A weekly dive into the NBA’s hottest topics.
1. Why D’Angelo Russell fits on the Timberwolves
Culture accumulates. Good and bad. Like sediment, the longer it sticks in place, the more entrenched it gets in the foundation. After a while, the bad parts of a franchise function less like a parasite and more like a permanent body part.
Gersson Rosas, an analytics-minded GM from the envelope-pushing Houston Rockets, arrived in Minnesota this summer, peppering in a mix of new faces with old, like head coach Ryan Saunders, who got his first shot in the big chair last year after spending five years with the franchise.
Things were going well at first. Andrew Wiggins opened the season with the most spectacular 11-game run of his career. But he waxed and waned from there, franchise center Karl-Anthony Towns got hurt in November, and since his return, he has not contributed to a single victory.
The Wolves are, according to the win-loss column, the worst franchise in NBA history. It’s become clear that if they are ever going to forge ahead, it’ll be in the direction of good, not great. The Wolves have what they have in Towns: an All-Star with spectacular potential and a knack for coming up short of it. He has not developed in the best of scenarios, playing for four coaches in five years, so it’s hard to say how much of that is his fault. I’ll say this much: Jimmy Butler has come away lookin’ not bad.
The Wolves aren’t the kind of franchise that can trade their centerpiece just because he’s not championship-caliber. The next best thing they can do is try to keep him happy so he can live up to his ceiling. That’s exactly what they did on Thursday when they traded Andrew Wiggins, a 2021 top-three protected first-round pick and a 2021 second-round pick for Warriors guard D’Angelo Russell.
Russell, 23, is the ultimate All-Star If He Were in the East. He flourished in Brooklyn’s developmental lab last season and adjusted reasonably well to the Warriors’ offense. He was almost a Wolf this summer before Golden State swept in and offered him the max.
Russell is Towns’ friend, a pick-and-roll impresario. He’ll immediately be the best point guard Towns has ever played with. Their success will hinge on whether they can create enough offense to mitigate their defense.
The duo will hopefully give the Wolves an anchor, something that helps the franchise slowly reposition its navigational system in the direction of victory because cleaning up the muck is going to take longer than one season. I wouldn’t expect it to start right now either. They just shipped out six players to add six more. Nobody goes from zero to championships. If these are the Timberwolves of the next half-decade, that’s a win in the long run.
2. The Memphis Grizzlies are not lying down for anyone
Have the Grizzlies been listening to Khalid? Because they are running a master class on knowing your worth.
You know about Ja Morant of “my dad is my biggest hater” and “I had to go to Murray State because nobody noticed me” fame. He is fearless, unintimidated by the vets he grew up imitating and seeking out ways to embarrass them nightly while vaulting the Grizzlies into the playoff hunt.
You probably know he beefed with Stephen Curry on Twitter after Morant’s backcourt bud, Dillon Brooks, quipped that he couldn’t wait until Andre Iguodala — who never suited up for the Grizzlies before being shipped to Miami at the trade deadline — was traded so he could “show him what Memphis is really about it.”
You can understand why Brooks felt slighted. It’s one thing for the 36-year-old vet to hang around the Bay Area instead of traversing the country with a rebuilding team, but he could have been of service to the surprise playoff contenders the Grizzlies morphed into.
We’re not good enough for you? We’ll show you.
On the other hand, Memphis and Iguodala mutually agreed to this arrangement. The Grizzlies’ roster, more grit than grind, has a chip on its shoulder this year.
What you might not know is the chip seems like an organizational imperative. Here’s how ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz put it:
“Those with knowledge of Memphis' thinking say a small-market franchise with new front-office leadership wanted to set this kind of organizational tone: We are not a feeder system for the league's glamour destinations. You don't build a championship culture by subsidizing teams you compete against on a nightly basis with talent — and covering the tab. That's a doormat mentality that sends the wrong message to your players, coaches, front-office personnel, fans, ticket salespeople, sponsors, agents and broadcast partners.”
Folks, that is an ethos, and on Thursday’s trade deadline, they held to it. Most contenders, like the Lakers and Clippers, were hoping Iguodala would get bought out. He even threatened to sit out the rest of the season if he wasn’t traded to a contender. But the Grizzlies didn’t blink.
Nor did they desperately clasp onto Iguodala’s rights or beg him to play. If he didn’t want to be there, they were going to find a productive means to get him out. They held on just long enough to get something in return while also sending one of the NBA’s most respected veterans off to an attractive destination.
On Wednesday, the Grizzlies got their payoff. Eventually, Miami swept in, offering Dion Waiters, who is expected to be waived, James Johnson, and Justise Winslow, a versatile, defensive-minded, 23-year-old swingman with enough upside to make one wonder what a change of scenery could do for his game.
Bottom line: The Grizzlies don’t owe anyone their deference ... and they know it.
3. The Rockets had to trade Clint Capela
The Houston Rockets, at the helm of GM Daryl Morey, have rightly gotten credit for operating on the edge of conventional basketball wisdom. But as fun as it is to write and think about inventiveness, innovation is always the result of desperation. The Rockets push the envelope because they are desperate to win, and every roster they have constructed has, by some measure, fallen short.
They paired James Harden and Russell Westbrook, two high-usage ball-handlers, because human circumstance dictated they had to trade Chris Paul. The duo has tried to find a way to make it work, with Westbrook shooting fewer threes as of late, only to find that Clint Capela, the rim-rolling, gravitational force they signed to an $90 million extension, clogs the rim too much for Westbrook. They were middling out in the Western Conference playoff race, a pretender that no one took too seriously.
So they traded Capela on Wednesday, in a package that included Robert Covington, a sharpshooting defensive forward who, alongside P.J. Tucker, will make Houston more spaced out and increase its ability to switch. The only problem is that Tyson Chandler, who might have to dust off the cobwebs, becomes its only traditional center.
Maybe the Rockets are pushing the sport to its logical extreme. At the very least, it’ll be interesting to watch. But the Rockets aren’t here because they wanted to be. It’s because they had no other choice.
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