Will D'Angelo Russell Return to All-Star Form Under Chris Finch?

Since the moment that Chris Finch arrived in Minnesota, the pressure has been on for him to turn this ailing season around. It’s a tough spot for any coach to be in. He was immediately put into a media firestorm due to both the abnormal process that landed him in this position and the backlash from Gersson Rosas passing over David Vanterpool — a Black man who, by many people’s accounts, has more than earned his opportunity at a head coaching gig. Most of that scrutiny fell on Rosas, of course, but the racial dynamics of this hiring serve as extra fuel for the fire that is beneath Finch’s — and more importantly Rosas’ — seat.

How does Finch turn down the heat and stabilize this turbulent situation? The answer is simple: He’s got to win. And if not win, at least show that he has the skill to construct a scheme with the players on this Wolves team that could theoretically win. The theory of winning, which is probably the best we can hope for at this point, is essential because this season is f—-d. There’s no other word for it. (Sorry, Tom!)

So we’ve got to do some projecting of theoretical winning that Finch might be able to achieve.

How sad it makes me to be writing about what the Wolves could do all the time. I look forward to the day when I get to write about all the great strides this team has taken. Let’s hope that day isn’t too far away.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be watching Finch closely. It was clear before the All-Star break that at this point he’s just trying to figure out who can play on the team. But one player he hasn’t been able to see in action is the Wolves’ own All-Star point guard, D’Angelo Russell.

A reminder: DLo was an injury replacement for Victor Oladipo in the 2019 All-Star game. I’m not trying to throw shade at injury replacements. I’m so happy that Mike Conley finally got an All-Star nod as an injury replacement. But let’s remember that injury replacements are Adam Silver’s All-Stars, not the people’s. You’d be a fool to think those decisions aren’t political. Anyway.

Finch said early on that DLo is an elite passer. I was quite surprised to hear this. Granted, we have seen flashes from Russell that might hint at an ability to be an elite-level passer, but I don’t think that Wolves fans have seen enough to say that outright. Of course, I wanted to see if there was a statistical argument to back this up.

I primarily focused on the 2018-19 season, his best and healthiest year. That season DLo averaged seven assists and 3.1 turnovers. Those marks aren’t bad, but that same season, Jeff Teague averaged 8.2 assists to 2.3 turnovers. At that point, Teague was a quality point guard for the Wolves, but I don’t think there is anyone who would say that he is an elite passer. In fact, one of his biggest issues was executing passes to the post to get Karl-Anthony Towns involved. Teague could really only pass out of the pick-and-roll. That proved to be a useful skill, but ultimately being a one-note passer does not make you elite.

I could go back, watch a ton of Brooklyn Nets tape, analyze Russell’s game, and come away with an opinion on the level of his passing. But I figure if he is actually as elite as Finch says, there has to be some statistical measure to confirm that. Sure, stats aren’t everything, but if a player is truly performing at that high a level, then there is almost always statistical evidence to back that up.

The only problem is that there aren’t that many statistical metrics to measure passing ability. There is RealGM’s Pure Point Rating (PPR), which uses pace, assists, turnovers, and minutes to measure a player’s passing ability. The issue with PPR is something I call the J.J. Barea Effect.

As I was trying to figure out how to quantify the best passers in the league, Barea kept creeping his way into the upper echelon of passers, amongst names like LeBron James, Chris Paul, and Russell Westbrook. Barea is a quality passer and has been great at running second units for quite some time, but he does not belong in this upper tier of passers.

After scrolling through stat after stat on the internet, I decided I needed to take this into my own hands. Thus, I created my own statistical measure of passing ability. This is the people’s analytic. It’s simple to understand and, to toot my own horn, surprisingly accurate. I call it Chelanga’s Passer Efficiency Rating or CPER (shouts to John Hollinger).

It’s quite simple. All of the stats can be found on Basketball-Reference and you can do this at home! All definitions are pulled from Basketball-Reference, except MP%. That’s all me, baby. To get CPER, I use:

  • Ast%: An estimate of the percentage of teammate field goals a player assisted while they were on the floor.
  • Tov%: An estimate of turnovers committed per 100 plays.
  • Usg%: An estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player while they were on the floor.
  • Minutes Played % (MP%): Total minutes played in a season, divided by 3,936 (48 minutes per game over 82 games).

The formula is ((Ast%/Tov%)*Usg%*MP%)/100. If you’d like to see my spreadsheet, you can find it here.

Using this metric, I compiled the best passing seasons over the past five years. I wanted to limit my sample size for my own sanity, and since DLo has only been in the league six years, I ignored his rookie season and focused on the others.

The best passing season was Russell Westbrook in 2016-17 with a CPER of 10.69. This was the year he won MVP, so there is no surprise there. CPER solved the J.J. Barea Effect by including a usage component and increasing the importance of minutes played over PPR. I don’t really care about players who are the best passers on second units. I wanted to figure out who the guys playing the most minutes and being the most effective were. Russell’s 2018-19 season ranks eighth over the last five years.

In Minnesota, Russell has taken the role as a primary scoring option. We’ve seen him take the offense into his own hands, which has led to a lot of frustration among Wolves fans. Can we really blame Russell for playing that way? Would you want to pass the ball to Josh Okogie or Jarrett Culver when they are bricking three after three? Visualizing those guys shooting looks something like this

The hope is that once DLo is back in the lineup, playing with Karl-Anthony Towns and newly certified gunner Malik Beasley, maybe Finch can access this side of Russell like Kenny Atkinson did. Atkinson held his players to an incredibly high standard. He pulled the Brooklyn Nets out of the New York City sewer they had been in since Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce rotted away live on the court. Under his coaching, the Nets were playing together on a string and surprised everyone as a sort of ragtag crew that outperformed their expectations.

Finch has said that he only wants to play guys who will play to win, even if that means shortening the rotation. This could mean that Russell is held more accountable for his role in the offense. If Finch can help do away with many of DLo’s bad shots and get him to focus on facilitation, we may have something here. Russell can’t be completely minimized in the offense; he’s still the second-best offensive player on this team. But DLo can’t be so committed to taking difficult shots throughout the game. He’s got to use his passing ability to get his teammates good looks. He can save those difficult shots for the end of the game.

I don’t know if Finch will be able to help Russell return to All-Star form, but if he wants to keep this job, if the pRosas is going to work, if the Timberwolves are ever going to sniff the playoffs with Towns again, he needs to. Hopefully we’ll see the All-Star point guard that Rosas traded for someday soon.

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