August 13, 2022

Once the smoke cleared and enough time passed to fully digest Rudy Gobert’s mega-trade, I couldn’t help but be so optimistic that the 7ft Frenchman 1 inch could do for a Timberwolf in general. D’Angelo Russell’s stock is low right now, but there’s no big man in the entire NBA better positioned to get the most out of Russell than the one the Minnesota Timberwolves introduced yesterday.

This is not a crisis in which you have to talk to each other, mainly in attack. This is the cleanest fit with Gobert on the entire roster, with Russell being Wolves’ best pick-and-roll player by a wide margin. Karl-Anthony Towns may be the best player on the team, but two areas he struggles with are setting up screens and being a running man. He’s just not a good screenwriter in general, and even though he box being an efficient skater, he very clearly prefers pop, catch, and play from the perimeter.

There are good reasons for Towns to play this way, as he is fatally caught, but it’s just not the best way to max out Russell. The former Ohio State star is at his best in the PnR, especially when teams are playing drop. He is an incredible passer and is capable of both making the pocket pass to lead the big on the small roll as well as throwing perfectly placed lobs for dunks.

During his time in Minnesota, Russell was only really able to show off his ability to throw that pocket pass when Naz Reid was on the floor, but D’Lo and Reid developed really great chemistry in that regard. It’s part of what made D’Lo plus the bench a successful arrangement. Wolves haven’t really had a lob threat at all so this club has mostly been left in the bag, but we saw his ability to throw accurate lobs on his trick passes to Jaden McDaniels after they faked their hand- on the wing.

Last season, Minnesota completed five alley-oops, while Gobert threw 87 on his own, as Timberwolves head coach Chris Finch cited during Wednesday’s media availability.

Thing is, you don’t have to watch Wolves very closely to see Russell’s passing and play are underutilized. He showed his ability to play with a big man running on the rim in Brooklyn with Jarrett Allen, where the two played a great two-man game that led to a surprise All-Star spot for Russell and a playoff appearance. for the Nets.

Enter creepy Rudy Gobert.

Gobert is no Nikola Jokić offensively, but he understands his role and plays it remarkably well. Much is said about Gobert being a “walking top 10 defense,” but not enough is said about the importance of the role he plays in a good team offense. It’s no coincidence that the Jazz were first on offense last year, fourth in 2021 and ninth in 2020. Utah’s offense had multiple ball handlers, which made their attack, but the whole operation was built on performing multiple PnR Actions on any possession around Gobert.

He’s the best screen passer in the league, and while it’s not quite as sexy as a step back 3, it’s still very useful for leading a good offense. Going further, it is especially useful for experienced ball handlers who have trouble creating separation. In Utah, it was helpful for Mike Conley and Joe Ingles. What does that look like in Minnesota?

Yeah, D’Angelo Russell is going to love the space a Gobert screen creates for him. Even if it only takes an extra half second for the defender on the ball to get across the screen, that’s a ton of time for someone as good in the midrange as Russell, not only in as a goalscorer, but more importantly as a playmaker. Teams need to play drop coverage to account for Gobert’s rim-running ability, and the quality of his screens will only create more space for D ‘Lo.

I’m not sure I would force Russell to play this year with an expiring contract (more on that later), but I’d definitely be more open to it now if I were Russell. He’s a good bet to set a career high in assists this year, and his shooting percentages should go up with the better quality shots he’s going to get.

Another silver lining? Even when D’Lo is having a bad night shooting the ball, guess who’s going to stand under the basket to rebound the missed middy? Russell has a volatile shooting profile, so bad shooting nights are going to happen. Having one of the best rebounders in the NBA will help provide a floor for the offense even when the shot doesn’t drop.

The offensive fit is wonderful, but Gobert is obviously a big help for Russell also in defense. He’s the weak link in the starting lineup defensively, so teams will usually try to target him, but it’s harder to do that now that Rudy and Jaden McDaniels will be in the starting lineup. There’s usually a guard or winger in a given starting lineup that you can easily hide a player on, and Minnesota has a lot more flexibility to do that now.

Of course, you won’t just want to get beat up on the perimeter over and over again, and rely on Gobert to clean up. everything; but part of the benefit of having the best NBA rim protector on your list is that it cleans up a ton of messes. Utah pushed that to its practical limit late in his tenure, but Minnesota has enough good defenders that they’re better equipped now to compensate for Russell’s physical deficiencies at that end.

To put an arc on all of this, I would have thought a D’Lo contract extension was an absolutely crazy idea a few days ago, but I now think it makes a lot of sense for both parties. Russell surely always wanted an extension, but now the roster surrounding him in Minnesota makes a lot more sense. He is in a much better position to succeed than he was just a week ago. With Gobert in the fold, Minnesota may feel better about keeping Russell in its plans moving forward.

Apart from the practical on-field reasons that back a Russell, he is also pragmatic from a financial and teamwork perspective. Part of the hesitation of an extension before this trade was that it would eat away at the cap space Wolves needed to have next offseason. Well, they just traded for a player who will make $41 million in 2023-24, so it’s much more likely that the team will do better to operate as an over-the-cap team going forward.

Part of operating as a team above the cap is that your primary means of replacing talent is through trade versus free agency, so it’s important to keep larger salary slots on the roster if for no other reason than to have an outgoing salary for another Trade. The best example I can think of of why Wolves would want to operate this way is to take a look at what just happened between Jalen Brunson and the Dallas Mavericks. The Mavericks went over the salary cap going forward, which meant the downside for Brunson walking into free agency was huge for them. They have no way to replace him, and the only way they could have gotten anything back for him was via sign and trade. That didn’t happen, so the Mavs lost an important player for literally nothing.

While Russell may not be as good as Brunson, or at least hasn’t acquitted himself as well in the playoffs, Wolves run a similar risk now if they let Russell walk free will. They will lose their starting leader, with no real way to replace him. It’s a risk they just can’t take. Time to do an expansion with D’Angelo Russell, then figure out the rest later. If they don’t, they run the risk of losing an important player on what projects to be a very good team, for absolutely nothing, with no way to replace him. It just can’t happen.