Monthly Archives: November 2022

On Role Players & D’Angelo Russell

Al Jefferson should’ve made the All-Star Team.

His numbers in 2009 were better than Shaq’s. Big Al averaged 23.1 points and 11 boards to O’Neal’s 17.8 and 8.4. Jefferson’s lack of team success could hardly be held against him. Ryan Gomes led that Wolves team in minutes. Randy Foye was second, Mike Miller was third, and Sebastian Telfair was fourth. Kevin Love was just a rookie. Shaq’s Suns only won 46 games that year, which seems like a decent season until you notice it was the low outlier amongst basically their entire Steve Nash Era. It wasn’t like Diesel was driving team success either. Yet Shaq made the All-Star Team and Jefferson didn’t, probably due to name recognition and as a lifetime achievement award.

So, yes. Al Jefferson should’ve made that ’09 All-Star Team. Even if his torn ACL wouldn’t have allowed him to play in it.

I used to believe that was true, anyway. I’m not really sure anymore. Big Al was the Wolves first “star” after the Kevin Garnett Era, and there was a natural sense to rally behind him as a new foundation to build upon. In a league that was moving away from traditional low-post play, Big Al had the best back-to-the-basket footwork in the league. The hope was that one or two high lottery picks could be used to fill out a bigtime nucleus, with Jefferson right at the center of it.

There was a fundamental problem, or at least a fundamental limitation, on Big Al, however, that I probably didn’t appreciate back in 2009 when I thought he should be an All-Star. That problem was this: Jefferson pretty much commanded a central role on his team’s offense, and as the central “go-to guy” piece, he was never going to be dominant enough to carry a team deep into the playoffs. He was “good/not great,” but his style was such that he took on the role of a great player.

He had better teammates after leaving the Wolves. Playing with the likes of Deron Williams and Paul Millsap in Utah, and then with Kemba Walker in Charlotte, Big Al played on some teams that won about half their games. He usually led those teams in scoring. And that’s kind of how he should be remembered: a guy who could put up numbers on mediocre teams.

Jefferson was unable to function as a role player, which would help explain why he never played on any great teams. Some players enter the league as high draft picks on bad teams, put up numbers for a few years, and eventually carve out a lower-statistics role on teams that have great success. Usually this involves greater dedication to the defensive side of the floor, as well as learning how to play more off the ball, not requiring such a central role in the offensive attack. I’m thinking of players like Andre Iguodala, Al Horford, Grant Hill, Vince Carter, Ron Harper.

Al Jefferson could not make that sort of transition, and I’m pretty sure D’Angelo Russell cannot make it either.

D’Lo’s put up numbers everywhere he’s been. And his teams have tended to win about as much as Al Jefferson’s did. His two Lakers teams won 17 and then 26 games. His first Nets team won 28 games. The stars aligned for him in that ’18-19 season, making the All-Star Team as an injury replacement, and they won 42 games. He averaged 21.1 points per game that year, attempting 18.7 shots per game. Next highest on the team was Spencer Dinwiddie’s 12.2 shots. Russell showed that he could, in the right circumstances, be the first option on a .500ish team. Kinda like Big Al.

From there he went to Golden State for half a season, and they were horrible (finished the year at 15-50). He came to the Wolves, which was hardly any better – he played 12 games of their 19-45 campaign. In ’20-21, Russell helped get Ryan Saunders fired. That team went 23-49 with Russell putting up 19 points and 5.8 assists per game. Last year’s 46-win campaign was a second stars-aligning season for Russell. He averaged 18.1 points and 7.1 assists on that Wolves team. Of his seven seasons in the league before this one, five involved mass losing, two were slightly over .500, and all but maybe his rookie year had D’Lo as a central piece to the action.

This matters because this year’s Timberwolves team desperately needs some role players. They need at least one, but preferably two or even three, starters who are primarily focused on their defensive assignments and on participating in team offense without holding the ball or hijacking the play. We know that will never be Anthony Edwards just as well as we know that will never be Karl-Anthony Towns. Jaden McDaniels has the clear-cut potential to be an elite role player, and yet he isn’t quite ready to be one. He’s a little too ambitious offensively (probably at Finch’s urging, based on the coach’s oft quoted “Scottie Pippen” comparison) and he fouls too much defensively. Rudy Gobert is a multiple-time All-Star whose literal physical presence around the basket kind of necessitates at least a reasonably large role in the offense.

The Wolves are underachieving. They are 7-8 as of this writing, and that sub-.500 record comes against an incredibly soft opening schedule. Their wins have come against the Thunder twice (one without Shai Gilgeous-Alexander active), Spurs, Lakers, Rockets, Cavs without Donovan Mitchell and Jarrett Allen, and then the Magic. They haven’t beaten a good team yet. They’ve lost to the Jazz, Spurs twice (!), Suns twice, and once without Chris Paul, Bucks, Knicks, and Grizzlies. They’re ranked 13th in offense and 18th in defense. As the schedule toughens up over time, those rankings will drop further if things don’t change.

The starting five should theoretically be excellent offensively, but the opposite is true, so far. In 198 minutes, they have an offensive rating of 105.7. That would rank 29th in the league. This is a lineup that has Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Rudy Gobert in it.

It also has D’Angelo Russell, and he seems to be a harmful presence. He seems to be unable to adjust to a role-player position. Jordan McLaughlin, on the other hand, is nothing if not a role player. He comes in the game high on energy and low on natural ability. He’s small and he can’t even shoot, but just by pushing the ball, getting rid of it quickly, and trying his hardest, he’s able to fulfill the needs of this team out of its point-guard position. A team that has sufficient firepower on the wing and in the post does not need a point guard stalling the movement or taking contested jumpshots off the dribble. McLaughlin leads the team in net rating by a big margin, at +13.5 points per 100 possessions. When McLaughlin is off the floor, the Wolves are outscored by 4.9 points per 100 possessions.

This is really less about J-Mac than it is about D’Lo. For a team with Ant, Jaden, and KAT to hum offensively, they need the other guard to just stay the hell out of the way. Bonus points if that guard will give a shit defensively. It is hard to overstate just how little talent the Timberwolves require out of that point guard spot.

When LeBron went to Miami, the Heat started off with a 9-8 record. LeBron and Wade were arguably the two best players in the world at that point in time, but they did not have a natural fit as teammates. Chris Bosh would ultimately become one of the most overqualified “role players” in league history, without which they might not have won any titles. Consider how various iterations of the Team USA Dream Teams, loaded with superstar talent but short on gritty role players, sometimes struggle to beat far inferior international teams that have better chemistry.

In last week’s win at Cleveland, D’Lo had 30 points and 11 assists. He was instrumental to getting that particular win. There was an instant urge felt by many to declare that to be some sort of good news; as if maybe something clicked that will sustain going forward. I guess I felt kind of the opposite; that it bought him another 10 or so starts before Finch eventually, belatedly, pulls the plug. It has not been difficult to observe the failed chemistry of this year’s underachieving team through 15 games, nor has it been difficult to identify the primary source of toxicity. They need a humble point guard with little to no expectations for himself who will put 80 percent of his energy into defense and the other 20 percent into getting the ball up the floor and in someone else’s hands asap. That player is not D’Angelo Russell, and it never will be D’Angelo Russell. Asking D’Lo to transform into a role player would’ve been like asking Big Al to transform into one. What are they gonna do, play defense?

It’s time to move on from Russell.



Filed under Timberwolves