King Me: Wolves Take Down the Kings 116–106
The long awaited return of D’Angelo Russell turned out to be worth the delay. Much like Karl-Anthony Towns’ surprise return just hours before a game a couple of months ago, Russell seemed to be feeling well enough to get back out there right before the game against the Kings. After staying even with Sacramento for 3 quarters, the Wolves pulled away with a big closing kick from DLo in the 4th quarter to seal a win and get some good vibes injected into the point guard’s return. After another encouraging win, here are 5 thoughts on the game against the Kings!
D’Angelo Russell’s return should only make Ant’s life easier. The big question surrounding DLo’s return was how he would mesh with Anthony Edwards who has busted out of his shell during Russell’s absence and has blossomed into a weapon with the ball in his hands. Would DLo isolation possessions return while everyone else stands around? After one game, I think we can breathe a sigh of relief after seeing them function together. Russell and Head Coach Chris Finch are smart basketball minds. They both know DLo himself is likely not good enough for the whole offense to be structured around (hence the terrible offense we saw earlier in the season without KAT). That is why Finch had DLo working off the ball for most of the game prior to the 4th quarter as a cutter and ball mover. He is a really smart basketball player. Go watch his All Star season in Brooklyn when he seamlessly fit into an offensive structure to play winning basketball if you do not believe it. It will only be a good thing to have D’Angelo share the floor with Ant and KAT. These are 3 players with very different skillsets, and the more an offense can give the defense to think about the better. Not to mention throughout the game Finch should be able to stagger Ant and DLo enough to always have one of them on the court. Based on the rudderless basketball we saw from the Wolves earlier in the year, I could get used to always watching one of those two. Russell seems to trust his head coach, so his usage should only get better and better.
Speaking of DLo, the specific types of shots he takes and makes may be even more valuable than Beasley’s 3pt. shooting. 25 points in only 24 minutes is an awesome way to announce a return. I know we all love Malik Beasley’s ability to become a flamethrower from the 3pt. line, but D’Angelo Russell is the more valuable scorer for this team. The most impressive part of DLo’s first game back what how he was getting to his shots in the 4th quarter to close the game. Whereas Malik is mostly an off-ball threat at this point, DLo can get where he needs to go with the ball in his hands to get his shot off. During his closing stretch, Russell hit a pull up 3 in transition, ran a DHO with Towns for a 3, dribbled off a pick for an easy midrange jump shot, and got to the free throw line several times. Beasley just is not able to score in that variety of ways like Russell. Neither is Ant at this point in his career. While Ant is an awesome downhill scorer that will develop in these areas, his jump shot is not reliable enough to run those plays to close a game in the 4th quarter. The Wolves sorely missed having someone like DLo around who can not only make difficult shots, but has the willingness and ability to take them in the first place.
Chris Finch is showing more and more signs of wanting to play KAT alongside another big man. We recently posted an article about this very subject! Naz Reid was having a good game against the Kings, so the head coach decided he belonged in the closing lineup in the front court next to Karl-Anthony Towns. It was a great decision, as the two skilled big men worked very well with one another. Chris Finch mentioned in his postgame press conference that he thought the “Kat and Naz pairing was nice” and that he wanted to get Juancho more minutes to get “a bigger body on Harrison Barnes” (credit Canis Hoopus contributor @Y0Leo on Twitter for transcribing postgame quotes!). What Finch is noting is that the team benefits from having more size on the court. KAT’s incredible skillset is so rare for a center, as he is unlike any other traditional center. Maybe the best way to take advantage of the fact that he is a 6’11” unicorn is to put a center next to him to overwhelm teams with size and skill. I think Chris Finch sees the vision, and I would not be surprised to see KAT and Naz getting more and more minutes together as the season moves on.
So what does this rotation look like when Russell is a full-go and Jaylen Nowell returns? With Russell coming off the bench, he essentially took the rotation spot of the injured Jaylen Nowell so the rotation remained mostly intact. Eventually DLo will reclaim his starting spot and Nowell will return, so things will need to change. My prediction (assuming mostly good health) is a starting lineup of Russell, Ant, Okogie, McDaniels, and KAT. The only change from the Kings game would be swapping Russell and Rubio. Off the bench, I’d expect 4 players to get significant minutes in Rubio, Nowell, Juancho, and Naz. That leaves McLaughlin, Culver, Layman, and Vanderbilt essentially out of the rotation other than some spot minutes or in specific matchups. I think it is perfectly reasonable to keep it to a 9 man rotation for the most part. Chris Finch has shown that he wants to try to win games, and the best way to do that is to establish who your best players are and stick with them. It will be interesting to see it all shake out.
In an alternate universe where the Wolves had better injury luck this season and Chris Finch was the coach the entire time, I think the Wolves would roughly have the same record as the Kings. That is not anything to write home about, as the Kings sit at 22–29 and are not even in the top 10 of the Western Conference, but it would certainly portend more hope for the future with the youth on this Wolves team. In the game against the Kings, I saw two very evenly matched teams with similar strengths and weaknesses. In this alternate reality, instead of waking up every night in a cold sweat after a dream about handing Golden State the 4th pick in the draft, Wolves fans would likely be resigned to forking over the 10th-12th pick and we move on with our lives. Alas, the Wolves have dealt with a never ending string of injuries, illness, suspension, and a coaching change which lands them firmly in the cellar of the league. The win over the Kings at least showed that they may not be quite as bad as their record indicates anymore.