Chris Finch had to know he’d face his fair share of adversity when he took the Minnesota Timberwolves job two years ago, but he’s been up to the task so far. Transforming a 23-49 team without their first-round pick into a playoff team was hard enough. It was even harder when you look back at their disappointing start and his ability to overcome the 4-9 start and earn a seventh seed in the Western Conference.
Now, after a successful season and an eventful offseason, he’s been hit with possibly his most challenging decision yet.
How does he manage his struggling $29 million point guard?
He can either leave D’Angelo Russell in throughout his slump and keep a striving Jordan McLaughlin on the bench, or he can bite the bullet and embrace McLaughlin’s improvements. Although the answer may seem simple: Play the guy who’s playing better. Unfortunately, the NBA is never as simple as it seems.
Russell has been struggling this year, averaging only 14 points on 38% shooting. He is only averaging two more assists (five) per game than turnovers (three). It’s been difficult for him to get going this year. Although he’s not the sole reason for their woes, the team around him is clearly missing his production.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, McLaughlin has continued to build off of his surprising success last year. Although the stats won’t make it obvious at first glance, the more you watch the Wolves, the more apparent it becomes that McLaughlin improves the offense.
McLaughlin plays at such great pace. He knows when to speed it up, when to slow it down, and how to run an offense in myriad situations. McLaughlin often leans into dribble penetration to generate offense. It’s a basketball fundamental where players drive toward the hoop, allowing the defense to collapse in on them, creating wide-open corner shots.
McLaughlin’s high basketball IQ often leads to low or zero turnover games with a high total in assists. Only five times in the Timberwolves’ history has a player had double-digit assists and zero turnovers; McLaughlin has done it twice.
It’s unlikely that Finch will bench Russell, at least not yet. If this 10-game slump happened 30 games into the season, there wouldn’t be as much talk of sitting Russell. Recency bias has played a large factor in Russell’s criticism. Those critics have soon forgotten Russell saving the Wolves versus the LA Clippers in the play-in last season. The timing of the slump makes it a much bigger deal, but the circumstances raise an interesting question.
How much can Finch rely on McLaughlin?
The NBA is ultimately a business, but the league has its fair share of politics too. Gersson Rosas’ decision to acquire Russell from the Golden State Warriors was a political move, making star player Karl-Anthony Towns happy by bringing one of his best friends in the league to Minnesota.
As a head coach, it’s hard to convince anyone that benching your $30 million guard is a good idea. It’s even harder to do that to a player in a contract year. But, at some point, the Wolves will have to begin winning games by any means necessary. They’re not quite at that point of the season yet. They still have time to figure things out before making any major changes.
At this point in the season, the best thing for Russell is to be eased back into his role from last season. Although the Gobert acquisition doesn’t allow for Russell to be the roaming free safety on defense he was last season, on the offensive side, Russell is a good fit with Gobert — at least in theory.
To help Russell, Finch should mirror his minutes with Gobert as much as possible, using the pick-and-roll as an easy outlet when he’s struggling. While Gobert is off the floor, Finch can release some of the stress on Russell by plugging McLaughlin into the game. If Russell has easier minutes, he should return to his former self. As a result, the Wolves should start winning again.
Fortunately for Finch, McLaughlin aligns with Russell’s weaknesses well. McLaughlin relies more on speed and driving than Russell does, a more conventional point guard approach. But that play style aligns more with Karl-Anthony Towns because McLaughlin’s drives allow for more spacing and open threes for Towns.
It’s easy to say that Chris Finch should bench Russell, but there’s so much more that comes with benching a player. First, you’re completely killing DLo’s confidence. Then there’s the added turmoil for this already drama-filled roster. After all the off-season talk with the Gobert trade to Towns’ Popeyes quote, and Anthony Edwards saying, “The smaller the lineup, the better it is for me,” if the Wolves were to bench Russell, it wouldn’t leave the news cycle for a while.
Like with all the problems this troubled Wolves team faces right now, the simple answer is “it’s early.” Minnesota needs everyone performing at their best to be successful this season. After Russell’s slow start, it’s up to Finch to get the most out of his two talented guards.
The Timberwolves cannot win without Russell performing at a similar level as he was last year, so Finch must handle his early season slump correctly.