“We have potentially the best big of this current generation playing for us. How do we maximize him?”
Gersson Rosas posed that question to himself in a phone interview nearly two months ago, and he repeated the sentiment throughout the call. If it wasn’t already obvious what the Timberwolves’ new president of basketball operations saw as his priority, it quickly became clear: Karl-Anthony Towns first, Karl-Anthony Towns last, Karl-Anthony Towns above all.
On Thursday, Rosas expressed this sentiment once again—this time through a trade. The Wolves shipped Andrew Wiggins, a protected 2021 first-round pick, and a 2021 second-round pick to the Warriors in exchange for Minnesota’s white whale and one of Towns’s friends, D’Angelo Russell. Golden State also gave up Jacob Evans and Omari Spellman in the deal. The Wolves now have the no. 1 and no. 2 overall picks from the 2015 draft.
Back in December, Rosas had tried to shoehorn Wiggins in when talking about the franchise’s long-term plans, but Rosas was also clear that the Wolves were targeting a very specific type of player ahead of the trade deadline: guys in Towns’s age range and players who could complement Towns’s game. While Wiggins fits into that first category, the Wolves tried—and mostly failed—to make his game apply to the second. Russell, on the other hand, fits both.
Russell was never going to be in Golden State long term. We assumed as much this past offseason when he was shipped there in a sign-and-trade deal for Kevin Durant. The Warriors, bless their hearts, tried to sell everyone on how he could fit into the team’s present and their future, but it was clear all along this was just a stop on his tour. Still, Russell morphed himself into an attractive trade piece during the first half of the season, averaging a career-high 23.6 points and shooting a career-best 52.4 effective field goal percentage.
Now Minnesota is welcoming Russell with open arms. After recruiting him (with a helicopter ride for crying out loud) and failing to sign him this offseason, the Wolves kept after him leading up to the deadline. Talks got serious, stalled, got serious again, and stalled again. Finally they landed their man. Looking back on Rosas’s December comments, it’s clear how important getting Russell was to him, not just as a talent addition but as someone who could play with Towns.
“The end goal is to make Karl the best player he can be,” Rosas said. “[Towns] is a key indicator of who we are and what we’re about and how we can play, so his timeline, his strengths, his weaknesses, whatever we can do to complement him. That’s what we’re built around.”
Russell is very much that complementary piece. He’s a dynamic on-the-ball guard with a killer pull-up shot and a keen eye for passing. I can already envision the smooth pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop game that he and Towns will develop. At the same time, though, Russell does little to fix the Wolves’ massive issues on defense. Minnesota has not been one of the top-15 teams in defensive rating in any of the years since Towns was drafted (they’re currently 16th), and Russell has been a glaring hole on that end of the floor in the past.
If anything, this move puts the impetus on the front office to surround Towns and Russell with versatile defenders. Both Josh Okogie and 2019 first-round pick Jarrett Culver could eventually become reliable players on that end, but outside of those two, there’s a real dearth of defensive talent. Towns will undoubtedly feel even more pressure to help remedy that—he’s now not only the franchise cornerstone but also the player the organization is actively trying to appease.
Consistency has eluded Towns over the first four and a half seasons of his career, but it also has eluded the franchise that drafted him. Towns has had three different head coaches, two different front offices, and one playoff appearance during his NBA tenure. He’s also been in the center of a whole lot of dysfunction (see: the Jimmy Butler era). Rosas’s arrival and his continued revamping of the franchise is supposed to get things back on track, but time is of the essence. Sure, Towns is only wrapping up the first season of his max contract, but if there’s one thing we’ve learned about the league in the last few years, it’s that there’s no limit to player agency.
When the Wolves made their initial trade on Tuesday night—a four-team deal that involved shipping off Robert Covington and Shabazz Napier and getting Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangómez in return—Towns reacted on Instagram by posting a selection of pictures that appeared to express shock and disappointment. If you’re wondering why we have to closely analyze players’ social media accounts for hints on how they’re feeling, well, welcome to the NBA in 2020. Towns’s Instagram stories aren’t the only evidence we have to assume that he’s frustrated. Reports have indicated as much, as has the fact that the Wolves have dropped 13 games in a row.
“You can’t lose perspective whether you’re winning 10 games or losing 10 games,” Rosas said back in December. “You have to grow, you have to develop. … It’s a different time. We’re building something sustainable here, and it takes a lot of effort.”
And so on Thursday, Rosas made his first big swings: acquiring Russell, ridding his books of Wiggins’s max contract, and sending Gorgui Dieng and the $17 million he’s owed next season to Memphis to clear the decks. In doing so Rosas gave the Wolves financial flexibility, and though Minnesota by itself might not entice free agents, playing with Towns and Russell could (looking at you, Devin Booker).
The Wolves telegraphed the Russell move from every possible angle, and they didn’t seem to care that everyone knew about it. This was their guy, and they were going to get him no matter what. Now, the real work begins.