For the Minnesota Timberwolves to land D’Angelo Russell, everything had to break right. Buried in $62.7 million of salary dedicated to just Andrew Wiggins, Jeff Teague and Gorgui Dieng next season, Gersson Rosas wasn’t going to have to pull a cat of his hat to land Russell but he was going to need the dots to connect. One of those dots, however, was out of his control: D’Angelo Russell’s free will.
Ultimately, Russell chose to accept a sign-and-trade to the Golden State Warriors over the Minnesota Timberwolves. The operative word there being chose — because for a sign-and-trade to go down, three boxes need to be checked.
Box One: The salary of the player needs to be mutually agreed upon between the player and the team pursuing him.
Box Two: The compensation for the facilitation of the trade needs to be mutually agreed upon between the teams involved in the sign-and-trade.
Box Three: The player has to choose a team that checks both Box One and Box Two.
Box One: Determining Russell’s Salary
In this case, we know that the salary from Box One was the maximum Russell could receive from a non-Brooklyn team. That figure is $117.3 million over four years. (Brooklyn could have given Russell a five-year contract for $158.3 million if they were going to keep him. But they, instead, opted to use that cap space on Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant — the first domino that preempted these three boxes.)
For the Wolves to be able to have taken on that money, they would have needed to send out $21,828,000 in outgoing salary in the sign-and-trade. That number is derived from the rules for a sign-and-trade that require the outgoing salary multiplied by 1.25 equaling or exceeding incoming money. Russell’s first-year salary on his maximum contract is $27,285,000 — thus $21,828,000.
To get to that number, the Wolves would have had to find some collection of salaries that equal or exceed $21,828,000. That could have been done in one fell swoop with Andrew Wiggins’ $27.5 million being sent out. Or, perhaps a combination of less onerous contracts — with Jeff Teague’s $19 million or Gorgui Dieng’s $16.2 million being the fatter portion of the $21.828 million. There were different options for getting there.
“They have a deal in place for the money,” one league executive said before free agency officially began at 6 p.m. EST on Sunday.
Box Two: Asset Compensation
That outgoing money would then need to be re-routed to a third team, as Brooklyn would not be able to take that money back while still being able to sign Irving and Durant. In the actual Russell deal with Golden State, the cap fodder was sent to Memphis. (Details of that exact compensation are still trickling together at the publish time of this column.)
What is known, per ESPN.com’s reporting, is that Golden State is sending Andre Iguodala’s expiring contract ($17.2 million) and a protected first-round pick in 2024 to Memphis. They are also sending a future first round pick to Brooklyn for facilitating the sign-and-trade.
Whether it was Wiggins or Teague or Dieng as the Wolves’ version of Iguodala, the compensation would have varied. Before Golden State swooped in out of seemingly nowhere, multiple league sources believed the Wolves had the pieces in place to both redirect the necessary salary and to properly compensate the team taking on the salaries. They were just waiting on Brooklyn signing two other max salaries — that would push Russell onto the market officially.
Which brings us to the most important box of the three.
Box Three: Russell’s Free Will
Perhaps the best way to think of this, in this unique situation, is that Russell held a bizarro version of a no-trade clause. For a sign-and-trade to happen, Russell literally needed to sign off on the deal — providing him the autonomy to choose his destination. Brooklyn couldn’t just trade him without the “sign” portion of the sign-and-trade, per league rules.
The other option for Russell would have been to enter unrestricted free agency. (It would have been unrestricted free agency and not restricted free agency because Brooklyn would have had to renounce his rights to create the cap space for Irving and Durant.)
Now, if Russell would have entered unrestricted free agency any team that signed him would need to have the cap space to bring on his $27.3 million in salary. For the Wolves, who currently sit $6.2 million over the cap, this would have meant cutting $33.5 million in salary ($27.3 + $6.2). An obviously more difficult duty than needing to shed the $21.828 million in the sign-and-trade option.
Creating $27.3 million in cap space would have been nearly impossible for Golden State — who is even further above the cap.
So, Russell opted on his own free will to agree to the sign-and-trade path. On that path, he chose Golden State over Minnesota. Yes, he has a relationship with Towns. And yes, Minnesota was a front runner in the weeks leading up to free agency’s official start. But he chose the most dominant franchise of this decade. A team that just so happens to play in the state of California.
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There will be speculation that once the market began shaking up that the Wolves did not act quick enough to facilitate a deal with a third team to take on Wiggins, Teague or Dieng. But it’s not as if Golden State just woke up from a nap at 6 p.m. and decide to get in on the mix. They were just as ready for this as the Wolves were. That’s what good front offices do: make contingency plans.
Their initial hope, obviously, was to retain Durant. Then, once they were informed of Durant’s departure, the writing was on the wall that Russell was available. Russell became the contingency plan.
Indications point to Golden State winning the Russell sweepstakes more than the Wolves bungling it. While that will fall on deaf ears to those who craved Russell, it remains the reality.
There is a plausible alternate reality where Durant stays in Golden State. And maybe in that world, Brooklyn lands another max-level free agent — similarly pushing Russell out. In that scenario, it would have been impossible for Golden State to have pulled off a sign-and-trade for Russell without breaking up their core in a different meaningful way. Indications are that Russell winding up in Minnesota would have then likely come to fruition, provided Rosas and company would have been able to check Box One and Box Two.
Ultimately, Box Three was out of Minnesota’s control. That doesn’t mean this was all some sort of faux aggression by the front office. It doesn’t mean they swung and missed, either. It means the pitch was never thrown because Russell preferred to play for the Warriors over the Timberwolves. Now, it’s on Rosas to make a contingency plan of his own.
— This story has been updated to account for new reporting on the terms of the three-way sign-and-trade between Golden State, Brooklyn and Memphis.