In the next 12 months Timberwolves fans will know what impact new president of basketball operations Tim Connelly has made on the franchise. No “barometer” could be more telling than that of enigmatic point guard D’Angelo Russell.
His resume after three seasons in Minnesota indicates Connelly should find another NBA residence for D’Lo. He is a flashy talent but his resume is too flawed for a player who reportedly earns about $30 million per season.
In the closing minutes of the Wolves-Grizzlies playoff series Russell was sitting on the bench. Coach Chris Finch chose not to play D’Lo, supposedly part of the team’s big three of Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards. The decision was a condemnation of Russell whose team couldn’t find a way to win Game Six, and lost their first round playoff series this spring.
Russell averaged 18.1 points during the regular season but just 12 in the postseason. He averaged 31 points against the Grizzlies in four regular season games. In plus-minus rating he was -0.7 in the playoffs after being +3.2 during the season.
Regardless of whether it’s regular or post season, Russell can perform more like an individual than a team player. He may force too many shots from too many precarious positions on the floor. As the floor leader at point guard, he can slow ball movement and not get teammates involved enough. Defensively, his reputation is about not being engaged and focused.
The words “he makes his teammates better” aren’t often associated with D’Lo. At age 26 he has played for four NBA teams. That’s telling in and of itself. Front office leaders and coaches have been tantalized by the talent but for whatever reasons no one has found him valuable enough to keep around indefinitely.
Connelly, who the Wolves hired off his reputation with the Nuggets as a top 10 NBA decision maker, will be challenged to figure out the D’Lo puzzle. Incoming calls from other teams inquiring about Russell won’t be frequent for Connelly, who is formally introduced today as the Wolves’ boss at a news conference.
If Connelly and Finch are shrewd about Russell, they will find a more complementary player for the “sum of their parts.” A steady point guard who can better run the offense and also be a contributor defensively. The help wanted sign should go up soon for a new player with attributes that include poise at the biggest moments, whether in the playoffs or nail-biting regular season games.
The Connelly watch starts now not only with D’Lo but the NBA Draft June 23. Minnesota has the No. 19 selection in the first round, plus three selections in the second.
The Wolves need help at power forward but rightly could take a too- talented-to pass-up player at any position. And what does Connelly do with those extra second rounders? Keep them all or trade one or more for better assets?
Connelly’s ability to judge talent will be scrutinized with this draft. Talent can be found anywhere in the draft and among college free agents. In 1999 the Spurs took Manu Ginobili with the No. 57 pick. They won four NBA titles with Ginobili as one of the team’s three stars. Ten years ago the Warriors found Draymond Green at No. 35 in the second round. Since then he’s been a huge contributor to the team winning three NBA championships.
Connelly will be tasked with producing more success than his predecessor Gerson Rosas who was fired last September for reportedly having an inappropriate relationship with an office employee and fostering a tense office environment. Outdoing Rosas won’t be accomplished with the snap of the fingers.
Rosas was hired in May of 2019 as president of basketball operations, taking over a franchise with a 36-46 record and MIA from the playoffs almost every year. Yes, the Warriors got the better of the deal that Rosas made unloading Andrew Wiggins and giving them a first round draft choice in exchange for D’Lo. And Rosas did whiff on 2019 first round pick Jarrett Culver, but Rosas reshaped the roster for the better and his decisions had everything to do with the Wolves qualifying for the playoffs in 2022. (Only the second time since 2004.)
Rosas made Edwards the NBA’s overall No. 1 draft choice in 2020. After two seasons and at 20 years old, Edwards has been spectacular and could become a top five NBA player. Trades by Rosas acquired promising 21-year-old forward Jaden McDaniels, starting power forward Jared Vanderbilt and guard Patrick Beverley, a catalyst either starting or as sub.
Role players off the bench who came via swaps and often helped are three-point shooting specialist Malik Beasley and power forward Taurean Prince. Contributors acquired through free agency are center Naz Reid and playmaking guard Jordan McLaughlin.
The Rosas ledger also includes hiring Finch as head coach a year ago last February. Finch is an effective communicator who listens to players and lets them know what is expected.
New owners Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez are credited with the Connelly hire. They’re drawing applause from long suffering Wolves fans for making the move. Although they don’t take over majority ownership of the franchise until December of 2023, they’re pushing the envelope with determination and creativity so far.
That was evident earlier this year when they, along with majority owner Glen Taylor, created a new staff position responsible for enhancing the experience of their players. In a basketball market not known for its glitz like Los Angeles, Miami, New York and other places, creating an internal culture valued by players could go a long way in both attracting and keeping talent in the Northland.
In a news release last week the Timberwolves, coming in at No. 11, were ranked among the Top 25 Most Innovative Teams in The World for 2022, per Sports Innovation Lab. The release said the annual ranking is based on three primary metrics: revenue diversification, technology enablement and organizational ability.