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The Race to Eight In The East

A look at which teams in the East have the best odds of securing the final playoff spot.

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The landscape in the Eastern Conferences has shifted dramatically from just a season ago. The days of the LeBron James-led HEAT battling the Pacers for Eastern Conference supremacy are a thing of the past. James’ return to Cleveland left the HEAT scrambling to replace him and, along with addition of Kevin Love, immediately made the Cavs a favorite to win the East. While the Cavs’ acquisition of James made the biggest splash, they weren’t the only team in the East to make some noise during the offseason. Tom Thibodeau and the Bulls added another talented piece to an already proven group in Pau Gasol. Gasol has fit in seamlessly and the Bulls are off to a terrific start. Elsewhere the Raptors, Wizards and Hawks have all impressed early on and look to be legitimate threats in the East.

The waters are get a little bit murkier outside of the top five in the conference. Currently the Bucks, Nets and HEAT hold the final three playoff spots, however with so many games remaining all three teams still have plenty of work before they can feel confident about their playoff chances. On the outside looking in there are still a number teams that have a chance at working their way into the playoff picture. In Orlando, the feisty Magic have surprised and kept themselves within arm’s reach of the HEAT. The Pacers, even though they have been short-handed for much of the season, continue to be one of the best defensive units in the league and as they get healthy, have a chance to climb back in the playoff race. Lastly, coming off a playoff berth the Hornets have started slowly, but with the talent the have can’t be counted out quite yet. Record wise, the Celtics are is the mix as well, but after the departure of Rajon Rondo its clear they are looking towards the future and will likely unload other pieces prior to the trade deadline.

Lets take a closer look at the figures to be a hotly contested race for the final playoff spot in the East. Teams will be ranked on their chances of securing the eighth seed based off what they have shown thus far and what’s in front of them during the final 5o games of the season.

4) Indiana Pacers (11-21) – Games Remaining: 50 (26 Home, 24 Away)

Record: 11-21

Games Remaining 50 (26 Home, 24 Away)

Remaining Opponents: +.500 teams: 18, vs East: 36, vs West: 14

Strength of Schedule: .524

Record over their last 10 games: 4-6

Efficiency: Offensive 97.9, Defensive 101.1, Net -3.2.

The outlook of the Pacers season changed dramatically following the horrific leg injury suffered by Paul George this summer. Not only have they been without George, but other key players like David West and George Hill have missed time as well. They have continued to play their physical brand defense, allowing only 96.3 points per game but have struggled scoring the ball.

Despite missing a number of key players the Pacers have continued to battle under coach Frank Vogel. They have been very resilient even when shorthanded. While they continue to play stingy defensive, things have been much more difficult on the offensive end. Their biggest issue is the lack of a true go-to scorer. Their most consistent threat on that end of the court has been David West, yet West is averaging just under 13 points per game. Offseason acquisitions Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Miles were expected to help fill the scoring void left by George but have been inconsistent thus far.

Looking ahead, 36 of the Pacers remaining 50 games will come against Eastern Conference opponents, which should offer a glimmer of hope. Their longest remaining road trip is a five game set that will come at the end of January from the 17-25. Although they won’t have to make any more multi-game trips West after January 7 when they return from Golden State. Of the teams in the hunt for the eighth seed the Pacers have one of the more favorable schedules, but the question remains as to whether they have enough firepower on the offensive end. If they can play at or above .500 against the East they might just have a shot at eight seed depending on how things play out. It may be a long shot but at this point, but they’re still alive.

3.) Charlotte Hornets

Record: 10-22

Games Remaining: 50 (23 Home, 27 Away)

Remaining Opponents: + .500 teams: 22, vs East: 35, vs West: 15

Strength of Schedule: .512

Record Over Last 10 Games: 4-6

Efficiency: Offensive 98.8, Defensive 104, Net -5.2

Expectations were high at the start of the season for the Hornets. The addition of Lance Stephenson to a team that was coming off a playoff berth gave fans reason to believe they were on the road to contending. Unfortunately, things have not played out nearly as well as Hornets’ backers hoped. Stephenson hasn’t been a good fit and point guard Kemba Walker has been unable to find his shooting stroke. Both players were expected to be major contributors in the Hornets’ bid for a back-to-back playoff appearances. Thus far Stephenson is shooting only 38.6 percent from the field and Walker has not been much better at 39.6 percent. Inefficient play for the backcourt has hampered their offensive attack all season and is a major reason for their lack of wins. That is something they will have to improve on going forward if they hope to catch Miami.

Also concerning for the Hornets, is their inability to compete with opponents above .5oo. Thus far this season they have played 18 games against teams with a winning record and have only been able to win four. With 22 games against above .500 opponents looming they will have to find a way to win higher percentage of those contests.

While the chances of Hornets making the playoffs are this slim, there is still plenty season left. They’re only four games behind current eighth seed holder Miami and with the talent they have, they may be able to make push to finish the season. Twenty eight of their remaining games will come against teams under .500, which should help them close the gap. The Hornets appeared poised to go on nice winning streak after notching four straight W’s prior to Christmas, only to follow that with a three game losing streak. They’ll have to find a way to be more consistent if they want to make run at a playoff berth. One stretch they can look forward to is a four game home set from January 14-21, concluding with a game against the HEAT. They’re in survival mode with Al Jefferson out for the next four weeks due to a groin injury. The best case scenario for them now is simply to still be alive until he comes back.

2) Orlando Magic (13-22) – Games Remaining: 47 (27 Home, 20 Away)

Record: 13-22

Games Remaining: 47  (27 Home, 20 Away)

Remaining Opponents: +.500 teams: 20, vs East: 27, vs West: 20

Strength of Schedule: .489

Record Over Last 10 Games: 4-6

Efficiency: Offensive 99.2, Defensive 104.5, Net -5.3

Going into the season it seemed highly unlikely that the young Magic would have a shot a playoff berth. However, with the way things are shaping up in the lower half of the conference that doesn’t seem nearly as unlikely anymore. They are currently just 2 1/2 behind the HEAT, despite having only 13 wins. Versatile forward Tobias Harris is having a break-out season, averaging 18.5 points, seven rebounds and shooting 47.6 percent from the field. The Magic have been getting significant contributions from Nikola Vucevic and Victor Oladipo as well. Vucevic is one of the more productive young bigs in the league with his ability not only rebound at a high rate, but score the ball as well. Rookie point guard Elfrid Payton looks to have a bright future and is already making an impact. He will have to improve his jump shot, but has already proven to be a serviceable defender.

Their first major obstacle will come in just over a week. They have a four-game road trip starting January 7 in Denver, followed by games against the Lakers, Trail Blazers and Bulls. It doesn’t get any easier when they return home on January 14 as the face the Rockets, then take on the Grizzlies and Thunder respectively. If they can come out of that stretch with three wins, they should be very happy.

If the Magic can make it through that tough stretch in January the rest of their schedule is very manageable. They will play the vast majority of their remaining games at home. However, the Magic have been better on the road (9-12), then when playing at home (4-10). If they have any hope of competing for the final playoff spot that is something they must address as they still have 27 home games remaining. One thing that has surprised about the Magic is how good they have been in close games. Usually young teams struggle to finish tight contests, but the Magic have thrived, going 5-2 in games decided by three points or less. They have a winning record (10-7) against teams under .500 and with 27 remaining games against teams with a losing record that is one thing they can be optimistic about.

Miami (14-18) – Games Remaining: 50 (23 Home, 27 Away)

Record: 14-18

Games Remaining: 50 ( 23 Home, 27 Away)

Remaining Opponents: +.500 21, vs East: 31, vs West: 19

Strength of Schedule: .503

Record Over Last 10 Games: 4-6

Efficiency: Offensive 103.6, Defensive 106.5, Net -2.9

As expected the loss of LeBron James has really taken its toll on the HEAT. Even with Dwyane Wade having a very solid year and the addition of former All-Star Luol Deng, the HEAT are four games under .500. December in particular has been tough on the Heat as they have won just five of their 16 games played this month. They will have to snap out of this funk quickly before giving up too much ground.

They have relied heavily on Chris Bosh down low, as he is their only legitimate low post threat. Bosh is leading the team in minutes played, logging just over 35 per night. He has been very productive in those minutes, leading the team in rebounding and ranking second in scoring, but you have wonder if he will start to wear down later in the season. He’s already missed some extended time this year. Losing Josh McRoberts has really hurt their frontcourt depth. It will be on Bosh and Wade to do much of the heavy lifting for the remainder of the season to as the HEAT look to hold onto to the eighth seed.

Like the Magic, another issue for the HEAT has been than their their inability to win at home. In 18 home games thus the far the Heat are only 6-12. Surprisingly they have actually been much better on the road, going 8-6. They have to be happy with the way they are playing away from home, but need to do a much better job protecting their homecourt. The HEAT have two four-game road trips and one five game road-trip remaining, spread over the next three months, with the five gamer coming in the middle of January where they will take on the Trail Blazers, Clippers, Lakers, Warriors and Kings. Both the Magic and HEAT face significant tests in the next few weeks; whoever fares best will likely have a leg up on the eighth seed race.

The first 32 games of season for the HEAT included 17 against above .500 opponents and they were only able to salvage five wins in those games. Although, when you compare that to the teams above them in the standings, it doesn’t look so bad. The Bucks are only 4-11 against +.500 teams, and the Nets just 2-11 against +.500 teams. When they have played teams under .500 the HEAT have done well, going 9-6 in those contests. With 29 of their remaining 50 games against opponents under .500, if the HEAT can continue to take care of business against those teams holding onto the eight seed becomes much less of a challenge.

The race for the last spot in the East will almost certainly be a tight one. As of today the HEAT are the favorites to land the eight seed, but a lot could change between now and the end of the season. While the Heat may hold a slight lead over the rest of the pack they have done little to prove that they will run away from their competition, leaving the door wide open for a team like the Hornets, Pacers or Magic to sneak in. It will be interesting see which teams step up during the more difficult parts of their schedule and which teams fold when faced with a little adversity.

This is John's second year with Basketball Insiders, after spending last season working as an intern. Based out of Milwaukee, he covers the NBA with a focus on the Milwaukee Bucks and the Central Division.

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NBA Daily: Wiggins The X-Factor for Warriors

Stephen Curry will always be the face of the Golden State Warriors, and for good reason. Draymond Green spearheads their defensive attack but the key to their postseason fate lies in the hands of a guy that many people had already given up on.

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The 2020-21 regular season was a strange one for many reasons, but especially for the Golden State Warriors. Shortly before the NBA Draft, the team’s championship aspirations took a major hit with the injury to Klay Thompson. The best backcourt in the league would not be on full display this season, but they still had two-time MVP, Stephen Curry, to put on a show.

Curry did just that, dazzling basketball fans on a near-nightly basis. The sensational shots, ridiculous plays and high-drama situations were must-see TV that kept the Warriors in the national spotlight. To that end, Curry captured the scoring title for the second time in his career, averaging 32.0 points per game this season.

With limited options available to fill Thompson’s void, the team managed to add Kelly Oubre Jr to the roster, although it came at a steep cost. His salary is $14.4 million this season but because of Golden State’s luxury tax bill, ESPN’s Bobby Marks noted that adding Oubre would cost an additional $82.4 million, bringing their total to $134 million.

After a career year in Phoenix, Oubre struggled mightily trying to fit in with this group. Sometimes players in new situations can try to do too much at first, or sometimes pass on open shots in order to not seem selfish. Neither of these was the case for Oubre, who simply could not put the ball in the basket. His early-season shooting struggles had the Warriors pegged for the Draft Lottery.

Oubre eventually turned it around and began playing like himself. Another new face in the Bay area was rookie James Wiseman. He too struggled at the beginning of the season, which is to be expected for someone in his situation. The seven-footer from Memphis only played a handful of games in college and was trying to learn the NBA game on the fly. A season-ending injury cut short his rookie season, but he showed promise for the future.

The future is not something that Curry has on his mind. He and Draymond Green are playing to win now. That starts on Wednesday with their highly-anticipated showdown with LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers. The league has quite the matchup to cap the new Play-In-Tournament.

Amid all of the highlight plays from Curry and all of the noise surrounding Green, one player sits in the shadows and is rarely mentioned. Andrew Wiggins was all the rage when he was selected number one overall in the 2014 NBA Draft. The former Kansas Jayhawk earned Rookie of the Year honors but ultimately struggled to find his place in Minneapolis.

After more than five seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Wiggins was traded to the Warriors in February of last season. Now having played a full season in a Warriors uniform, Wiggins could be their x-factor in the postseason.

One of the knocks on Wiggins has always been his drive, and his passion to reach his full potential. He has all of the physical tools and attributes to be one of the most prolific two-way players in the league. Sometimes the effort just isn’t there, but that narrative seems to have gone out the window. Wiggins has been playing excellent on both ends of the floor, which has translated to wins for the depleted Warriors.

While many people point to his scoring slightly declining, he still scored 19 points per game despite playing the fewest minutes of his career. He finished inside the top 40 in scoring this season. The real story for Wiggins is his efficiency, which has been incredible. He shot a career-high 48 percent from the floor this season and a career-best 38 percent from three-point range. His 54 percent effective field goal percentage is also the highest of his career.

As they prepare to battle the Lakers for the 7th seed in the Western Conference, Golden State must find ways to get stops on the defensive end. Stopping the likes of James, Davis and Dennis Schroder on the perimeter will be paramount to their success. It is easier said than done, but this is where Wiggins’ value can be felt. The Toronto native will be called upon to match up against James often, with Green defending their big men.

Wiggins finished fourth in Defensive RPM (2.72) this season at his position, 21st among all players in the league. That is by far the best of his career, as he ranked 85th last season among small forwards. He also finished inside the top five in the league in terms of contested three-point shots. That is important for the Warriors going forward, should they face the Phoenix Suns or Utah Jazz in the first round. Utah was the top three-point shooting team in the league and Phoenix was seventh-best in terms of percentage.

As if facing James and Davis weren’t difficult enough, the Warriors will have their hands full no matter which opponent they face next. Both have dynamic backcourts with Mike Conley/Donovan Mitchell in Utah and Chris Paul/Devin Booker in Phoenix. Wiggins will be tasked with trying to slow them down as well. There is elite talent everywhere you look out West.

Golden State finished the regular season with a 110.1 defensive rating, which was top five in the league. They managed to do that despite having a depleted roster and having the third-highest pace (102.2) in the league. Much of the credit will go to Green and Oubre but Wiggins has been a major factor in their defensive schemes.

Curry and Green have combined to play in 235 playoff games during their careers. Wiggins has only appeared in five playoff games, so this will be a new experience for him. The pressure always goes up in the postseason, and the Play-In Tournament is no exception.

Shortly after acquiring Wiggins, Steve Kerr put All-Defense expectations on him. “Defensively, we will ask him to take on the challenge of what that position entails. Guarding some of the best players in the league and adapting to our schemes and terminology.” To his credit, Wiggins has done just that.

Wiggins will not win the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award this season. He isn’t going to win the Defensive Player of the Year either. While those accolades matter to a lot of players, Wiggins is just focused on improving and winning games. The Warriors hope to do the same as they return to postseason play.

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NBA Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension

Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. is averaging over 25 points per game and looks like a future All-NBA player. Bobby Krivitsky examines Porter’s ascent and the questions that come with it.

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Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. has taken his game to new heights.

In the wake of Murray’s ACL tear in mid-April, Porter’s playing time has gone from 30.6 minutes per contest to 35.7, while his shots per game have risen from 12.6 per game to 16.5. The increased responsibility has fueled his ascent. He’s knocking down 56.3 percent of those attempts. He’s taking 8.2 threes per game and making a blistering 50 percent of them. As a result, Porter’s gone from averaging 17.5 points per game to 25.1. He’s also grabbing 6.1 rebounds and blocking almost one shot per contest.

At the time of Murray’s injury, the Denver Nuggets were in fourth place in the Western Conference. They remain there now, 9-4 in his absence, and they boast the eighth-highest net rating in the NBA.

The only way for the Nuggets to fall from fourth would be if they lost their four remaining games and the Dallas Mavericks won their final five contests because the Mavericks have the tiebreaker since they won the season series. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, Denver sits just 1.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers, who occupy the third seed in the West. The Nuggets won their season series against the Clippers, meaning they’d finish in third if the two teams ended the regular season with the same record.

There’s a bevy of questions surrounding Porter’s recent play that need to be asked but cannot get answered at the moment. That starts with whether this is anything more than a hot streak. While it’s impossible to say definitively, it’s reasonable to believe Porter can consistently and efficiently produce about 25 points per game. He was the second-ranked high school prospect in 2017 and entered his freshman year at Missouri firmly in the mix for the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft. That was thanks in large part to his offensive prowess as a 6-10 wing with a smooth shot that’s nearly impossible to block because of the elevation he gets when he shoots. 

A back injury cost him all but 53 minutes of his collegiate career and caused him to fall to the 14th pick in the draft. He ended up in an ideal landing spot, going to a well-run organization that’s also well aware of its barren track record luring star players looking to change teams, making it vital for the Nuggets to hit on their draft picks. 

Porter’s first year in the NBA was exclusively dedicated to the rehab process and doing everything possible to ensure he can have a long, healthy and productive career. Last season, finally getting a chance to play, he showed off the tantalizing talent that made him a top prospect but only took seven shots per game while trying to fit in alongside Nikola Jokic, Murray, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant.

More experience, including battling against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, an offseason, albeit a truncated one, to prepare for a more substantial role with Grant joining the Detroit Pistons and Millsap turning 36 this year, helped propel Porter. 

But for the Nuggets, before Murray’s injury, the perception was that even though they weren’t the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, they were a legitimate title contender. How far can they go if Porter’s consistently contributing about 25 points and over six rebounds per game while effectively playing the role of a second star alongside Jokic? 

It seems fair to cross Denver off the list of title contenders. But, if Porter continues to capably play the role of a second star alongside Jokic when doing so becomes more challenging in the postseason, the Nuggets can advance past a team like the Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers. And at a minimum, they’d have the ability to make life difficult for whoever they had to face in the second round of the playoffs.

Unfortunately, the timing of Murray’s ACL tear, which happened in mid-April, means there’s a legitimate possibility he misses all of next season. Denver’s increased reliance on Porter is already allowing a young player with All-NBA potential to take on a role that’s closer to the one he’s assumed his whole life before making it to the sport’s highest level. If the Nuggets are counting on him to be the second-best player on a highly competitive team in the Western Conference next season, it’ll be fascinating to see what heights he reaches and how far they’re able to go as a team.

Theoretically, Porter’s growth could make it difficult for Denver to reacclimate Murray. But given Jokic’s unselfish style of play, there’s room for both of them to be satisfied by the volume of shots they’re getting. Unfortunately, the Nuggets have to wait, potentially another season, but Jokic is 26-years-old, Murray 24, Porter 22. When Denver has their Big Three back together, they could be far more potent while still being able to enjoy a lengthy run as legitimate title contenders.

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NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track

D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.

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D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.

The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.

Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.

Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.

The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.

COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.

The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.

Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).

Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?

Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.

Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.

Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.

On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.

Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).

But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.

At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.

And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.

To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.

So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.

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