It's Time for Another D'Angelo Russell to the Minnesota Timberwolves Conversation

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

December 15th was always going to re-open the D’Angelo Russell to the Minnesota Timberwolves conversation. Prior to the 15th, as was the case for every player who inked a new contract this past summer, there was a restriction on Russell’s new contract that prevented him from being traded. This means we’ve officially reached the juncture of the NBA calendar where it’s no longer irresponsible to have trade conversations, even if the actual trade deadline isn’t for another seven weeks. Business is open.

As is always the case with hypothetical NBA trades, there are two ways to do this: fancifully or realistically. In the fanciful category, there is the narrative of The Timberwolves should trade for D’Angelo Russell by any means necessary. But, come on, we can do better than that. A real trade conversation is more like holiday shopping: You need to assess how much you can spend, making sure you keep enough to be able to buy groceries in January.

That’s where this process of theoretically pursuing Russell would start for Minnesota: A realistic assessment of trade possibilities. It’s a path that includes both obstacles and opportunities, shaking out to make up a fairly complicated four-step procedure. Let’s dig into it.

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Step One: Assess Your Positive Assets

If the Wolves are going to acquire Russell, it’s safe to assume they are going to need to send out positive assets. This is what they’ve got:

  • Draft Assets — The Wolves own all of their own future first and second round draft picks. They also have Philadelphia’s second in 2022 (Jimmy Butler Deal dividends!). The only restrictions here are that it is illegal to trade first round picks in consecutive seasons, or to trade a pick more than seven years into the future. As an example, the fattest offering Minnesota could serve up is a load that includes their 2020, 2022, 2024 and 2026 firsts. The number of outgoing picks that would need to be attached in a trade would depend on the quality of the players attached to their outgoing salaries. It’s a sliding scale.
  • Young Players on Rookie Deals (Jarrett Culver, Josh Okogie, Keita Bates-Diop) — Jarrett Culver is in the first season of a four-year, $26.4 million deal. Josh Okogie is in the second year of his rookie deal, leaving two years and $6.7 million on his contract after this season. And Keita Bates-Diop makes $1.4 million this season, with a non-guaranteed $1.7 million for next season. All three players are young and cost-controlled, making them pieces that are attractive to varying degrees.
  • Robert Covington — Covington has a very appealing deal that runs through the 2021-22 season. He’s making $11.3 million this year, $12.1 million in 2020-21, and $13.0 million in the final season of the contract. Again, a terrific price point for the archetype of a player that pretty much any team in the league could use.
  • Andrew Wiggins — Calculating the value of the Wiggins contract is extremely complicated. His perception changes person-to-person, and the four years and $122.2 million remaining on his maximum contract extension fits differently on each team. As Wiggins applies to a potential Russell trade, the $27.5 million he earns this season ($200k more than Russell’s salary) is a complicating factor that would essentially require Golden State to add more salary to the deal because they are hard-capped financially (more on that later).

All of that said, the list of Minnesota assets — that also, to a lesser degree, includes other cheap pieces on the roster, like Shabazz Napier (one year, $1.8 million) and Jake Layman (three years, $11.3 million) — only makes up one side of the equation. To put together a realistic trade for Russell, not only do we have to understand the means Minnesota has to make a move, but it’s also critical to understand what means and motivation Golden State has. They’re not just going to let a pretty damn good 23-year-old, who is locked up through 2023, walk out the door unless they believe what they are receiving for him meaningfully increases their odds of winning a championship somewhere down the road.

Step Two: Acknowledge Golden State’s Situation

These are four big factors Golden State has to consider before engaging in any trade talks:

  • Golden State is “hard-capped” — By performing a sign-and-trade with Brooklyn to acquire Russell, league rules subject Golden State to what is known as the hard cap. This means that under no circumstances can the Warriors exceed $138,928,000 in total team salary for the 2019-20 season.

Currently, Golden State sits $374,925 below that line. For trade purposes, this essentially means that they cannot take back more money in a trade than they send out (again, an underrated complicating factor). The hard cap restriction does not lift for Golden State until July 6th, 2020 (another important date to remember).

  • Golden State’s Trade Window — This is a lost year from a competitive standpoint for Golden State. Of course, that is a unique situation, too. When the league calendar flips from 2019-20 to 2020-21, the Warriors will return to being very competitive, and maybe even title favorites.

These truths deter Golden State from having any sort of real urgency to make a trade this season. If the Warriors were to trade Russell, theoretically they would want the returning pieces to elevate the ceiling of what Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green can render when they are all back to full health next season. In a vacuum, acquiring, say, Covington from the Wolves isn’t substantially more intriguing to do now than it would be in the summer.

  • The Andre Iguodala Trade Exception — The Warriors’ optimal window for trading Russell currently extends to July 7th, 2020. This is because they traded Andre Iguodala to the Memphis Grizzlies on July 7th, 2019, triggering an expiration date on the trade exception that was created 12 months into the future. Because Memphis was well below the salary cap line, the Grizzlies were able to absorb the entirety of Iguodala’s $17.2 million of salary into cap space. By doing this, the trade exception became worth the full amount of $17.2 million.

That trade exception is “extremely valuable,” said a league source. Golden State will remain void of salary cap space next summer, making that exception their one path to acquiring an expensive player without trading one of their own expensive players. It’s how they can add to the Curry-Thompson-Green-Russell core without trading any of those four players.

The exception allows Golden State to trade for a player that is under contract with another team for under $17.2 million without needing to match salaries. For example, the Warriors could trade for Marcus Smart, who will earn $13.4 million next season or JJ Redick, who will earn $13.0 million — with only draft assets needing to go out as compensation. Would New Orleans take Golden State’s 2022 first round pick for the final year of Redick’s contract? Maybe.

That additional salary in a trade exception deal would shoot Golden State substantially higher into the luxury tax, bringing up another facet of a trade that is unique to the Warriors. Considering Golden State is essentially printing money with their new stadium, that type of tax payment next season is less of a hurdle to them than it is for pretty much any other team in the league.

Again, trade exceptions last 12 months, meaning the Iguodala exception expiring on July 7th creates what is functionally a 24-hour window for Golden State to make a deal after their hard cap restriction lifts when the NBA calendar flips to a new season on July 6th.

“I don’t know if they planned that out,” said another league source, “but it worked out.”

  • How Much Does Golden State Value Russell? — This is a fascinating question. No one actually knows how much acquiring Russell in the first place was about how he would fit into the Warriors core versus how much he was an asset that they could eventually flip.

There are also other factors to consider. How does perception factor in for a team who already traded so much to get Russell in the first place? What attainable piece in a Russell trade would move the needle for the odds of a title more than the needle is already moved with his presence? Would Covington do the trick? Or do they need to get another All-Star back to deem the deal worth it? Would the liquid nature of a pile of draft picks be more attractive than an elite role player? We don’t know the answers to these questions.

Russell is also only in the first year of a four-year, $117 million maximum contract himself. How much positive value does Golden State see in that number? How many other teams see more value than they do? Two more important questions we don’t know the answer to. This is just a situation that is unique. There’s so much to weigh on the Golden State side of the coin before we can even consider what makes sense for Minnesota.

Step Three: Determine Minnesota’s Interest

The Timberwolves did pursue D’Angelo Russell this summer, so there is at least some kindling to the idea that the Wolves may be one of the teams that do see real surplus value in Russell at his $117 million number. That said, according to reporting by The Athletic, the Wolves only offered Russell a four-year deal worth $107 million during their pursuit of him.

“I just don’t care (about the buzz),” Russell told Anthony Slater of The Athletic. “Simple as that. I just don’t care. When you say max contract to come in and learn from these guys as much as you can as quick as you can — because you don’t know when you’ll be gone, shipped out — that’s what I’m doing. I can’t control that. I can’t control if Bob Myers is like, yo, let’s go get such and such for this and make this pick. That’s his job. I can’t control it or say anything about it, especially if I’m a part of it.”

Russell alludes to a few important things here. Namely, that the max number was key, and also that he acknowledges that he could again be rerouted. But that last line is prescient: I’m a part of it.

The decision was ultimately Russell’s to go to Golden State in the first place because it was a signand-trade. He chose the Warriors. If the Wolves were to pursue him again in the coming days or months, Russell would no longer have that leverage, as the “sign-and” part of the trade has now been removed.

So that hurdle is out of the way, but the above cap and preference restrictions of Golden State do present new obstacles. The Wolves would now be working with Golden State; not just bidding against them. As it is with any trade, to acquire Russell, Minnesota would need to make it worth their trade partner’s while. They would need to deliver a product that meaningfully improves Golden State’s future prospectus more than Russell does.

Step Four: Incentivize Golden State To Act Now

Incentivizing Golden State to let go of Russell wouldn’t be hard. By throwing Covington and a fat chunk of their pick coffer into the deal, Minnesota could spark plenty of interest. Even if the Warriors didn’t think Covington was the missing piece to their puzzle, Golden State would certainly acknowledge the value of Covington at his price point. And with a glut of picks coming their way, Golden State GM Bob Myers would have a full wallet to go shopping with on the trade market. But Minnesota isn’t just going to give up their best roster asset and the majority of their draft assets to get Russell. What would be left? Remember the holiday shopping thing? Boxing Day would be awful.

The needle the Minnesota front office needs to thread here is finding a number of assets they’re comfortable parting with while also finding additional means to incentivize Golden State. There are two key ways to do the latter portion of that threading: Increase the size of Golden State’s trade exception and/or help them get out of the luxury tax this season.

  • Increase the Size of Golden State’s Trade Exception — Remember the $17.2 million trade exception is a big tool for Golden State’s future growth. There are ways Minnesota could make that exception even bigger.

To legally construct a trade for Russell and his $27.3 million salary this season, the Wolves need to send back a minimum of $21.8 million to make the salaries match up. Outside of the seemingly “positive assets” on the roster (Covington, $11.3 million; Culver, $5.8 million; Okogie, $2.5 million; Bates-Diop, $1.4 million) Minnesota would need to find other salary fodder to get to that $21.8 million minimum benchmark. (Covington, Culver, Okogie and Bates-Diop have salaries that combine to be $21.0 million.)

The two biggest pieces of fodder the Wolves have are Jeff Teague ($19.0 million) and Gorgui Dieng ($16.2 million this year, $33.5 million over the next two seasons). While Teague’s expiring deal might be more attractive to Golden State, Dieng’s number fitting into the Iguodala trade exception could provide another type of attraction: A new, bigger and better trade exception.

Dieng’s $16.2 million and Culver’s $5.8 million aggregate to $22.0 million, checking the minimum outgoing salary box ($21.8 million). In what is known as a non-simultaneous trade, Dieng could be absorbed into the $17.2 million Iguodala trade exception, with no money needing to come back to Minnesota. Culver then could be swapped in a second trade, straight-up, for Russell. Culver’s $5.8 million subtracted from Russell’s $27.3 million would create a new trade exception worth $21.5 million ($27.3 million minus $5.8 million). This added bonus for Golden State would have no adverse impact on the Wolves. Also: Remember that 24-hour window the Warriors currently have between July 6th and July 7th to use the Iguodala trade exception? Well, that window would get a whole lot bigger if they created a new exception. The window would swell to 12 months from the date of the new trade.

How valuable would it be to boost the size of the trade exception up from $17.2 million to $21.5 million, you ask? Well, the universe of players Golden State could go out and pursue would increase. Thirteen players are currently under contract for next season for somewhere between $17.2 and $21.5 million. Now, 13 might not seem like a ton but look at the list of names…

The possibility of landing one of those players moving up from zero percent to a non-zero number could be something that is attractive for Golden State. No, those teams aren’t just going to gift the Warriors one of their better players. But if you’re a team like Chicago, and Golden State is offering a valuable pick for LaVine, you have to consider the weight of the $39 million LaVine is owed over the next two seasons. That number may be worth getting off of when added to the value of the pick(s). The same goes for Orlando and the $34.5 million they owe Aaron Gordon through 2022. Even a team like Indiana, that is thriving in Victor Oladipo’s absence, has to weigh the value of the draft capital Golden State could send back. The salary relief plus picks could potentially be more profitable than the idea of eventually needing to give Oladipo a max contract.

The Wolves could facilitate these opportunities developing by increasing the size of Golden State’s trade exception.

(Side note: The mechanics of a deal structured in this non-simultaneous way — Dieng and Culver for Russell — would not produce the trade exception growth if Jeff Teague were subbed into the deal for Dieng. Teague’s $19.0 million does not fit into the $17.2 million Iguodala trade exception.)

  • Helping Golden State Duck the Luxury Tax — Golden State is very rich, but they are also relatively close to ducking the luxury tax this season. Currently, they sit $5.9 million over the tax line. If that amount of salary can be shed, the Warriors would dodge the repeater tax penalty for this year. At $5.9 million over the tax, that payment would be $16.2 million if no cost-cutting moves were made.

More meaningful for Golden State, though, is not having the repeater tax penalty for next season. By not being in the tax this season, the Warriors couldn’t be a repeat offender next season. Make sense? Golden State already has $145.5 million committed in guaranteed salaries for 2020-21, pushing them $5.1 million into the tax — and that is only for eleven players. The Warriors will certainly be adding to that number, too. With a high pick in the 2020 draft, their first round pick is likely to cost somewhere between $7 and $10 million in 2020 salary. They can also add to their roster in free agency with minimum veteran contracts (approximately $2 million each) and with the tax-payer midlevel exception (approximately $6.0 million). They could also add to their total salary in the trade market — substantially so if they use their trade exception. For example, if Golden State were to wind up $31 million over the luxury tax line next season, and didn’t dodge the tax this season, they would be subject to a repeater tax payment of $178.3 million.

The Warriors may be printing money in the Bay Area, but even rich people don’t like giving away $100 million if they don’t have to.

If Golden State were to accept that Dieng, Culver and draft picks trade package, they would shed $5.3 million in salary this season (Russell’s salary minus Dieng and Culver’s salary). In a separate deal (with anyone), they could then shed another $600k to dodge the tax altogether. Minnesota could help facilitate this tax evasion.

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Now, Minnesota isn’t the only team that can incentivize Golden State to make a D’Angelo Russell trade. Even at his max salary number, there are likely multiple teams out there who are interested in the 23-year-old’s services. And some of those other teams can massage deals in a manner that could be similarly beneficial as it pertains to Golden State’s trade exception and luxury tax situation.

All we know is what Minnesota can offer. Particularly in Robert Covington, the Wolves have an under contract asset that would certainly be attractive, and they also have a full stock of draft picks to sweeten a package of young players like Jarrett Culver and Josh Okogie. The infrastructure is there.

What we don’t know, though, is how many of those assets Golden State would expect in return. The reason most trades don’t happen is that it is uncommon for the expectations of both teams to match up. Because of that, the most likely outcome is that D’Angelo Russell does not wind up in Minnesota. But there is plenty to work with here in this hypothetical realm. A Russell trade could be a mutually beneficial venture for both the Warriors and the Timberwolves. And that is why it makes sense that Minnesota does reportedly remain interested in Russell.

So go ahead, Wolves fans, get wild on the trade machine. And while you’re there, don’t forget about that trade exception and Golden State’s unique luxury tax situation.

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