Minnesota Timberwolves Twitter has been flooded with hypothetical D’Angelo Russell trades since the Wolves lost to the Memphis Grizzlies in this year’s playoffs. His combination of a large contract, looming long-term extension, and total ineffectiveness for much of the Grizzlies series has made him the target of Timberwolves trade speculation. I, like anyone else, love to partake in that speculation. There are few greater joys than firing up the old trade machine and creating a masterpiece. But after I pitched the idea for a DLo trade, a friend asked me if it was fair. Therein reads the largest question that fake traders like myself and, more importantly, the Timberwolves’ front office have to broach: What does a fair trade for D’Angelo Russell look like?
First, let’s talk about what kinds of teams would be interested in kicking the tires on a Russell trade. Currently, we live in a guard-rich league. A look around the NBA shows that most teams have enough or even an excess of guards. The bountiful supply of guards makes it so that teams throughout the league likely won’t be interested in paying a premium for a guard unless said player is a top-tier difference-maker.
Russell certainly impacted winning for the Wolves this season. But if 25 teams already have a point guard on their roster that they like, or are at least content with, that totally limits the number of teams who would be willing to even engage in talks with the Wolves on a Russell trade. Basically, the two types of teams that would be interested in bringing in DLo are the few earnestly looking to upgrade their point guard position or those looking to shed some long-term salary to take on Russell’s expiring $31 million.
However, the Wolves would likely not be interested in taking on lots of long-term salary in return unless it was for a player they really thought could be a part of their core. Part of the upside of trading DLo is the possible flexibility it would provide the franchise next offseason. With Russell’s contract coming off the books, the Wolves would have a max salary spot to try and go all-in, pairing more talent with Edwards and Towns. That becomes a lot harder to do if the team takes back much salary. So when it comes down to it, the Washington Wizards and the New York Knicks are the two teams that I think could meaningfully engage with the Wolves.
I would assume that, at this point, Washington is desperate to make the playoffs. Bradley Beal seems likely to stick around for the long term and the Wizards aren’t going to want to pay him $250 million to miss the playoffs every year. Something has got to change. The low-hanging fruit for Washington is to convert some of their abundant forward talent into a legitimate point guard. Could the Wizards talk themselves into a Russell, Beal, and Kristaps Porzingis core for the long run? There’s not a lot of stopping power among that trio, but there’s some real offensive upside that might be tantalizing enough for the Wizards to pull the trigger.
Still, it gets a little tricky because the only way to make that work is to combine Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s contracts. Kuzma was excellent for the Wizards, averaging 20 points and nine rebounds in 2022 before Washington shut him down to end the season. Something like this could be a fair deal for both sides:
D’Angelo Russell, 2022 no. 19 pick, 2022 no. 40 pick (via Washington)
Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
Giving up the No. 19 pick for this return is less than ideal, but if the Wolves want to make a deal work with Washington, that may be the price. In reality, Kuzma would provide an instant upgrade at power forward and KCP could be a valuable bench piece who can defend, knock down threes and even take over playmaking duties for stretches. The Wolves would lose out on their two highest picks in this year’s draft, but the trade would bring back talent that is ready to win now.
New York Knicks
The Knicks scenario is maybe less appealing but worth discussing. New York’s contract structure is such that they could be major players in 2023, but being major players in free agency really hasn’t worked out for them in recent years. D’Angelo Russell would instantly be the best point guard on their roster, and his ability to play off-ball would pair well with RJ Barrett and Julius Randle. The one problem is that the Knicks have a lot of guards, so any trade would likely see a guard come back in return. The odd man out in New York seems to be Kemba Walker.
New York Receives
Evan Fournier, Kemba Walker, 2022 No. 42 picks
Fournier and Walker and a second-round pick feels like fair value for Russell. I am admittedly a Walker fan, but this is exactly the type of step-back-to-step-forward deal I would love to see the Wolves make. Kemba is on an expiring contract and his $9 million could be moved elsewhere with any of Minnesota’s extra second-round picks. Though Fournier is pricey and goes out an extra year, he’s a legitimate shooter with some playmaking ability that could help the Wolves’ second unit that struggled for much of last season.
If the Knicks want more, the Wolves have three second-round picks to part with, and I could see them sending Nos. 48 and 50 to New York in a deal like this. If the two sides wanted to get crazy, I would love to see something like this:
New York Receives
D’Angelo Russell, 2022 no. 19 pick, 2022 no. 40 (via Washington), Minnesota’s 2024 lottery-protected first
Evan Fournier, Kemba Walker, 2022 No.11 pick
In this deal, the Wolves swap two non-lottery picks and a high second-round pick for the No.11 pick along with Walker and Fournier. Nothing cleanses the palette from a less-than-ideal trade better than a lottery pick, right?
To finish things off, I’ve got a D’Angelo Russell mailbag section where I answer questions from the lovely people of Twitter. Here we go!
In this scenario, the Wolves head into next season with DLo unextended. This feels like the most likely scenario. I’m going to assume that by “that” DLo, you mean that he’ll be playing for his next contract rather than to win basketball games. Perhaps you see a reality in which Russell is desperately hoisting shots in an attempt to prove that he is in fact a max-contract player. In the process, he’d be torpedoing Minnesota’s offense and Anthony Edwards’ development. Definitely a scary proposition.
But, in reality, if DLo is playing for his next contract, I think that’s the best-case scenario for the Wolves. We saw that Chris Finch isn’t afraid to sit Russell down even in the biggest moments — DLo watched the Wolves lose Game 6 to Memphis from the sideline. If the nightmarish scenario that I outlined does unfold, the Wolves are rich with guard depth, and I imagine Finch will have no problem reducing Russell’s minute load. More likely, DLo is incentivized to be the best point guard he can be. His best path to big money is to knock down open looks, set up his teammates, and play quality defense. Russell’s regular season last year should have earned him another contract. One bad series has given fans, and likely the front office, some pause.
Fellow Zone Coverage writer Jonah Maves made a great case for the Wolves to draft TyTy Washington at No. 19. I’m a big Washington fan and would love to see him on this roster. If the Wolves trade DLo and do not get a guard in return, I think there is enough playmaking between Ant, KAT, Beverley, and McLaughlin until Washington comes along or Ant becomes “that guy.” If we’re talking free agency, Delon Wright would be my target. He’s a solid-at-everything type player and can play on or off the ball.
Ranking players is hard. Not only are positions tricky — like, what to do with Luka Doncic? — but finding the right way to weigh championship equity, statistical accomplishments, upside, etc. is just incredibly difficult. In my book, there are 11 point guards that I have clearly in tiers above DLo:
Ja Morant, Trae Young, Jrue Holiday
Fred VanVleet, LaMelo Ball, Marcus Smart, Jamal Murray, Kyrie Irving
After that is a big group with young guys like Darius Garland, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Tyrese Haliburton, along with some older guys like Mike Conley and Kyle Lowry. DLo and Dejounte Murray exist somewhere in that group as players entering their prime who have had one great season but have yet to put together consistent high-level play. Not to say that Russell is a top-10 point guard, but on any given night he can be one of the best players on the court. It’s just a matter of consistency.
Regarding the rim-runner question, I think Bismack Biyombo would be a great target. I’ve seen a lot of people talking about JaVale McGee. At this point, I think he’s probably set on staying in a big market unless there is a title contender elsewhere who would want his services. Biyombo is a low-usage big who would likely be okay to play a spot role. In the draft, I would love to see the Wolves target Christian Koloko. I’m Cameroonian, so I’m partial to him, but he’s a legit prospect. He’s got a big frame, solid defensive instincts, and can go get the ball off the roll.
So I’ve thought of a few ways to answer this question. I’ll start with a one-for-one replacement, meaning in this reality DLo is swapped with one player taking up approximately the same salary slot. I’ll set DLo’s salary around $25 million annually. Given those restraints and the limited 2022 free-agency class, the “worst” player I’d be willing to give that slot to is probably TJ Warren. This is a high-risk, high-reward type of proposition. Warren hasn’t played NBA basketball since 2020. But when last he played, he was scoring nearly 20 points per game while shooting above 40% from the 3-point line. He’s exactly the type of forward the Wolves need. If he can return to form, that contract would be of incredible value.
But 2023 gets a little more interesting. The free-agent class is intriguing. Coby White is the one name that stands out to me. Last season, the Chicago Bulls upgraded their guard depth with Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso, then drafted Ayo Dosunmu, who played well his rookie year. The Bulls may not have White in their long-term plans, and he’s the type of second-draft guy who could pan out in the long run. I wouldn’t drop $25 million annually on him, but maybe the Bulls would be interested in a sign-and-trade with Malik Beasley, and White could join the Wolves for around $15 million per.
Thanks for sticking around until the end. Don’t forget to follow me on Twitter @chelangason and listen to The CnD NBA Show for more Chelanga content!