Nearly eight months of speculation surrounding the Minnesota Timberwolves and D’Angelo Russell culminated in what may stand as the biggest deal of the trade deadline. The Wolves and Warriors Thursday agreed upon a deal exchanging Russell for former No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins, a lightly-protected 2021 first-round pick, a 2021 second-round pick, Jacob Evans and Omari Spellman, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
It had been particularly well known in the public sphere by now how badly the Wolves pined for the 23-year-old Russell, who is close friends with the presently-disgruntled Karl-Anthony Towns, and ended up on the Warriors as more of a stopgap option in the first place, acquired from the Nets after Kevin Durant chose to leave for Brooklyn. Reports leading up to the trade deadline indicated that Golden State sought a legitimately valuable first-round pick in any Russell deal, which Minnesota ultimately put on the table in addition to Wiggins, who is owed a hefty sum over the next few seasons, but is still just 24.
This is a deal with fascinating implications on both ends. Let’s break it down.
Minnesota Timberwolves: B
No matter how the next few years play out, this trade essentially marks the true start of Gersson Rosas’s tenure at the helm in Minnesota. It’s essentially a major gamble on talent, the value of Russell’s fit, and a hope that his presence will help optimize Towns and lay the groundwork for a cultural shift. Russell made his first All-Star team last year as a member of the Nets, and has posted incrementally better numbers through 33 games this season, albeit for one of the NBA’s worst teams. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 draft, Russell is a solid playmaker and capable scorer and jump-started his career in Brooklyn, after two tumultuous years with the Lakers. After a brief stop in Golden State, he joins his fourth team in five seasons, but will get to play off of a legitimate star for the first time in a more stable long-term situation.
Russell’s presence may not do much to solve Minnesota’s defensive problems, which have stemmed in large part from Towns’ struggles on that side of the ball, but this move should at least telegraph the right message from the Wolves’ standpoint. Whether or not Towns and Russell can anchor a playoff team together will certainly be questioned moving forward. Neither has been privy to sustained team success, although Towns was a key figure in Minnesota’s 47-win team of two seasons ago (the Wolves fell in the first round to Houston in five games). Having both under long-term contract sets a foundation on which the organization can build from here, brings the disappointing Wiggins era to a close, and charts a new direction. The hope has to be that Russell’s presence might inspire Towns, a two-time All-Star and one of the NBA’s most skilled offensive bigs, to elevate his game on the other side of the ball. Fixing the on-court problems will take time and a necessary gestation phase as Russell meshes with Minnesota’s other young players, including Jarrett Culver, Josh Okogie and the newly-acquired Malik Beasley. But having someone to distribute the ball, and an accomplished ball-screen partner for Towns, is a huge step in the right direction.
The afterglow of finally getting their guy still comes at a real cost for Minnesota. The first-round pick they’ll send out is top-three protected in what’s shaping up to be a strong 2021 draft class, markedly so in comparison to what’s on the immediate horizon in 2020. A leaguewide frustration over the poor quality of the upcoming draft placed an even high premium on 2021 first-rounders, and the Warriors will have a good chance of receiving it next year. If not, the pick will be unprotected in 2022, which is still expected to be the first draft to include high school players as the NBA weighs lowering the age minimum. The loss of that pick is mitigated to some degree by the fact Minnesota owns two first-rounders in 2020: its own and the lottery-protected Nets pick acquired from Atlanta after dealing Robert Covington in a four-team deal earlier this week. (That deal stands up much better now from the Wolves’ perspective.) Evans and Spellman may at least get some opportunity now, but the former late first-round picks have been trending down.
There’s some additional opportunity cost associated with dealing Wiggins, although there’s a valid argument that a change of scenery was in order to rejuvenate his career anyway. He’s averaging 22.4 points and has been slightly more efficient this season, but his style of play has not always engendered winning basketball, and he’s been much-maligned for never quite living up to expectations as the No. 1 pick in 2014. The Wolves’ willingness to deal is understandable, particularly given his hefty max contract runs through 2023. If Wiggins is able to tap into another level with the Warriors, who will start fresh in the fall with a healthy Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, it will still be hard to fault Minnesota for moving on.
Ultimately, grading this deal depends on what you think of Russell, who relies on craft over superb athleticism and has been solid but not always spectacular over the past couple seasons. There’s certainly time for him to find another level, and if he’s able to get more out of Towns in any way, his own numbers may matter less in this equation. On paper, it’s a clean fit. But this move is best viewed as the first step in fixing what ails the Timberwolves, not a one-step solution.
Golden State Warriors: B+
The decision to trade Russell now rather than wait until closer to the draft makes sense if you interpret this entire will-they-won’t-they dance with Minnesota over draft capital as a victory. Golden State was clearly holding out for an optimally valuable first-round pick, which they appear to have obtained. There’s no guarantee the Wolves make the playoffs next year, and having a legit potential lottery pick in hand is always a luxury. The Warriors are correctly anticipating a return to contention with Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green back together next season. And it’s crucial to note that team president Bob Myers enters the off-season with two valuable draft assets to dangle via trade—the Minnesota pick and Golden State’s own 2020 first, which will be near or at the top of the draft—as well as Wiggins’ max salary number. This deal is probably better read as a move that positions the Warriors to bid seriously on a fourth star-caliber player, rather than as a firm commitment to Wiggins as part of their future.
Although it could have been workable in theory, Russell’s ball-dominant tendencies never made for an ideal fit next to Curry and Thompson next season. The Warriors acquired him with a long view, and using him to facilitate a subsequent move like this was always going to be an option. Bringing him back for Durant came at additional cost, as the Warriors dealt Andre Iguodala to Memphis to create salary space, and had to surrender a 2024 first-round pick to do so. Dealing Russell now for what’s arguably a more valuable draft pick while maintaining flexibility to move again is a pretty solid play. And there’s been a good deal of chatter in league circles that the Warriors will be willing to deal their pick come draft time, given the financial implications of rostering a high draft selection, as well as their win-now timeline.
If Golden State does hold on to Wiggins going into next season he will be walking into the best basketball situation of his career, and what should be viewed as a sink-or-swim window for his value moving forward. The presence of Curry and Thompson takes a great deal of pressure off Wiggins to create his own offense. Playing next to Green will further optimize him as a dangerous off-ball cutter. If Wiggins is willing to adjust his tendencies for the good of the group, he could actually prove an ideal fit. The issue is that those responsibilities are sure to include defense, which despite his elite physical tools, has never been an area of great interest for him. On whole, this is a fascinating play by the Warriors, and a pretty solid return on their Russell rental as far as organizational upside is concerned.