In the final minutes of an elimination game, Timberwolves coach Chris Finch pulled $30 million point guard D'Angelo Russell and substituted $2 million point guard Jordan McLaughlin.
Finch had said all series the playoffs can expose more than the regular season what a team does well and what it doesn't, what weaknesses a player has and what his strengths are.
Russell struggled all series. He averaged 12 points and shot just 33%.
He had seven points and four turnovers in series-closing Game 6 and with the season on the line, when all pretense of playing someone because they have a big salary goes out the window, Finch made the decision to bench Russell in crunch time for McLaughlin, who had been facilitating the offense better the second half of the series.
The Timberwolves held exit interviews Saturday and when asked if he was OK with the benching, Russell said, "No. Not at all."
He then asked a reporter if he would like it if he were denied an opportunity to do his job. The same went for him.
"Of course I want to be out there," Russell said.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the Wolves' offseason will be what happens with Russell, who will be entering the final year of his maximum contract. Both Finch and executive vice president Sachin Gupta praised the year Russell had, with Finch saying some of Russell's struggles in the series were on him.
"We still think the fit is great," Finch said of Russell. "His skill set, his playmaking, all that stuff hasn't changed. We've just got to figure out maybe some different sets or structures that kind of accentuate those things too. I could've done a better job of trying to get him into the series a little bit more with some plays for him maybe off the ball."
But the fact remained that in the most important moment of their season, the Wolves felt like they needed to take Russell off the floor.
Flashback to before the season at media day. Russell said he had attacked the previous summer as if he was entering a contract year.
"Anytime it's a contract year in this professional world, the pressure's on you and you take it for all it's worth," Russell said then.
He will be eligible to receive an extension offer from the Wolves when the new league year begins in July.
"I don't like to speak on that," Russell said Saturday. "It kind of comes back to haunt you a lot of the times. There's nothing more that I can do to showcase my worth or the number that I'm looking for or anything like that. I would just rather not entertain myself with that until the time comes."
Russell, who is currently on a 25% maximum contract, will be eligible to sign a five-year max contract that would occupy 30% of the salary cap because of his service time in the league. That would equate to a projected average salary of over $40 million per season.
It's hard to envision the Wolves offering Russell that kind of money given his production (his three-point shooting dropped to 34% from 39% last season), especially since it's likely they will want to sign center Karl-Anthony Towns to a super-max extension of 35% of the cap should Towns qualify for that by making an All-NBA team.
If Towns, who has two years left on his deal and can sign an extension this summer, makes the All-NBA team, there's initial optimism he would sign the supermax, which would be worth five years and potentially over $50 million per season on average. If he doesn't make an All-NBA team, Towns could try again for that kind of contract next season.
"I love this city. So obviously things will happen this summer. When they happen they happen," Towns said Friday when asked if he'd sign a supermax deal this summer. "I've been here so long I don't like making prophecies. I'll let it come if it comes. If it comes, it comes, then we'll deal with it when it comes. Just take every day. I've been here long enough to know that everyday things can change, so just be happy with where everything is at right now."
The Wolves also will have to sign Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels to large contracts when both of their rookie deals are up in two seasons.
It's hard to pinpoint just where Russell fits on the organizational priorities given his biggest backer in the organization and the person who brought him to Minnesota, former President Gersson Rosas, is gone.
There is some belief around the league the Wolves may try to move on from Russell this summer, but there are still a lot of moving parts. How much would Russell actually want in a new deal? If he doesn't get what he wants, how will he react? Some of the uncertainty also revolves around who will be calling the shots permanently in the front office.
Gupta is running the basketball operations but hasn't been named the permanent successor about two months out from the draft and free agency. He said Saturday he didn't think the roster needed "significant changes" while praising Russell for having a "great year."
"He's been a big part of the success that we had, and not just on the offensive end," Gupta said. "I think he made big strides defensively, too, in the new scheme that coach implemented. It really took advantage of his strengths. We wouldn't be here without his contributions."
Russell and Finch both said Russell's chemistry with Towns could have been better this season, the first they have played with each other for an extended period of time since Russell arrived in February 2020. But with COVID disrupting the team in December and January, Russell never felt he and Towns got to play enough together.
"t was rocky, to be honest. I think we were figuring it out," Russell said. "… We're such fans of each other that we found a way to make it work in moments where you probably didn't have the chemistry because we didn't play together as much as we would have thought."
Soon the Wolves may have to answer how long they want them to play together.