The Timberwolves changed the trajectory of their franchise Thursday, swinging for the fences and connecting on one of the biggest trades in the team’s history.
The Wolves landed the player they have coveted since President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas walked in the door — D’Angelo Russell — and in the process shed the contract of a player whose promise never quite fit the vision fans had for him in guard/forward Andrew Wiggins.
Less than two hours before the NBA’s trade deadline, the Wolves and Warriors agreed to a deal, with the Wolves surrendering a top-three-protected first-round pick and also a second-round pick in 2021. The first-round pick becomes unprotected in 2022 if it doesn’t convey next season.
The Wolves will also receive guard Jacob Evans and forward Omari Spellman in the deal, but most important, the Wolves landed a young, dynamic point guard they think will be a great fit alongside center Karl-Anthony Towns. The Wolves officially announced the move late Thursday afternoon, and they greeted Russell at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on Thursday night.
That wasn’t their only move of the day. About a half-hour before the deadline, the Wolves also dealt their longest-tenured player, center Gorgui Dieng, to Memphis for veteran power forward James Johnson in a move that will save the Wolves about $1 million in cap space next season.
In the Russell deal, the Wolves didn’t surrender the lottery-protected first-round pick they received from Atlanta via Brooklyn in a four-team trade the Wolves were a part of Tuesday, a deal which sent five Wolves, including forward Robert Covington, to multiple teams, and brought back guard Malik Beasley and forwards Juan Hernangomez and Jarred Vanderbilt from Denver and guard Evan Turner from Atlanta.
The Wolves will introduce Russell and several other newly acquired players at a news conference starting at noon at City Center.
From the start of negotiations with the Warriors, the Wolves had determined what they were willing to part with to get Russell, and they stuck to that even as reports circulated about Golden State’s asking price. Some of those reports were inaccurate, sources said, and the Wolves and Warriors, with Rosas primarily handling the negotiations, closed the deal Thursday — giving the Wolves front office a sense of accomplishment that they landed their top target.
This was the moment they had planned for since Rosas arrived, and they were happy to see their vision realized.
The Wolves did venture into the luxury tax by helping Golden State get under it and avoid repeater tax penalties, but owner Glen Taylor signed off on doing that in order to get the deal done, sources said. The Wolves should be able to get back under the tax next season.
This flurry of moves over the past 48 hours has made Towns — the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft — the longest-tenured franchise player. Towns and second-year guard Josh Okogie are the only remaining pieces of the roster from when Rosas took the job in May.
It also will help the Wolves stay in Towns’ good graces, in that Russell is a good friend of Towns’ and they have spoken in the past about playing together at some point. That point became important after the Wolves traded Covington, who Towns called his “best friend” on the team, and a move Towns said had been “difficult” to take.
Change has come at the Wolves at warp speed this week. There was unhappiness around how the team devolved this season — the Wolves are currently in a 13-game losing streak after going through an 11-game skid earlier this season. But any deals would still be made with an eye to the future, and the moves have the added benefit of injecting life over the last two-plus months of this season.
The second major benefit of the Russell deal for the Wolves was getting out from underneath Wiggins’ contract. Ever since Wiggins signed a maximum-contract extension in fall 2017, there was angst among the fan base about Wiggins’ lack of production relative to the potential that made him the No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft.
Wiggins’ statistics declined when Jimmy Butler arrived, and he averaged only 17.7 points per game in 2017-18. Rosas and coach Ryan Saunders got Wiggins to revamp his game headed into this season, and Wiggins started taking better, more efficient shots from three-point range and closer to the rim. He had an impressive start to the season but tailed off around late November when he became the focus of other teams’ defenses when Towns was out because of a knee injury.
Wiggins was well-liked in the Wolves’ locker room, but fans grew tired of him underperforming on his max contract. That won’t be the Wolves’ issue anymore.
Now, they will see just how well Towns and Russell mesh. Russell is the point guard the Wolves have coveted since Rosas got here. They made an unsuccessful push for him to sign with them over the summer, but even from the moment he went to Golden State, the league speculated if Russell would be a long-term fit alongside a healthy Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry. Nobody got to see those three on the floor together, with Thompson out because of a torn ACL and Curry out much of this season as well. The Warriors will now try to maximize Wiggins’ talent.
The Wolves have preached about how they want to change the culture around the organization. They have gone about that by revamping the personnel. Forwards Covington and Keita Bates-Diop, guards Jeff Teague and Shabazz Napier, forward/centers Jordan Bell and Noah Vonleh and guard/forward Treveon Graham — seven players from the roster at the beginning of the year — are gone. Okogie is the only Wolves player left on the roster acquired during the Tom Thibodeau regime.
A 32-game experiment
This is a new start for the Wolves, more than halfway through this season. They will have 32 games to see how Towns and Russell fit with each other and how the other seven newcomers fit into the franchise’s long-term picture. Players such as Beasley and Hernangomez could be a part of that and the plan isn’t for them to just be expiring contracts, sources said.
Beasley could be a target of other teams in restricted free agency, but the Wolves have his Bird rights and the ability to match any offer sheets he receives. Spellman and Evans are signed through this season and next on rookie deals that are each around $2 million per season. Turner, a possible buyout candidate, likely isn’t part of the long-term future; he is the only new player not scheduled to be at Friday’s news conference.
When Rosas took over, he laid out his main goal for the organization and how he was going to accomplish that: to surround Towns with talent that complements his skill set and use trades as the primary vehicle to do that.
It didn’t seem like it would happen now, with multiple reports saying talks had cooled between Golden State and the Wolves. The Wolves seemed unwilling to part with an unprotected 2021 pick, reputed to be a stronger draft than 2020, but the sides were able to come together and work out a deal.
Less than a year after taking over the job, Rosas has done what he set out to do. The question now: How well will this work? Will the Wolves be able to play decent enough defense with Covington out the door and Russell, who hasn’t been great on that end of the floor, now in the fold? Can they find the right mix of players to complement Russell and Towns offensively?
These are the next steps. The first step — the biggest one — is finally behind the Wolves.