As D’Angelo Russell stepped out of the private jet and onto the tarmac at the Minneapolis airport in Feb. 2020, a new era of Minnesota Timberwolves basketball appeared to have arrived alongside him. It was an era consisting of a real off-court friendship with Karl-Anthony Towns that would hopefully translate into wins for a losing franchise.
Two years removed from the Russell trade, the team was finally able to showcase that newfound era of winning Wolves basketball this season. With Russell helping lead the way, the Timberwolves returned to the playoffs after enduring a four-year postseason drought. They drew a first-round matchup against a Memphis Grizzlies team they were .500 against during the regular season. The franchise appeared to be firing on all cylinders.
And then Minnesota proceeded to blow three double-digit fourth-quarter leads.
After Memphis eliminated them in the first round, fans quickly took to social media to express their desire for the Wolves to move DLo in the upcoming off-season.
Russell was supposed to be the closer for a young, inexperienced Wolves team. But he averaged only 12 points on 45.5% true shooting in the playoffs. With each dwindling double-digit lead, the man known for putting games on ice appeared perplexed when he was on the floor.
Just days following Towns kissing the memorable 2021-22 season goodbye, reports circulated that Minnesota is open to trading Russell, his teammate and close friend, this summer. Although DLo’s shortage of late-game leadership may have cost Minnesota the opportunity to upset Memphis, trading him is not the solution to the team’s first-round shortcomings.
Sure, Russell could have played better. But the same could be said for each player who saw meaningful minutes. It wasn’t just Russell who blew the series. Most of the team is culpable.
I’m all for making trades to improve the roster. And if a deal that does just that happens to be centered around Russell, so be it. But the chances a team is willing to part ways with valuable assets in exchange for a max-contract player who managed to put up only 12 PPG in the playoffs is highly unlikely.
Besides trading DLo, what can the Timberwolves’ front office do to build on the foundation they laid this season.
During the team’s exit interviews, Sachin Gupta was asked whether or not the team’s roster needs any significant changes to improve next season. His response was simple: The team is still growing, so there’s no need for him to make any significant changes.
Assuming ownership listens to Chris Finch’s comments on keeping Gupta around as POBO, Gupta’s statement that the organization will do its diligence when it comes to roster changes is a great sign for the team’s future. And it shows that he has faith that this team, as currently constructed, is somewhat on the right path. But Gupta didn’t trade for Russell; Gersson Rosas did. And if Gupta is looking to show the ownership group that he means business, he could look into trading the 6’4″ guard. However, Minnesota’s front office has plenty of other avenues to explore if they hope to make improvements.
It’s well-known that the Wolves need another power forward. As the season wore on, it seemed that Jarred Vanderbilt contributed to the team’s success increasingly less. And if Gupta looks to add a starting-caliber four this summer, he could make Naz Reid available and move Vando to a bench role.
Besides Reid, they could also move Malik Beasley if the right trade package comes along. Beasley, a player known for his ability to knock down shots from beyond the arc, saw both his numbers take a drastic hit this season. But shooters are such high-value commodities in today’s game, so we could see a that needs three-point shooting strike a deal for the Florida State product.
Let’s not forget that Minnesota has FOUR selections in this summer’s upcoming draft. And for a team looking to add some depth in the big man department, drafting a player like Auburn’s Walker Kessler or Arizona’s Christian Koloko could help the Wolves down low defensively. And if Gupta and Co. are unable to find any prospects they find worth drafting, their picks could be part of a package for a player who could contribute to winning immediately.
The Wolves are not bound for much more outside of being a perennial playoff/play-in team with the current roster. Gupta could make changes if this team wants to continue its upward trajectory. But the front office will also need to be mindful of keeping Karl-Anthony Towns content. He will be able to enter the open market in 2023.
Just because a player has one bad playoff series doesn’t mean that their team’s front office should look to trade them. If teams looked to trade players away every time they underperformed in a playoff series, they would have traded KAT in 2018 after he struggled in the playoffs. We’ve seen DLo perform well in the playoffs when he was with the Brooklyn Nets, and we’ve seen him step up when it matters most while in Minnesota. For now, Russell is a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves. And although these reports may just be fuel for the rumor mill, all eyes will be on Sachin Gupta as he looks to enter his first full offseason administering Minnesota’s roster.