D’Angelo Russell made his debut for the Minnesota Timberwolves on Monday night, putting up 22 points on just 12 shots, adding 5 assists and hitting 4-of-5 from beyond the arc. He provided a dynamic boost of playmaking to an offense that hasn’t always had it this season and Minnesota was generally humming at that end, hanging 126 points on the second-best defense in the NBA — the Raptors.
Unfortunately, Minnesota gave it all back at the other end, surrendering 137 points and losing by double-digits. This is doing to be the primary challenge for the Timberwolves in making the Karl-Anthony Towns – Russell combination workable long term — they are a special offensive pairing who are potentially disastrous at the other end of the floor.
ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus estimates Karl-Anthony Towns to be the worst defensive center in the entire league this season and the team’s defense has been worse by 11.4 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor. Russell has been playing in a strange context for statistical evaluation, a newcomer on a Warriors’ roster decimated by injuries, but didn’t exactly build a reputation as a promising defender prior to his arrival in Golden State.
We could see some of the issues last night against Toronto, mostly centered around awareness and reaction to unfolding situations. Here, Russell has already gotten caught on a pin-down screen from Pascal Siakam and is trailing Fred VanVleet as he approaches Towns’ man for a dribble hand-off. Russell gets sent way off course by the final screen, leaving Towns responsible for two defenders in the middle of the floor. He freezes, doesn’t meaningfully affect either player and the Raptors get an easy layup.
In this second play, the Raptors are running a pick-and-roll with Kyle Lowry and OG Anunoby, attacking Russell and Josh Okogie. Towns is on the backline, protecting the rim. Anunoby slips the screen but gets a subtle shove on Okogie forcing him out of the play. Lowry is moving sideways so Russell should be able to close off the pocket-pass without leaning too far out of position. (Spoiler: He doesn’t). Towns has a good 15 feet of space to react and get himself in position to deter Anunoby and force a kickout. (Spoiler: He doesn’t).
It’s easy to attribute miscommunication and late rotations like this to the recent personnel changes but Towns hasn’t changed teams and nothing here is an outlier from the way we’ve seen both players defend over the past few seasons. You could also point out that the Raptors are very good and very skilled, with plenty of experience leveraging these kinds of situations. But that’s really the point — good offenses score points unless the defense is better.
There is a good chance that the addition of Russell will help the Timberwolves finish this season much more strongly than they started it. And if the acquisition helps keep Towns happy and invested in his Timberwolves future, that may ultimately be more valuable than any other aspect here. Russell and Towns are also just two of the five players who will be on the court at any time and Okogie, Malik Beasley, Juan Hernangomez and Jarrett Culver are all players with much more defensive upside.
But if the Timberwolves want to be a championship contender with this core over the next few seasons they’ll have to assemble a defense that plays several levels above what even they’re current ceiling would appear to be. One game into the Russell-Towns era, we have very little information about how things will turn out but a very good idea of what the challenges will be.