Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


What’s the change the Wolves need to get off the rollercoaster? Is it D’Angelo Russell?

There are plenty of people who believe letting DLo walk is more beneficial than the poor fit and the (they believe) poor attitude that comes with his virtues in exchange for all that money.

Timberwolves guard D'Angelo Russell working around Utah Jazz guard Mike Conley in the first quarter at Target Center on Monday night.
Timberwolves guard D'Angelo Russell working around Utah Jazz guard Mike Conley in the first quarter at Target Center on Monday.
Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Timberwolves provided what has become an expected assortment of goodies and crud over the recent Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend.

After a second sour loss to the miserable Detroit Pistons last Wednesday rudely interrupted their four-game winning streak, the Wolves came home on Friday to face a decimated Phoenix Suns outfit that had lost 10 of its previous dozen games and were missing their reigning three-time All Stars, guards Chris Paul and Devin Booker. Up by 22 points with nine minutes left to play and their five starters still on the floor, the Wolves proceeded to commit nine fouls, turn the ball over four times, get outrebounded 11-4 and eke out a 121-116 victory.

That uninspired finish didn’t augur well for a desirable outcome against the large, rugged Cleveland Cavaliers, who owned the best defense in the NBA and had the previous night off while the Wolves were playing a back-to-back on Saturday. It looked worse when Rudy Gobert left the game less than halfway through the second quarter with tightness in his groin and defensive stopper Jaden McDaniels picked up his fifth foul with more than nine minutes to play in the third quarter and the team down double-digits.

But in what has become a bittersweet pattern, with their top two centers (Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns, who will receive a combined $72 million in salary this season) on the sidelines, a pair of backup centers (in this case Naz Reid and Luka Garza, who will receive a combined $2.4 million in salary this season) boosted the team to one of its most inspiring and successful performances of the 2022-23 campaign.

Article continues after advertisement

The slimmed-down Naz was a blade of lightning, scorching the twine for a quartet of dunks, two of them after court-length dashes – the first after a block, the second after a rebound – and two others after receiving passes outside the three-point arc. The final two were in a rousing third quarter spurt that whacked a 14-point Cavs lead down to one. The fourth and final slam was the best: a track-meet dribble after an ordinary rebound, culminating in a Statue of Liberty pose, with the ball as his torch, then through the bucket and ensuing bedlam.

Naz described it perfectly after the game. “Put the ball in the rim. If I’ve got to put (Cavs defenders) in the rim, they’re going in the rim too.”

When Naz rested, in came Garza, who looks like a giant Ken doll with wayward bangs and Clydesdale feet, a charming galoot. Evan Mobley, the Cavs’ second-year defensive ace, probably doesn’t share that opinion, as Garza methodically dismantled him, making four of five shots in a 9:41 span in which Minnesota outscored Cleveland by 11.

Garza ambushes foes via his lead first impression. The burly limbs emit a feathery touch on his jumper—he nailed a trey with Mobley flying toward him and a couple of floaters that drifted into the rim as gently as Naz’s dunks were savage. But the real crowd-pleaser among Garza’s array of highlights was when he backed down Mobley – two inches taller but 37 pounds lighter than Garza – with a series of feints and bang-body crab dribbles with his back to the basket before duking one way, going the other, up-faking a shot, and then, with Mobley coming down from his premature leap, issuing a tender, kiss-off jump-hook for a bucket that broke a fourth-quarter tie.

Final score, Wolves 110, Cavs 102, for Minnesota’s sixth win in seven games.

The gift that keeps on taking

Which brings us to the afternoon matchup with the Utah Jazz on the Monday of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. Games between the Wolves and the Jazz will resonate out of last July’s blockbuster trade for Gobert for years to come – the Wolves owe first-round draft picks as late as 2029, and three of Utah’s starters were part of the immediate bounty the Jazz also received from Minnesota. Monday’s contest was an especially gruesome outcome for those tracking the trajectory of the deal from the Wolves perspective.

Gobert wasn’t cleared to play until an hour before the game, and he lasted less than five minutes of action before the groin again forced him to the sidelines. This time Naz and Garza couldn’t provide the necessary spark, combining to make just four of 15 shots, although the Wolves fifth string center, Nate Knight, chipped in seven points and positive activity for nine minutes of play.

Unfortunately, the dominant big men of the day were part of the package for Gobert. Last year’s fan favorite Jarred Vanderbilt produced 15 points, 8 rebounds, four assists and his typically antic presence all over the court. But the star of the show was Walker Kessler, the Wolves first-round draft pick in June. Utah will get to choose their own players in Minnesota’s draft slot in every odd year from 2023-2029, plus have the option of switching slots with the Wolves in the 2026 draft if it is more favorable. On Monday, however, Kessler’s performance was already tilting the trade sharply into Utah’s favor.

Article continues after advertisement

His 20 points tied a career high. His whopping 21 rebounds obviously set a career high and could be considered decisive in the Wolves loss by a mere point. But most impressive was the overall maturity of his game: He knew where his teammates were on the court at all times, and passed the ball and rotated on defense accordingly. When Garza tried to give him a little shimmy and twirled into an arching jump hook in the second quarter, Kessler met him at the summit for the block. The Ken doll had encountered an even bigger galoot with subversively refined skills.

Bottom line, it was a typically careening week in the Wolves’ identity-free 2022-23 season. A horrible loss to the Pistons after four straight wins. A meandering victory nearly tossed away against the overmatched Phoenix Suns, but a W all the same. A thrilling triumph led by role-playing subs against a formidably strong opponent from Cleveland. And then a one-point loss to a rebuilding Utah team that gave the Wolves its best player in exchange for a stockpile of current and future assets, some of them put in service during the Jazz’s second win over Minnesota in three meetings this season.

Will DLo stay or will he go?

Few things capture the occasionally sparkling, more often enervating nature of the Timberwolves 2022-23 season better than the team’s relationship with starting point guard D’Angelo Russell. DLo is on an expiring $31.4 million contract three weeks from the trading deadline. His relationship with the Wolves franchise has been a yo-yo saga, generating more polarization.

Former president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas pursued him with a passion, convinced that DLo was the key to a Wolves renaissance. It didn’t matter that DLo embarrassed the Rosas regime in the summer of 2019 when the Wolves brass took him for a helicopter ride as a prelude to wooing him with a glitzy presentation back on the ground, only to have everyone’s cell phone light up in mid-air with the news that DLo had already signed with Golden State.

When the Wolves finally bagged DLo by sending Andrew Wiggins and a first-round pick to the Warriors in February 2020, a jubilant Rosas held a welcoming party at City Center and crowed to the assembled fans that “we wanted that point guard.”

But the legacy is checkered. Alternating injuries to DLo and KAT, along with the Wolves failure to quality for play in the “bubble” when the NBA resumed after being disrupted by COVID, provided precious little familiarity during their first year together. After that, DLo’s status as the unquestioned floor general was continually threatened by large personalities on the roster – Ricky Rubio during the 2020-21 season and Patrick Beverley the year after that. DLo clearly didn’t respect, nor play hard for, coach Ryan Saunders during that first season.

Things initially went well when Chris Finch replaced Saunders, and the “high wall” defensive scheme Finch devised suited DLo (as well as KAT and Anthony Edwards) particularly well. But as the NBA became more accustomed to the high wall, DLo’s defense in particular suffered. He had a superb performance to lead the Wolves over the Clippers in the play-in game, but struggled in the first-round against Memphis when the Grizzlies, knowing DLo torched them in the regular season, put their best perimeter defender, Dillon Brooks, on him. In crunchtime of the elimination game, Finch kept him on the bench and went with backup Jordan McLaughlin.

Meanwhile, Wiggins was voted a starter on the Western Conference All Star team (thanks in part to mischievous social networking by Korean, “K-Pop” music fans), and earned more legitimate respect as a premiere perimeter defender and rebounder during the Warriors’ successful chase for another NBA championship.

Article continues after advertisement

The Wolves reportedly shopped DLo during the off-season but found the market for him to be surprisingly soft. Even so, many (including me) expected him to be gone from the team before opening day.

But then new president of basketball operations Tim Connelly made the blockbuster trade for Gobert, one of the best pick-and-roll finishers in the game. It seemed a natural pairing for DLo, who had shown himself to be a very capable pick-and-roll ball-handler in Brooklyn with Jarrett Allen, but had not fulfilled what Rosas envisioned as pick-and-roll dynamite in tandem with KAT. Gobert’s status as an elite rim protector was also regarded as an elixir for DLo, who traditionally struggles in on-ball coverage. It was widely acknowledged that of all the holdover members of the Wolves roster from a year ago, DLo would benefit the most from Gobert’s arrival.

As with almost everything related to DLo and the Wolves, the results have been mixed, and ultimately a little disappointing.

Contrary to what his legion of fans and “haters” think, DLo has neither flourished nor floundered this season. On the plus side, he is shooting more accurately than in any other season in his eight year career. Before this year, DLo had never made half of his two-point attempts. This season it is 55.2%. His free throw percentage is likewise a career-high at 85.9% and his accuracy from behind the three-point arc 36.5%, while not a career high, is above his career average of 35.7%. Add it up and DLo’s true shooting percentage is a career-best 59.1%.

Another positive is DLo’s willingness to try and flex his game to better blend in with a team of potent scorers. Even before the emergence of Ant as a primary playmaker, DLo’s usage – the percentage of plays he is directly involved with on while on the floor – was trending below his career average, and is currently at a career low of 22.7 (his career average is 27.6).

But it is not all good news. In many ways, DLo remains an awkward fit on this team. Chris Finch prefers an offense that seeks to push the ball in transition whenever possible and even after opponent baskets or contested rebounds, to get the ball up in the half-court as quickly as possible. There have been stretches during this season when DLo has consciously sought to push the pace, but it is simply not his natural rhythm. He is a student of the game and knows the tendencies of opponents. He likes to set up, survey the floor and probe for openings in a meta-game of cat-and-mouse. When he is replaced by the backup point guard, Jordan McLaughlin, the contrast in pace and purpose is stark and enlightening.

The expected synergy between DLo and Gobert has not been as prolific as expected. DLo’s favorite way to execute the pick-and-roll is through pocket passes or other bounce passes. When it is a straight pass, it is often issued quickly, to catch the opponent off-guard. Gobert prefers to know the ball is coming, and to see it coming. His hands are merely average and he needs time to react.

Gobert and DLo have shared the floor for 886 minutes thus far this season. During that time, the Wolves have scored 108.4 points per 100 possessions. That is 4.5 points per 100 possessions lower than the 112.9 points per 100 possessions the Wolves have scored as a team this season. The percentage of baskets generated with an assist likewise drops, from a team mark of 59.4% to 58.6% with DLo and Gobert sharing the court. The assist to turnover ratio is likewise lower with the pairing compared to overall.

On defense, Gobert is tailor-made to play “drop coverage,” the scheme that allows the big man the most responsibility in protecting the rim. But DLo – along with Ant, KAT, and the other big men like Naz and Garza – prefer to play the more scrambling-oriented “high wall” scheme. Gobert is such an elite rim protector that it is most logical to play him in drop coverage. But that requires that players on the perimeter, especially the guards, DLo and Ant, to rigorously fight through screens and put forth a strong effort to contain the ball-handler, so the opposing offense doesn’t have a jailbreak to the basket that puts Gobert in an impossible situation. Finch was constantly lamenting the lack of ball-containment, resulting from an absence of physicality, during the first few weeks of the season. It has gotten better but is still far from ideal.

Article continues after advertisement

In those 886 minutes DLo and Gobert are together, the Wolves allow 109.4 points per 100 possessions on defense, which is 3.7 fewer points allowed than the overall team average. This is the Gobert factor – the Wolves allow 108.7 points per 100 possessions in the 1189 minutes he plays overall this season.

In general, DLo’s defensive efficiency is boosted slightly when teamed with Gobert and Goberts’s offensive efficiency is boosted slightly when teamed with DLo. But overall, the results are not that great for DLo. His “net rating” of -2.0 – the result of the Wolves scoring 112.0 points and allowing 114.0 points per 100 possessions when he is on the court – is the worst among the five starters who all average more than 30 minutes per game. In general, the Wolves net rating is -0.1, which comes from the team scoring 112.9 and allowing 113.1 per 100 possessions per game. (That comes to -0.2 but it is probably a rounding discrepancy.)

The eye test corresponds with these numbers. DLo is a polarizing player, and fans and foes of his game will fixate and remember on different aspects. In my view, the biggest knock on DLo is that he simply doesn’t try hard enough, doggedly enough, to play quality defense. He has his virtues at that end of the court – his knowledge of the opponents’ playbook and his wingspan and anticipation get him more steals and deflections than most guards. But he is too easily wiped off the play by a screen, too content to conclude that he has been beaten off the dribble, too liable to be outworked for rebounds and loose balls. He can catch the fever of the “fly around” mentality when the Wolves are humming in the high wall scheme. But his shrewd calculations are usually devoted to gambling on a big play rather than deepening the effectiveness of the dirty work so often necessary to get stops.

On offense, the emergence of Ant as a load-bearing playmaker is still a work in progress, but there is every reason to pursue it to maximize the high ceiling his skills suggest he can attain. That lessens DLo’s overall value. He remains a gifted passer – excelling at misdirection and surprising, floor-shifting feeds. But it is unfortunately telling that he regards himself as a “combo guard,” equal parts scorer and playmaker.

Last week, in an interview with Jake Fischer of Yahoo Sports, DLo responded to the subject of pushing Ant to greater heights by saying, “I’m an Alpha as well, you know what I mean? And I feel like I am better than a lot of shooting guards and I am better than a lot of point guards.” In the paragraph preceding this quote, Fischer also included another statement DLo said to Yahoo Sports back in December, “You either take advantage of me and my ability, or f*** up the opportunity with me. It’s as simple as that.”

Not so fast on “let’s trade him”

But of course it isn’t that simple. If the Wolves have learned anything from this 2022-23 season, it is that the fitting of skills is as important as the mere sum of those skills. Should the Wolves prioritize “taking advantage” of DLo’s game over developing Ant? Hell no.

Then there is the salary cap conundrum. Teams can exceed the salary cap and even venture far into the luxury tax (provided they are willing to pay the costs used by the NBA to retain some parity among franchises) by holding on to their high-priced players. If the Wolves simply decide to let DLo’s $31.3 million salary slot expire at the end of this season, they will have much less flexibility to negotiate trades and add players when Ant and Jaden McDaniels receive huge raises from their rookie-scale contracts in two years’ time.

There are plenty of people who believe letting DLo walk is more beneficial than the poor fit and the (they believe) poor attitude that comes with his virtues in exchange for all that money.

I’d rather see what DLo’s market is over these next three weeks, and then, at season’s end, if he is still with the team, what could be fetched for him via a sign-and-trade scenario, which is how DLo got the big contract from Brooklyn on his way to Golden State in the first place.

And if the market for DLo remains soft both in February and again in June? Well, Connelly, Finch and the ownership will have to decide whether to offer a one or two year contract, and see if DLo has better options. Because short of relying on Ant’s ongoing development as a playmaker and deploying J-Mac in a larger role, the Wolves don’t have better options either.

The situation is fluid and slightly unsatisfying for both player and team. That is becoming the norm for a franchise still seeking to find its footing, and a sustained, successful identity, in the wake of Gobert deal.