Missing out on D’Angelo Russell hurts, but the Wolves must look for what’s ahead

The Minnesota Timberwolves were real players for a key free agent for the first time in a long time. In Gersson Rosas’ first free agent period on the job with the Wolves the aggressiveness was there, but in the end losing out on D’Angelo Russell was something that could haunt this franchise down the road.

It was no secret that Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns are close friends. They have been since high school, and they’ll continue to be, even though the pairing won’t be playing together in the NBA anytime soon. We’ll likely never know exactly how those two would have fit on the court – at least not with the Wolves – but we do know that this is something that would have made Towns happy. His five-year contract extension kicks in this season, locking him up until the summer of 2024, but make no mistake: the clock on Towns is ticking.

Russell had the final say in where he wanted to go. He picked the Warriors. But that could be due to the Wolves not being able to clear the cap room necessary to make a deal with him work. He signed for a four-year deal worth $117 million with Golden State. The Wolves would have needed to get at least one of their big contracts – Andrew Wiggins, Jeff Teague, and Gorgui Dieng – off the books and maybe an ancillary piece or two as well.

In other words, losing out on Russell can at least partly be attributed to the errors made by previous basketball czar Tom Thibodeau. He’s the one that inked Wiggins, Teague, and Dieng to their monster contracts and limited the future flexibility of this franchise.

This not happening isn’t the fault of new President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas and his staff. They tried to make a marriage happen for Russell and the Wolves, but ultimately couldn’t get it done. The current regime was dealt an awful hand by the previous regime. It’s unfair to judge them for not getting this move done, and it’s probably an encouraging thing that they were in the conversation. That hasn’t always been the case with this organization.

With it being time to move on from the dream pairing of Towns and Russell the question of ‘what’s next?’ comes calling. The Wolves don’t exactly have a forgiving salary cap picture with Wiggins under contract for four more seasons, and Dieng for two more. It’s never going to be easy to add a star to pair with Towns. It’s hard to envision the day when the Wolves are talked about as a team with enough cap space for a max-level free agent while Towns is still on the team. Maybe that day will come, you never know.

Rosas showed a bit of creativity when he moved up from No. 11 in the draft to No. 6 by trading Dario Saric to Phoenix. He’s going to need to continue to show more of it in order to get the Wolves turned around. There’s no easy answer for how this team becomes a contender in the near future. If there is an answer it’s not one that’s been discovered yet.

Towns will continue to get better, but there’s more reason to believe that Wiggins won’t improve than there is reason for optimism with him right now. Maybe Jarrett Culver becomes the sidekick that Towns needs. If he does, things change for the better. If he doesn’t, every tick on Towns’ clock becomes louder.

Maybe the best option for now is to keep the team intact as is. Unless there’s a real plan to bring in talent – that seems mostly unavailable at this point thanks to a wild opening day of free agency – moving assets to send Wiggins, Dieng or Teague elsewhere might not make sense. It would have if it meant D’Angelo Russell was coming in, but there’s not another all-star readily available, at least that’s known right now. Maybe things become easier next summer for the Wolves. Maybe Wiggins has a bounce back year and isn’t difficult to move, or even becomes worth keeping. Stranger things have happened.

As constructed right now, this isn’t a team that has the looks of a playoff contender, even with an All-NBA big man in Towns. The Western Conference is shaping up to be loaded with talent, and the Wolves aren’t one of the eight best teams in the conference as constructed. For now that might be the best, but in the future it certainly won’t be.

The margin for error for the new front office is razor thin – through no fault of their own. The first attempt to make a splash through free agency didn’t go as well as the splash they made on draft night. At some point they’ll get another chance, but each opportunity for the Wolves becomes more important than the last. There’s no telling when the next opportunity will arise, but there’s no question there will be more pressure on the Wolves to make it happen when it does arrive.