The Minnesota Timberwolves' big move prior to the trade deadline was sending D'Angelo Russell to the Los Angeles Lakers as part of a three-team deal that saw them get back Mike Conley and Nickeil Alexander-Walker from the Utah Jazz, along with three future second-round picks.
Russell's contract situation was the driving force behind the deal; he is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer and the team had been unable to come to an agreement with him on an extension. Rather than letting him walk for nothing in the summer, and losing all sorts of cap flexibility in the process, the Wolves decided to put him in a trade.
That was not the only reason the Wolves wanted to move Russell, however. Timberwolves beat writer Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic made an appearance on Dan Barreiro's radio show on KFAN in the Twin Cities on Thursday and detailed the broken relationship between Russell and Rudy Gobert.
It was an open secret that Russell did not like the big man and was not interested in trying to make the partnership work. Here's Krawczynski:
"I do think there were some chemistry issues. I don't think it was Jimmy Butler level, I don't think it was a five-alarm fire or anything like that, but it was very clear to me, really for much of the season, but especially over the last three or four weeks.
"The team has had issues incorporating Rudy Gobert, figuring out how to play with him, things like that. D-Lo wore those issues on his sleeve. He was very frustrated, often, with Rudy, with him not being able to catch some passes, with him missing layups and bunnies near the rim, with his offensive struggles this season for the Timberwolves. That frustration was palpable within the Timberwolves locker room. I'm sure there's other players who had some frustrations as well, but I think were able to say, 'hey, look, Rudy Gobert is a $40 million player, we just gotta figure out a way to make this happen.'
"D-Lo tried to make it work, but it was uncomfortable at times. We would come into the locker room and you could hear him actively bemaoning the situation. I've talked to coaches and players from other teams who heard him getting down on Rudy during games. There was this perception that D'Angelo Russell was very frustrated with Gobert and didn't seem as open to working with him or trying to find a happy medium as maybe some of the other players were trying to do, to make what has so far been a disappointing trade, try to make it work somehow."
Gobert's first season with the Wolves has been a borderline disaster, at least relative to expectations. He was acquired in a blockbuster trade last summer to be a defensive backbone and help the team step up into the top tier of the Western Conference. Instead, the Wolves are languishing in eighth place at 30-28, and some of Gobert's offensive deficincies have been glaring. More than that, he hasn't been his usual self on defense.
But while Gobert certainly shoulders his fair share of the blame here, this is disappointing from Russell. His job as the team's point guard is to go out of his way to get everyone involved and try to make sure the offense is running as smoothly as possible. Not only did he do the opposite, but he poisoned the locker room by openly criticizing Gobert often enough that opposing teams and the media were well aware of his feelings.
Here's Krawczynski again:
"Rudy knew that D'Angelo Russell was not in his corner. Rudy's a sensitive guy, he's a perceptive guy, so I don't think any of that was lost on him. Conley, not only do they hve the synergy from playing together, but he's more of a Rudy guy. Conley is a high IQ, make the right play, be in the right spot kind of player, not a home run swinger like D'Angelo Russell is. I think Rudy is over the moon that his guy is back, that he's gonna get the ball where he wants it and he can trust Mike Conley. I think that's a big thing for Rudy Gobert."
The Wolves will miss Russell's scoring -- 17.9 points per game on career-best 46.5/39.1/85.6 shooting splits -- especially until Karl-Anthony Towns returns from his calf injury. There is a chance, though, that Conley's game-management style and leadership on and off the floor will get everything to click in a way it hasn't thus far this season. Gobert, for one, is thrilled to have his former teammate in town.
"I'm excited," Gobert said on Feb. 8. "Obviously, I love Mike. I just love the way he plays the game, the way he makes people around him better, his professionalism, the way he plays to win and his selflessness. And I love him as a person, too, so, obviously, I'm happy."
If a happy Gobert means a better Gobert, then this trade could be the Wolves' biggest win of the season.