D’Angelo Russell has been playing his best basketball lately. Last night, he helped lead the Minnesota Timberwolves to a sensational victory over his former team, the Brooklyn Nets. Russell had his eighth double-double of the season, putting up 23 points and dishing out 10 assists, including a perfectly placed alley-oop for Jaden McDaniels. DLo also showed off his intelligence by exploiting Nets defenders who got too physical with him on the perimeter and using a rip-through move to draw a foul. He shot seven free throws and made all of them.
Russell has averaged 20 points, 8.0 assists, and 1.2 steals a game since coming out of the COVID-19 protocols nine games ago. He has also been highly efficient in his scoring, shooting 41.7% from three-point range and 51.2% from the field. If DLo can finish out the year consistently getting numbers like these, it would put him in elite company as a point guard.
Does his level of play warrant another maximum contract or extension?
Russell only has one year left on his contract after this year, meaning that he is eligible to sign an extension at the end of this season. Although some fans were skeptical of DLo when he first arrived, he seems to have won most of them over. However, there may be a tough decision ahead for the front office because of Minnesota’s cap situation. Russell is currently the 32nd highest-paid player in the NBA, making approximately $30 million this year. He’ll make $31.37 million next year. The salary cap for NBA teams is about $112.41 million, which means that DLo is currently taking up over a quarter of the team’s salary cap.
That percentage isn’t abnormal in a star-driven league like the NBA. Often, teams must offer players of Russell’s caliber a “maximum player salary” to prevent other teams from luring them away with a better offer. However, front offices incur a decent amount of risk giving a player that large of a percentage of their salary cap. The most obvious example of this is with John Wall. Wall has suffered several serious injuries since getting his most recent max contract and is currently getting paid $44 million to sit on the bench and help the Houston Rockets tank.
Additionally, NBA front offices have to weigh the benefits of paying a few players who make the most impact a ton of money versus attempting to spread your team’s salary out amongst high-quality role players. Thus, to gain perspective on how productive a “maximum salary player” should be, we can compare DLo’s per-game averages with some of the other elite point guards who are paid a maximum salary.
*Trae Young signed a contract extension in the offseason. The details of the contract have yet to be released. But because of his talent level, it has been estimated that he will begin being paid as a maximum salary player at the beginning of next year, starting at $29.75 million.
While Russell doesn’t have a reputation for making deep playoff runs that these other elite point guards have under their belt, his counting stats aren’t that far off from theirs in any category.
In addition, DLo has emerged as a great team leader in the locker room and on the court. You can see Russell communicating with his teammates on every possession. On defense, he constantly calls out people’s assignments and points out any uncovered opponents. On offense, he’s calling out plays, asking for screens, and looking for cutters.
His ability to read coverages and communicate what he’s seeing his opponents do on the court is an intangible effect of his game that only the truly elite players in the league have. It’s these types of skills that have earned Chris Paul the nickname “Point God.” Even though he doesn’t consistently score as many points per game as the other elite point guards in the league, Paul can pick apart defenses through distribution and communication.
What would Russell’s Next Contract Look Like?
The NBA’s “maximum player salary” largely depends on how long a player has played in the league. Russell will have completed seven seasons at the end of this year, so the maximum salary the Wolves could offer him is 30% of the salary cap or 105% of his salary for this season. The projected salary cap for the 2022-2023 season is $119 million, which means that the Wolves may have to offer approximately $35.7 million a year (adjusted every year for inflation) to retain him. However, DLo will only turn 26 this year, so the extension would encompass some of the prime years of his career.
Still, that salary will give the front office pause. They are already paying Towns a maximum salary and will shortly have to give Anthony Edwards a max contract of his own when he graduates from his rookie-scale contract.
But if DLo keeps playing this well, the Wolves will almost certainly have to offer him a max contract, or he will leave for a team that will. Front offices have to take risks to win championships. Hopefully, Sachin Gupta and the rest of the Timberwolves front office are willing to do so.