The D’Angelo Russell dilemma has been resolved.
Almost three years to the day after he was feted in a celebratory welcoming party at City Center, acquired by the Minnesota Timberwolves from Golden State for Andrew Wiggins and a first-round draft pick, D’Lo was sent to the Los Angeles Lakers in a three-team trade that brought the Wolves veteran floor general Mike Conley, underachieving wingman Nickeil Alexander-Walker, and three second-round draft choices.
Over those three years, the Wolves roster took on many different shapes, skill sets and personalities. D’Lo never comfortably fit into any of them.Conley
The 2022-23 NBA season was his do-or-die chance to become invaluable enough to earn that lucrative long-term contract he had sought for the past 18 months in Minnesota. As usual, his performance and his role on the team created solid arguments both for keeping him and cutting him loose. But by Thursday’s trading deadline, it had become a wearying debate.
Former Wolves president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas claimed that D’Lo would be an ideal pairing with his close friend Karl-Anthony Towns – their relationship was the cornerstone of his massive rebuilding effort. But injury and illness initially limited their time on the court together. Meanwhile, D’Lo didn’t hide his disrespect for then-coach Ryan Saunders or his disdain that he had to share point guard duties with first Ricky Rubio and then Patrick Beverley – even as he began to claim he was more of a combo guard than a point guard anyway. His lack of engagement on defense validated the primary reason Golden State was willing to part with him.
The Wolves blockbuster acquisition of Rudy Gobert this summer was widely regarded as a boon and complement to D’Lo’s game. But, as had been true with KAT, the supposed pick-and-roll synergy between D’Lo and a big man never lived up to the hype, and D’Lo played defense with a lassitude that forfeited his insurance policy that Gobert’s rim protection would cover for his lapses.
Not all of this was D’Lo’s fault. The close bond between him and KAT was always a bit of a fairytale, inevitably it soured when KAT got a monster contract extension while his was being allowed to expire. Saunders was a callow coach, set up to be a scapegoat to gain time for the Rosas rebuild. For very different reasons that had little to do with D’Lo, both Rubio and PatBev were cherished fan favorites. And Gobert has been revealed to be a very finicky pick-and-roll partner.
But if you are looking to extend what is already a maximum-salary contract, you have to play pretty damn well with others, both on the court and in the locker room. D’Lo was never much of a unifier in either setting. His court vision and passing acumen are both extraordinary, but he rarely played at the accelerated pace or prioritized the ball movement that were staples of the offense preferred by the coach he did respect, Chris Finch. Although he improved on his streaky shooting this season, and won a bevy of games for the Wolves in the fourth quarter in each of his three seasons here, his clanks and turnovers also frequently came in big moments. Most damning, his stubborn refusal to expend himself more diligently on defense bore the attitude of a spoiled brat.
Conley should be a good fit
A formidable case can be made that Wolves President Tim Connelly did a marvelous job of reshaping the team this week. As the successor to Rosas and then interim president of basketball operations Sachin Gupta, Connelly’s acquisition of Gobert was immediately controversial for the exorbitant price that he paid, and increasingly polarizing now that Gobert’s acclimation has been slow and uneven. But this week’s trade benefited the Wolves in a variety of important ways.
Most significantly, it swapped out the mercurial presence of D’Lo for the balm of Mike Conley. Now in his 16th NBA season at the age of 35, Conley isn’t fixated on his next contract, having already earned more than a quarter of a billion dollars during his career, and scheduled to make another $24 million next season in the final year of his current deal. It is an amount and a timeframe that keeps a sizable salary slot open to the Wolves for another season to ensure greater flexibility as they inevitably exceed the salary cap by providing big raises for Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels as their inexpensive rookie deals expire.
Meanwhile, because Conley is being paid about $8 million less than what D’Lo gets this season, the Wolves were able to add Alexander-Walker, who has had an undistinguished career thus far, but fits the prototype of a player the Wolves sorely need. He has good size at 6-foot, 6-inches, and is rangy and active and switchable as a perimeter defender.
Furthermore, he was acquired on the recommendation of Finch, who was an associate head coach in New Orleans during Alexander-Walker’s rookie season. Finch has good taste and instincts when it comes to wiry defenders – McDaniels being the prime example – and it is a good sign that he and Connelly continue to have a harmonious, mutually respectful relationship during what has been a disjointed season.
The Wolves also got three second-round draft picks in the D’Lo trade. That small pittance is easy to belittle – second-rounders were being tossed like confetti to fill out high-profile trades for stars around the NBA this week – but shrewd evaluators of personnel can utilize them either for low-risk, potentially high-reward gambles, or as minor sweeteners in trade packages. Because the Wolves still owe Utah four more first-round picks between now and 2029, they need all the draft capital they can scrape together.
On the Wolves current roster, Jaylen Nowell was a second-round pick, taken by Rosas in 2019. Connelly chose Josh Minott – whose lithe dunking, shot-blocking and defense were on display in the win over Utah on Wednesday – in the second round last summer. And Connelly chose reigning two-time MVP Nikola Jokic in the second round for Denver in 2014.
Experience and unselfishness
This discussion of the salary cap and draft picks is all very meta: An examination of the future means by which you get to a projected end. For those who simply love to watch quality hoops, the abiding question is, does Conley instead of D’Lo make this Wolves team better?
Probably. Certainly the fit is much better. Where D’Lo has spent his entire career trying to find his situational groove, Conley has become one of the NBA’s most respected players because he possesses the wisdom and flexibility to understand and mostly provide his team with what it needs from him the most.
He spent his first dozen seasons with the Memphis Grizzlies, an organization built on the collective blue-collar principles of grit and grind, of selflessly playing the right way. In the prime of his career, seasons four through 10, he was instrumental in getting the Grizzlies to the playoffs seven straight seasons, three times advancing past the first round, despite not having any star greater than Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, or himself.
When Memphis drafted Ja Morant and traded Conley to Utah for a boatload of assets in the summer of 2019, he spent the next three seasons learning how to complement Gobert and Donovan Mitchell at both ends of the court, earning his first All Star bid among a Western Conference backcourt contingent always littered with superstars. This season, after the Jazz dumped both Gobert and Mitchell, Conley became an enabler of all the youthful assets gathered by the team. His assists per game is a career high, his usage rate a career low.
Fold those experiences on to what the Wolves need now. Conley’s easy flex between being the sensei orchestrating the flow and the willing bystander ready to lend a helping hand relieves a lot of pressure on Ant as he learns the alpha-star balance of ball-hogging and playmaking. Conley’s long acquaintance with drop scheme defense led by former Defensive Players of the Year Gasol and Gobert is a welcome change from a backcourt crew that yearns for the high wall scheme that succeeded in Minnesota last season. And Conley’s three years adjusting to Gobert’s very particular tastes at both ends of the court provide Gobert with an important ally as Rudy negotiates the first new and mostly skeptical environment of his NBA career.
Yes, Mike Conley is past his prime. But what he is able to contribute on this downslope of his career, can be particularly valuable to this Wolves roster.
By the numbers
Sounds great, eh? But of course there is a rub.
Obviously, Conley can’t solve every problem confronting the Wolves, including the most fundamental one. The fit between Gobert and KAT remains a source of potentially permanent frustration, like a Rubik’s Cube that changes colors like a mood ring. But even one of basic ways Conley does solve problems creates a resolution that feels bittersweet.
All season long there has been a tension between two different styles of basketball on this team that are not easily reconciled. One leans into disciplined fundamentals. The other leans into fly-around aggression.
You cannot prioritize fly-around aggression with Gobert on your team. He is elite in a variety of ways – rebounding, rim protection, rolling to the hoop and getting put-backs off the offensive glass. But he executes all of these things in an extremely businesslike manner. He hopes his teammates are adopting the same mentality, but will settle for them understanding the supplementary ways they can help him – or at least not deter him—in the midst of these elite activities.
The progress on this has been slow and stubborn. The Wolves are 22-25 in the 47 games Gobert has played and 8-3 in the games he hasn’t played. In the 1429 minutes Gobert has been on the court, the Wolves have broken even – scoring 108.4 points per 100 possessions and allowing 108.4 per 100 possessions. In the 1370 minutes Gobert has not been on the court, the Wolves have scored 115.9 points per 100 possessions and allowed 114.3 points per 100 possessions, for a net rating of plus 1.6. Which is better than a net rating of 0.0.
Sure, there is an inevitable feeling-out process, an acclimation period. But anyone who has watched the Wolves much this season knows that some of their best, most inspired play comes when they are flying around, creating bunches of turnovers on both defense and offense as they flex their athleticism and ball movement.
Among the seven players with whom Gobert has shared the court for at least 200 minutes thus far this season, he had a positive net rating with four of them. With Ant he is plus 0.3 in 1118 minutes. With D’Lo he finishes at plus 0.2 in 1103 minutes. With McDaniels, he is plus 0.8 in 960 minutes.
The last one is Kyle Anderson. In the 587 minutes that Slo Mo (Anderson) and Gobert have shared time on the court, the Wolves have a net rating of plus 10.6.
Slo Mo came from solid, fundamental franchises – San Antonio and then Memphis. He knows and understands the disciplined fundamentals that guide Gobert.
Mike Conley has a similar background, with 12 years in Memphis and 4 in Utah (three of them with Gobert). He is not a “fly around aggression” type of player. In his dozen years running the point for the Grizzlies, Memphis never finished higher than 15th (one time) in pace of play. Twice they finished 30th, the slowest-paced team. Twice they were next-to-last. Twice they were third-to-last. That adds up to Memphis being one of the NBA’s three slowest-paced teams in half of Conley’s 12-year tenure. During his four years in Utah, the Jazz finished 24th, 18th and seventh in pace before dropping back to 15th thus far this season.
The Wolves are currently 5th in pace, after leading the NBA last season.
Bottom line, the internal friction over the identity of this team will eventually be resolved more in favor of disciplined fundamentals. You don’t acquire Gobert with prioritizing that commitment. Mike Conley will help that happen.