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Wolves mailbag (part 2): How does D’Lo benefit from the addition of Rudy Gobert?

With the blockbuster trade for Rudy Gobert, the Timberwolves have stabilized their core talent to a remarkable degree, but the future of point guard D’Angelo Russell is a fascinating enigma with broad spectrum of potential outcomes.

D'Angelo Russell shown during game six of the first round of the 2022 NBA playoffs at Target Center.
D’Angelo Russell shown during game six of the first round of the 2022 NBA playoffs at Target Center.
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Part 2 of the Timberwolves 2022 summer mailbag. If you missed the first part, click here. Again, thanks to all who submitted questions and comments. One of the favorite parts of this job is getting to interact with an intelligent and engaged fan base.

The DLo saga

Given the (pick and roll) potential with (Rudy) Gobert/DLo (D’Angelo Russell), would the Wolves look to resign DLo in next year’s offseason, if that combo is efficient? – Adam Edison @AdamEdison7

Would you assume DLo is gone next year? If so, what are the possibilities to address with the cap space he will clear next summer? – Nathanial Renteria @rencito_4040

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DLo is the biggest question mark on the Wolves roster. Your predictions on his tenure/contract? – Ballin Benz @benz_ballin

With the blockbuster trade for Rudy Gobert, the Timberwolves have stabilized their core talent to a remarkable degree while fast-forwarding their rebuild into “win now” mode over the next four seasons. Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns are twin marquee bigs signed for four and five years, respectively. Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels are cherished assets and burgeoning talents in their early 20s who will transition out of their rookie contracts into more lucrative deals that should keep them on the team for at least as long as their taller teammates.

But the future of point guard D’Angelo Russell is a fascinating enigma with broad spectrum of potential outcomes. There are scenarios where he is the perfect fit and others where his presence sabotages the whole shebang.

I’ve written and talked extensively about the DLo situation, so I’ll be abbreviated explaining how we arrived at this juncture. At the onset of last season, DLo mentioned he hoped the caliber of his play would stimulate the Wolves to extend his contract. His subsequent performance proceeded to ratify both the hopes and fears about the various pros and cons of his capabilities.

On offense, he remained an extraordinarily gifted passer and ball handler who occasionally lapsed into puzzling shot selection. His shooting was less accurate than his career norms, yet he was also pretty successful as a fearless crunch time scorer. On defense, he used his cerebral bent and extensive scholarship to suss out, communicate and react to the play-sets of the opponents and was thus invaluable early in the season when the Wolves were ambushing teams with their aggressive, opportunistic approach. But his on-ball defense and overall physicality was subpar and unmotivated, which exposed him as a weak link as teams became familiar with the Wolves’ aggression and reduced its chaos later in the season.

Ironically, he improved his on-ball defense in the playoffs even as his offensive woes became the abiding narrative – he had torched Memphis in the regular season and they devoted a lot of attention to disrupting his game at that end. He was benched in the final minutes of the elimination game and was not offered a contract extension, even though KAT, whose deal expires a year later, was offered the “super-max” extension he earned by making the All-NBA third team.

Before the trade for Gobert, the question seemed to be when, not if, DLo would be jettisoned from the team. The maximum contract he inked three summers ago is widely regarded as an overpay, a sign-and-trade meant to help facilitate both Golden State and Brooklyn as Kevin Durant was leaving the Warriors to join the Nets. Did the Wolves want to deal him this summer, at the February trading deadline, or wait for the contract to elapse next summer and either let him go outright or execute another sign-and-trade?

But the presence of Gobert on the Wolves roster should significantly increase DLo’s value and productivity in Minnesota. He has always been especially adept at running the pick-and-roll, and Gobert is arguably the best – and inarguably the most efficient – roll man in the NBA. On defense, Gobert’s sterling rim protection affords his teammates a safety net should their man blow past them and head to the hoop. Nobody needs matador mitigation more than DLo.

The win-now mode triggered by Gobert’s acquisition also makes the notion of overpaying DLo less noxious. When you’ve already punted three of the top seven in your rotation plus five first-round draft picks, you’re “all in.” Forking over $31 million per season instead of, say, $24 million, to retain the status quo becomes an acceptable cost of stockpiling talent already on hand rather than wasting time trying alternatives, especially since you won’t have the cap space to offer $31 million to somebody else.

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All that said, contingencies and question marks still abound. Coach Chris Finch has never been a big fan of a pick-and-roll heavy offense. The fact that DLo also likes to play cat-and-mouse with opposing defenses, while Finch prefers a faster pace with rapid ball movement is another way the fit is imperfect. And even with Gobert as the safety net, Finch wants to continue emphasizing ball pressure, which is not DLo’s strong suit. In comments to the Star Tribune’s beat writer Chris Hine earlier this month, Finch specifically mentioned on-ball defense as something he wants to see improved in DLo’s game.

Last but hardly least, can the Wolves develop the full potential of Edwards as an all-purpose playmaker if DLo is the point guard?

The role and performance of DLo on the Wolves this season competes with “can the team play two big men in a league that is trending small?” question as the dominant subplots. My take is that DLo will thrive on offense – he had a career-high in assists last season even with a solid dose of pick and roll plays. He would be smart to lessen his overall shot selection and use his playmaking to enable Ant, especially subverting his desire to take over in crunch time. But the guy is extremely gifted and is surrounded by players who will give him the space and the options to make the offense hum.

But by far the best way for DLo to extend his contract on its currently lucrative terms is to improve his on-ball defense. He’s got the smarts and the wingspan; now he needs the sweat equity. A DLo that plays league-average defense and shares the operation of the offense with Ant is worth more to the Wolves than the cerebral but physically indifferent defender and ball-dominant floor general we have seen the past season or two.

There is common interest, of course. If the Wolves soar in the standings, DLo’s value rises as either a trade piece in February or a free agent next summer even if he is an imperfect fit. In any case, the Wolves hold most of the leverage. If DLo pouts or fails to maximize the balance needed for the Wolves to thrive, he may find himself looking at a pay cut on the free agent market while in the prime of his career a year from now.

Defining success

What’s the best way to measure if the Gobert trade is a success? How many playoff series do the Wolves need to win with Gobert to justify the cost of trading for him? – Paul Mueller @cspPaul

In your eyes what is the smallest feat the Wolves must achieve over the next 3-4 years in order to deem the Gobert trade “worth it”? – kunal @kunanmahesh7

These two capture the sentiment of a bevy of questions regarding the benchmarks we might want to erect to measure the ultimate success of the Gobert blockbuster.

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Certainly there are tangible ways to look at this. From a management standpoint, it’s about the bottom line: Does the Gobert trade generate more revenue than it cost? Of course even there you have to factor in stuff like ongoing fan loyalty and engagement and merchandising sales.

But you are asking me the question, so I will answer it personally. I want captivating, high-caliber hoops. I’d prefer a season where the Wolves lose a thrilling seven-game series in the conference semifinals over a season where they swept the conference semifinals and then got swept in the conference finals. Or, put another way, what I cherish about the peak Tom Thibodeau/Jimmy Butler season was not the team’s lone win in the first-round against Houston, but Taj Gibson’s bottling up of Nikola Jokic to save Game 82 and send the Wolves to the playoffs in the first place.

It’s the journey, not the destination. But even as I say that, I appreciate the linkage: A short destination necessarily reduces the joy of the journey. The longer you travel, the more memorable stuff you are likely to experience.

If the Wolves never make it past the second round of the playoffs over the next four seasons, most will deem the Gobert trade a failure. But what if it provides the right pitch and grease on a ramp that elevates the future play of Ant and McDaniels?

In other words, I’m never very helpful on these “boom or bust” thought experiments. I will concede that most fans regard the minimum standard for success with Gobert to be a trip to the conference finals, which is the furthest the Wolves have ever gone in franchise history, back in 2004.

To complete the buzzkill, I am obligated to remind you of my lead sentence in the first part of this mailbag: Roster churn in the NBA is too dynamic to make any accurate prognostication of what will happen even two or three seasons down the road likely. So I prefer to look at the short-term, and on the bright side. The new Wolves regime has thrown us a curve, the most overt win-now blockbuster in franchise history. It ups the drama, and the excitement, and makes the uncertainties more consequential. I’ll drink that tonic.

The other potential star

I really liked seeing McDaniels gain more confidence to slash and create down the stretch last year. Is there a concern that Gobert’s gravity in the middle will clog things for McDaniels and to a lesser extent Ant? – jmag @jmag21

If Jaden’s 3-point percentage doesn’t inch very close to 40%, will we worry about his ceiling and will it eliminate minutes on the floor this year? – Chris and Christy @chris_n_christy

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Chris Finch loves Jaden McDaniels. When I interviewed him a year ago in Las Vegas, Finch wasn’t afraid to describe the ceiling of McDaniels potential in comparison to Scottie Pippen. When McDaniels had a dreadful start to the 2021-22 season, Finch protected him (pulled him from the starting lineup), encouraged him (told him he was more than a three-point shooter and to work on other elements of his offense) and continued to expose him to the most high-leverage situations that both the Wolves and McDaniels could afford. McDaniels rewarded that faith with dogged improvement and expansion of his skills. No Timberwolves looked more comfortable competing in the playoffs.

Aside from DLo, no player will benefit more from the arrival of Gobert than McDaniels. Consider that he is still two months away from his 22nd birthday and hangs a mere 185 pounds on his six-foot, nine-inch frame. Yet over his first two NBA seasons, he played power forward or center against the league’s brawny behemoths for 78% of his minutes his rookie year and 67% last season, according to Basketball Reference. He was thus able to play his natural position, small forward, a mere 28% of the time he was on the court.

Going forward, McDaniels will not only be able to pick on players his own size, especially on defense, but a rim-protecting big brother will have his back most of the time. One of the questions asked in this mailbag was what aspect of the Gobert trade am I most excited about. Watching McDaniels defend opposing playmakers on the perimeter is near the top of my list.

On offense, he will be the fifth option among members of the starting lineup, which should tell you how good the Wolves will be at that end of the court. Yes, his three-point accuracy dipped down to a desultory 31.7% after a 36.4% result his rookie season. And yes, with Gobert on the court, the lane will become more crowded.

But McDaniels body has logged another year of maturity and muscle definition and he will not be subjected to the physical bullying and punishment that were an inevitable byproduct of the unfortunate situation he found himself in the first two years. (Blame former team president Gersson Rosas and his distaste for actual power forwards. But credit Rosas for drafting McDaniels in the first place.) There is a reason why the Wolves reportedly added two more first-round picks as sweetener for Utah rather than part with McDaniels as part of the package for Gobert.

I don’t know exactly how Finch will deploy McDaniels this season. But at a minimum, he is exactly the kind of “minor piece” that turns a B+ team into an A- team. Sooner rather than later, I expect him to become an invaluable cog along the lines of what Mikal Bridges does for Phoenix or what Dorian Finney-Smith contributes to Dallas. And Finch, a master tactician, is thinking Pippen.

Quick hits

Aside from trading KAT, what other “outs” do the Wolves have (or the front office at least thinks they have in the future if this Rudy plan goes sideways? – Jake Anderson @jakebanderson32

Without knowing how or why it would go sideways, it is tough to respond. But I have always felt that the “two timelines” theory was overstated and was happy to see Tim Connelly acquiring a 30-year old veteran despite having two starters aged 20 (Ant) and 21 (McDaniels) on the roster. If their lack of development is the issue, the Wolves have a problem in both the short-term and the long-term.

But if things go sideways because of injuries or lack of depth or a failure by KAT and/or Gobert to make the dual bigs lineup work, it would not be that difficult for the front office to unload either or both of the bigs and build around the two kids with draft picks they retrieve.

A lot has been made about how Gobert improves everyone around him and Wolves fans are understandably excited for Gobert/DLo pick and rolls. Are there any less obvious examples of how he will improve our offense? Advanced offensive analytics are crazy high on Gobert. Why? – Buddakao @Buddhakao

Gobert is an extremely efficient scorer and analytics is often focused on efficiency. Gobert’s shooting percentage is always at or near the top of the NBA.

In addition to pick and rolls, straight screens by Gobert are very effective – his technique is superb. This is a part of hoops that the Wolves have been missing for years – KAT is terrible at timing and sustaining his screens properly. Finch has talked about using Gobert more in the high post and elsewhere on the perimeter. This will likely be oriented toward dribble hand-off (DHO) actions – think about how Gorgui Dieng enabled Zach LaVine. Gobert will free up Ant in particular, giving him the option of an open jumper off the curl around the screen, or the chance to beat a big off the dribble.

Gobert’s rebounding and rim protection fuels offense. Transition opportunities are among the most efficient ways to score and swatting shots and grabbing defensive rebounds stimulate transition a lot more than taking made shots out the basket and inbounding. Gobert’s dominance on the defensive glass (he was first in defensive rebounding last season) also allows teammates to leak out early for transition opportunities.

What do you think about the Wolves signing Boogie Cousins? – Benzo @158Wolves

Hate it. Triples down on the big man emphasis, gobbles up usage on a player without a long-term future and puts an unreliable locker room guy in the mix.

What is the best thing you like about covering the Wolves/NBA, and what is the worst thing about it? – Jeff Germann from Minnpost comments section

The best things are watching the greatest athletes in the world engage in the best game on the planet up close and personal, continuing to add to an institutional memory that now goes beyond 30 years, experiencing the dynamic changes in how the game has evolved and surfing alongside a serious media contingent that covers the game with exponentially more depth, nuance and flair than it had when I first starting doing this. (The core writers and talkers on the Wolves beat are a microcosm of that.)

The worst thing are hucksters and con men who traffic in idiotic speculation for clicks and other useless attention. The cynicism required to gull the gullible with bullshit and other forms of disinformation stains the game for the sake of stoking egos and filling wallets. It is the polar opposite of what makes basketball beautiful.