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With Trade Back to Lakers, the D’Angelo Russell Era is Over in Minnesota

Russell’s time in Minnesota was a rollercoaster. Let’s re-live all of it.

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NBA: Utah Jazz at Minnesota Timberwolves Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Three years to the date of being introduced at Target Center, D’Angelo Russell has been traded to the Los Angeles Lakers in a three-team trade that ultimately nets the Minnesota Timberwolves Mike Conley, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, and three second-round picks. I think the return is acceptable, but more than anything, I wanted to give some space to re-living Russell’s weird, rollercoaster trip in Minnesota. Let’s take a look down memory lane, and highlight the best moments of Russell’s tenure.

Russell was brought to Minnesota in exchange for Andrew Wiggins and a top-three protected first-round pick that ultimately became Golden State Warriors wing Jonathan Kuminga. Given the light protection on that pick, the bar was set high for Russell to make that a worthwhile maneuver for Minnesota. Some nights he lived up to that, others he did not.

The Wolves made the move in large part to pair D’Lo with his old friend, Karl-Anthony Towns, but their time together can be remembered for how little the two ended up playing together as much as anything.

Russell’s first season in Minnesota (2019-20) was mired mostly by injury, as the Ohio State Buckeye played only 12 games after being traded. That off-season, the Wolves were awarded the number one overall pick, and there were serious discussions about what to do with that pick. To that point, the Towns-Russell pairing had been disappointing largely because they had hardly played together.

When you take that, combine it with the price paid to acquire Russell, and the idea that the 2020 draft was supposedly weak at the top of the draft (LOL), there was serious debate about whether or not the Wolves should trade the pick for a more proven player such as Ben Simmons or Marcus Smart. On top of all of that, the top-three protected pick the Wolves owed the Warriors was set to convey in 2021, so there was quite a bit of pressure on the Wolves to be competitive.

Unfortunately, once again Towns and Russell struggled with injuries, and the Wolves season went wayward. The duo combined to play 92 games. D’Lo came off the bench in 16 of his 42 appearances due to a minutes restriction as he worked his way back from a knee injury, and Towns struggled with various wrist ailments. It looked like the Wolves may be best off to just shut everyone down, tank, and pray that they got some luck with the lottery to retain their pick.

They didn’t do that though, as the team got healthy, and a young(er) Anthony Edwards began to emerge. In part anchored by a D’Angelo Russell-led second unit, the Wolves were too good to tank, and instead had to try to win games to win building habits. They may have given up a real asset in Kuminga, but that run to end the season set the stage for a memorable 2021-22 season.

Golden State Warriors v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

When I think of the D’Angelo Russell era in Minnesota, I’m going to choose to remember the good times of that 2021 season and how he contributed to, by a mile, the most fun Timberwolves team of the last 15 years. I’ll remember the fourth quarter heroics in the regular season, specifically his 35-point game against the 76ers in November of 2021. It was a reminder of just how good he could be when the shot was falling, and of just how hot he could get. When Russell gets it going, there are few who score as effortlessly as he does.

His fourth quarters got the most shine, but the reality was that Russell was just a positive in general for Minnesota last season. With him on the floor, the Wolves had a net-rating of +4.7, while only posting a net-rating of +0.4 with him off the court. It was a relatively standard offensive season for Russell, but he really found a role in Minnesota’s “high wall” defensive scheme, and put together the best defensive season of his career.

This season has been Russell’s best year on offense, as he’s seemingly found the perfect balance of on-ball and off-ball activity for a player with his skill-set. That should suit him well playing as the secondary ball-handler alongside this up and coming star named LeBron James, heard of him?

Having played his last game in a Timberwolves uniform, D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns will have played just 109 games together since the 2019 trade deadline. I’m not sure this era will go down as a “what if?” but Minnesota definitely expected that pairing to be on the floor together more often.

As we’ve gone through, there were highs and lows here, but there are two big things I’ll always remember D’Angelo Russell for, and be grateful for as a fan. The first was his open plea to “our quiet ass fans” to bring a little bit of energy and life to Target Center. He was right! Until he called the fanbase out, Target Center was far from a home-court advantage for the team. By seasons end, it was a deafening building that was difficult for opposing teams to deal with.

The biggest thing, though, was his performance in the Play-In Game.

You’d never know it because the NBA bizarrely does not maintain Play-In statistics anywhere, but when Karl-Anthony Towns legitimately played his worst game of the season and the Wolves season was teetering, it was Russell who came up huge with 29 points, 5 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals, and several of the biggest shots of the night. In what was essentially a do-or-die game, Russell was at his absolute best.

The only time I have ever heard Target Center louder than Russell’s pull-up three in transition to give Minnesota a late 97-95 lead was the Anthony Edwards dunk that shortly followed it. You can make fun of how bad the Wolves have been over my lifetime, but that evening was the most fun I’ve ever had at a sporting event, and is a memory I’ll take with me for the rest of my life.

It wasn’t always pretty, and I understand why the Wolves pulled the trigger on a Russell trade now, but I’m always going to be thankful for what D’Lo did that night. I hope D’Lo finds success in his second stint in LA, and who knows, maybe we’ll meet up with him in the postseason.