Shortly before the calendar flipped from 2020 to 2021 I found myself in the middle of a frozen lake in northern Minnesota. I was surrounded by a group of friends, some from college, some from as far back as high school. We were deep into a bottle of champagne and even deeper in a frenzy of nostalgic conversation. The trip up nort’ (as my white ancestors would say) had me feeling remarkably sentimental. I’m very grateful for the friends that I have.
A few weeks ago John Hollinger of The Athletic said that the Minnesota Timberwolves lead the league in sentimentality. This makes sense to me. I was born and raised in Minneapolis and as much as I want to think that “Minnesota Nice” is BS, the concept is deeply rooted in our culture. When I look back at the way the Timberwolves have operated in the past, I really do get Hollinger’s point.
There was the famous “promise” Andrew Wiggins made to Glen Taylor before signing a 5-year maximum contract. There was the promotion of Ryan Saunders to head coach without any real track record of success. Most recently the Wolves brought Ricky Rubio back into the fold. All these moves are dripping with sentimentality.
I’ve always thought the statement “Nice guys finish last” is stupid and promotes a really toxic form of masculinity. However, in the case of the Timberwolves, nice guys really do finish last (or close to last). The Wolves finished fourth or fifth in the Northwest Division 14 out of the last 15 seasons.
I say all this because the well-documented friendship between Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell is first and foremost, beautiful and precious, and deserves to be celebrated. I need to be very clear that in no way do I look to disparage the relationship that these two have. Towns has had an exceptionally difficult year and I’m happy that he gets to play basketball with one of his close friends. That feels really important.
But, outside of their relationship, there is a reality that can be hard to talk about. The Minnesota Timberwolves have invested a lot of assets into Russell. Wolves fans are currently declaring to the deep blue sea of Twitter that “we won the trade” because Wiggins and the Golden State Warriors are off to a rocky start. At face value, these fans are firmly correct. It feels good to replace plays like this…
With plays like this…
But what happens if things go sideways with Towns and Russell as the stars? I’ve run the simulation time and time again and unfortunately, there is a reality in which the Warriors end up with two top-five draft picks and the Wolves are left with an “All-Star” pairing worth more than $60 million that can’t even sniff the playoffs. Welp.
If this nightmare scenario happens, the Timberwolves will be stuck in a very difficult situation. That same friendship that made Russell such an appealing option to pair with Towns could turn out to be something that could prevent the Wolves from improving this team.
Before I panic, I think it’s important to look at this as objectively as possible to see if the DLo trade was a real upgrade or more sentimentality.
Since DLo and Wiggins have played so few games for their current teams, the numbers don’t tell a very strong story. In seven* games this season their counting stats are negligible.
Yes, Wiggins’ overall field goal percentage is really low. But, historically Wiggins has shot much better from 2-point range and significantly worse from 3. If things regress to the mean, as they should, then we can expect Wiggins to shoot in the mid-40% range from the field.
Since the numbers thus far are too-little-too-soon, let’s think about peak output and potential. Russell was an All-Star two years ago and Wiggins has never been seriously considered, so DLo must at least have a higher ceiling, right?
Surprisingly Russell’s shooting numbers over his career don’t show that he is a better offensive player than Wiggins. Here is DLo’s shooting percentage chart:
In my mind, I imagined Russell was a better shooter. Perhaps that’s because he shoots with such confidence. In reality, he is basically league average. He’s got a good percentage from at the rim (0-3 feet) but he’s only taken about 14% of his shots from there. Wiggins, on the other hand, has taken 28% of his shots at the rim and has done so far more efficiently. I’m not convinced that DLo is a more efficient offensive player, but the real truth lies in the mid-range, where he has clearly been better than Wiggins.
Russell’s bread and butter is his mid-range game. Specifically, he is gifted at making incredibly difficult shots in that range. In 2018-19, Russell’s lone All-Star season, he shot a staggering 50% on shots from 10-16 feet. Kobe Bryant, one of the greatest mid-range shooters of all time only shot 50% or higher from that range twice in his 20-year career. If the expectation is for Russell to return to Kobe level performance, then I think it’s time we consider that maybe the Wolves gave up too much for DLo the player and DLo the friend.
The point here is that we have to face the facts; Russell is only a slight upgrade on Wiggins. If this team can’t win, this slight upgrade will have cost the Wolves a lottery pick in what already looks like an amazing draft. If they continue to invest in relationships instead of basketball value, this team is headed for disaster. All the good vibes in the world won’t matter if the Wolves miss the playoffs for another 14 years. Every single one of KAT’s friends can come and play with him, but if he’s not winning, he’s not staying. All we can do is hope that maybe just this once, sentimentality will work out for this nice team from Minnesota.
*These stats have been updated following Tuesday’s loss to Denver.