Timberwolves

Hold On, Is This D'Angelo Russell's Team Now?

Photo Credit: Troy Wayrynen (USA TODAY Sports)

Truthfully, I’m not sure how to answer whether this is D’Angelo Russell‘s team. But that won’t stop me from trying.

It has now been decades of failure for the Minnesota Timberwolves. However, today we are going to look beyond the past. A convincing win against the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday night gets the team back in the winning column after a five-game skid. Sitting at 12-15, the record is still not ideal. But the Wolves are still in the mix to make the play-in tournament this year.

A recurring theme amidst the endless Timberwolves losing streaks is questioning who the “leader” of the team is. Every good squad seems to have a bonafide leader. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the leader of the Milwaukee Bucks. LeBron James is the leader of the Los Angeles Lakers. Stephen Curry is the leader of the Golden State Warriors. So on and so forth.

No Wolves player can be compared to any of those guys, but it is fair to wonder who has the reins of the team’s carriage. It is almost easier to say who’s team this hasn’t been. It was never Andrew Wiggins or Ricky Rubio’s team. Those guys were each great in their regard, but they never had their finger on the pulse of the team’s philosophical direction.

Minnesota has been Kevin Love’s team and Karl-Anthony Towns’ team within the last ten years, with Jimmy Butler making a brief one-year cameo. These are the players who were the emotional guides and leaders of the team. It just so happened that they were always the most talented players on the team, too.

With this current iteration of the Timberwolves, Towns is still the best player on the team. However, it is fair to ask whether he is still the leader. The years where Towns has been asked to spearhead the tactics and culture have brought many losses and nary a playoff appearance. His talent cannot be denied, and he is consistently overlooked as one of the best players in the NBA today. However, the team has yet to succeed with Towns as the clear-cut alpha.

Fortunately, Minnesota found a true star in Anthony Edwards. His electric personality is endearing to just about anyone, and the Timberwolves will build around him within the next couple of years. But it is unrealistic (and ill-advised) to put the weight of the entire franchise on his shoulders in his second year. Consider that Edwards plays alongside two All-Stars.

If neither Towns nor Edwards are the leaders of the Timberwolves, then who is? When I think about what a leader is — when it comes to NBA players — I think about a player whose presence inspires those around them to play well even when they can’t get their game going. They are a calming, rhythmic presence experienced and young players alike can look to for guidance.

Patrick Beverley may be a lightning rod for those considerations. His presence has transformed the flaccid wacky-waving-inflatable-arm-flailing-tube man-esque defense of years past into a respectable top-10 unit. The energy and hustle appear to be here to stay, and that movement would not have been initiated without Beverley’s presence on the team.

However, the straw that stirs the drink is D’Angelo Russell. He is not the best player on the team, nor is he the most talented player. However, Russell may be one of the smartest players on the Timberwolves. The results speak for themselves this season when Russell is in the lineup.

The Wolves are 0-5 in his absence. They are 12-10 with Russell in the lineup, which is not the most illustrious record. But that .545 winning percentage would be good for the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference right now. Sixth is also better than any Timberwolves team has done in recent memory. His impact this season has been tangible and remarkably positive.

Concerning the statistics, the on-court impact of Russell’s presence has been remarkably productive. The metrics above are no joke. Many were concerned about DLo’s perceived lack of impact in years past. But this year, he has more than proved his worth as a steadying presence on an otherwise turbulent vessel.

Russell is also one of the league leaders in clutch points. He is in the top-10 for individual defensive rating, which is a remarkable feat for a player whose media narrative is partially curated on the perception of his defensive apathy. Optics mean nothing when tangible results suggest otherwise, and Russell has been consistently proving the doubters wrong this season.

Edwards is unquestionably Minnesota’s vocal leader. His charisma has gone a long way in offsetting the hollow words that can often be echoed by Towns. Edwards is single-handedly restoring hope and a tougher mentality to a team that needs it.

However, as far as the on-court results are concerned, it is clear that Russell is the leader of this team until proven otherwise. His impact is crucial to Minnesota’s playoff hopes this season. Without him, the Wolves may be mired in another lottery-bound slog. The Timberwolves may not have won the trade with the Golden State Warriors outright, but the results are finally starting to pay off.

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