trade machines screenshots of moves for a veteran, more complementary point guard. And, again, I am not one to stop them.
Because it's not just the development of Point Ant that led us here. It's the necessity of finding more room for McDaniels possessions. It's the necessity of finding a more willing passer to help a team that is currently depending on Kyle Anderson for point guard minutes. It's the necessity for a player who gives any type of effort on transition defense and provides a consistent game hustle. And all of that leads us back to Rubio, Beverley, and Austin.
When we talk about these complementary point guards, we end up acting like we’ve never seen a pure playmaking guard or a “3-and-D” guy at the off-ball spot next to Ant. But we have. In fact, in the 2020-21 season, the Rubio-Edwards pairing was the two man pairing with the most minutes played at 1381 across the season. They also resulted in a net rating of -6.8, somehow even lower than the Wolves average at -5.4, which was 26th in the NBA. The next year, the Beverley-Edwards pairing resulted in a +4.4 net rating, miles below the Russell-Ant duo, which led the team at +7.1 (of those that played more than 800 minutes played together).
While this year’s iteration of the starting backcourt is back on the negative side of the net rating fence, it’s important to re-contextualize Russell’s fit next to Edwards. It has not been seamless. Certain times, it looks unwieldy and borderline destructive to Ant’s on ball development. However, it’s important to remember that even if there is an improvement to be found with fit, pure talent is just as important to the on-court product.
It’s deeply unfortunate that Jordan McLaughlin’s injury happened when it did, as this ideal complementary option I keep talking about is essentially what McLaughlin provides. However, to focus on this is to completely miss the point. The Timberwolves need a long-term sidekick next to Ant, so the rotation of veteran point guards, all of whom lasted a single year, is not the solution.
Simultaneously, Minnesota must find someone more willing to play a role and not clash while trying to play outside of their role (Punch-Drunk Wolves has a great piece on this that inspired this focus). So in approaching a Russell trade, the Timberwolves are walking a tightrope. Take back someone too old, and you risk searching for another lead guard in two years with little learned. Take back a platoon of nickels for Russell’s quarter and you risk not having a real starting point guard and having even more of a playmaking issue. Trading someone just to trade them is how we got here in the first place, with the Wiggins naysayers resulting in a simply terrible analysis of assets. To do the same to move him would be a lesson in futility, and would cap the ceiling of this team immensely.
Quite simply, we’ve seen Ant next to veteran guards who are easy fits. That hasn’t been anything special. We’ve seen Ant next to a misfit in Russell, which spawned D-Lo’s deluded thinking that he is the primary shot-taker. The Wolves need to find their middle ground: a young PG next to Ant, more willing to play off ball and to fit in instead of fitting out, as LeBron James would say, but still talented enough to be worth that starting job. That’s a hard player to find, especially without any first-round picks available to trade.
Where does that leave us?
Well, losing Russell in free agency for nothing would be the worst-case scenario. At the same time, there is no extension in sight where he would take less than $25 million a year, which is an insane ask with extensions for Edwards and McDaniels around the corner. Maybe the answer is not just searching for point guards. As I write this, a lineup once again featuring point Ant, with Jaden McDaniels at the two, along with Kyle Anderson, Taurean Prince, and Rudy Gobert is demolishing the Houston Rockets and eviscerating a second half deficit.
Maybe the answer is coming in the eventual return of Jordan McLaughlin and Karl Anthony-Towns. But, if the path forward is based on the evolution of Point Ant, it will include a Russell trade. And if the future includes a D’Angelo Russell trade, we cannot be left asking, “how did we get here?”