It’s become fashionable among many Los Angeles Lakers fans to criticize point guard D’Angelo Russell. Many are predicting- some with absolute certainty as if it’s written in stone- that he will be traded at midseason.
But is that a fair or accurate assumption? Let’s examine the real facts before we draw any definite conclusions.
How did Russell perform with the Lakers last season?
After returning to the team that drafted him back in 2015, D Lo played 39 minutes a game in 17 regular season contests. He averaged 17.4 points and 6.1 assists per game, roughly his career average in both categories. He shot 48.4% overall and 41.4% from behind the arc, both career highs. His three-point percentage was #1 on the team for any player attempting at least 100 shots. Oddly enough, he shot a career-worst 73.5% from the free-throw line.
Let’s say the percentages were somewhat skewered because he only played 17 games. His career stats of 36% from long distance and 79% on foul shots would still be among the Lakers leaders. Russell played particularly well in the 9 games he played that LeBron James missed due to injury.
What about the playoffs?
In the first round vs Memphis, Russell was a strong positive force for the Lakers. He averaged 16.7 points and 5.8 assists in 31 minutes of action while shooting 37.2% from deep.
Against Golden State in round 2, the numbers dropped a bit to 14.7 and 4.2, and 31% on three’s, not great but not terrible.
It was in the Western Conference Finals against Denver where D Lo’s game totally fell apart. His numbers were pathetic: 6.3 points and 3.5 assists while hitting only 2 of 15 beyond the arc, 13.3%. And his defense was equally horrific.
The anti-Russell forces built up and reached a crescendo over those 4 games. Sentiment against him cascaded. And many didn’t want the team to re-sign him.
So why did the Lakers re-sign D’Angelo Russell?
Many factors weighed into their decision. One of the biggest was financial. Because the Lakers held Russell’s Bird rights, they were allowed to pay him market value to bring him back even though they were over the salary cap. And their cap position meant they could not bring in a comparable external free agent.
The situation was different with the Lakers other point guards from last season, Dennis Schroder. They had signed him for the veteran’s minimum for 2022-23 and did not have his Bird rights. By NBA rule, the Lakers were allowed to offer him only a token raise or use the $5 million midlevel exception. He ultimately signed with Toronto for a contract more than double what the Lakers could have offered.
Still, even without the monetary concerns, the Lakers like Russell’s overall game and his fit with other players, warts and all. Last season he earned a colossal $30 million, but he signed with the team this year for $17.3 million with a player option for $18.7 million next season. When it became known that his new contract does not include a no-trade clause, external chatter about trading him as soon as practical amped up.
But is that really what the Lakers plan to do? Let’s take a closer look at his game, the plusses and the minuses.
D’Angelo Russell’s strengths
Despite his poor performance against Denver, Russell remains one of the NBA’s better three-point marksmen, especially when you factor in shot quantity and longevity and exclude low-volume shooters and one (or even two)-year wonders.
Over the past three seasons, DAR has shot 37.2% on 7.4 shots per game. The top tier during that timeframe would include guys like Steph Curry, Damian Lillard, Paul George and Duncan Robinson.
By any objective measure Russell would rank in the second tier. A Lakers team that wants to pound the ball inside to Anthony Davis and LeBron needs at least one player, preferably two, that can bury the open 3, and it isn’t easy to find anyone more effective than D Lo.
Russell is also adept at using his size and strength to drive to the hoop, where he finishes well. He is a fine passer, especially off the dribble, where he is proficient at lobbing the ball to AD and others and also at finding open shooters.
DAR is an excellent teammate, good for team chemistry. He never complained when he was benched for long stretches against Denver, instead leading cheers for his team. He has also developed a strong rapport with emerging star Austin Reaves.
D’Angelo Russell’s weaknesses
Because D Lo is not a great athlete by NBA standards, he is at best an average man defender. Of course, the same was often accurately noted about the player generally regarded as the best point guard in history, who also happened to be the executive that traded Russell away from the Lakers, Magic Johnson.
That doesn’t mean that Russell is anywhere near as good as Magic was (he isn’t, even though he is a much better shooter). But the point is that a championship team doesn’t require lock-down defenders throughout its lineup, even at point guard.
Probably Russell’s other biggest weakness is his inconsistency from game to game. Generally speaking, outside shooters are notoriously streaky and D’Angelo fits that mold. With the Lakers last season he had games shooting 3-11 and 0-6 from the three-point line followed back-to-back with 4-8 and 3-6. He also had games of 6-11, 5-8 and 6-9 and several stinkers in the area of 2-8 and 1-5.
Consistency is one of the biggest components that separate top NBA all-stars like Curry and Lillard from others. But the Lakers are not relying on Russell to be their #1 guy. Instead, the plan is for him to be #3 or 4 in the pecking order with occasional big scoring bursts. And that’s a role D Lo can more than adequately fill even with his inconsistent shooting.
Will D’Angelo Russell be the Lakers starting point guard this season?
Fans have speculated this off-season about a competition in training camp between Russell and new Laker Gabe Vincent, who the team signed to a three-year, $33 million contract, for the starting point guard position. But don’t count on that happening.
Rightfully so, the job is Russell’s, for several reasons. First of all, there’s the matter of experience. D’Angelo is accustomed to being the starter, having started 431 of his 495 regular-season NBA games, including all of his games the past two years. Also, he made solid connections last season with guys like AD, Reaves and Rui Hachimura.
Vincent has started just 68 of his 195 NBA games. With Miami, he was brought off the bench most of the time until Tyler Herro was injured. He is now beginning from scratch with his new Lakers teammates.
As pointed out, Russell was horrible against Denver, but played much better earlier in the playoffs. Vincent also had an uneven postseason run. He was outstanding against Boston (51.6% from beyond the arc) and Milwaukee (42.4%) but not nearly as effective against New York (26.8%) or Denver (33.3%). Overall he averaged 12.7 points in the playoffs, up from his 9.4 regular season performance, when he shot 33.4% from deep.
Vincent is a quality NBA player who hasn’t yet proven that he’s truly starter material. Raise your hand if you ever heard of Gabe Vincent before this year’s playoffs. Put your hand down if you went to UC Santa Barbara. Not too many hands are still up in the air.
The two PGs should do well sharing the position this season. Both can play off the ball as needed, and both are fine catch-and-shoot guys. Vincent is probably a slightly better defender but he’s not regarded as top-notch either.
Russell deserves to be and almost certainly will be the Lakers starting point guard.
Will D’Angelo Russell be the Lakers’ finishing point guard?
Last season Lakers Coach Darvin Ham demonstrated that he’s not tied to one specific finishing unit. Instead, he goes with the hot hand(s).
It’s a given that Davis and James will be finishing every close game barring injury or fouling out. But the other three spots will depend on matchups, the need for offense or defense, and who is playing well in that game.
One of the advantages of this year’s Lakers squad is its depth. They now have 9 players who averaged at least 9 points per game last season plus a second-year player, Max Christie, who shot 42% from deep on 62 attempts as a rookie last season and now looks ready to step into a rotational role.
There are also two other players, Jarred Vanderbilt and Jaxson Hayes, who excel on the defensive side. All of this means that Ham can pick and choose from an abundance of weapons in each game.
When his shot is falling, D’Lo will be the finisher in games. When it’s not, he’ll likely watch from the bench. He’s made big shots at the end of games in both at Ohio State and in the NBA. If opposing defenses leave him open, more often than not he’ll make them pay. And if they guard him closely, he has shown that he’ll find the open man.
What can realistically be expected of Russell this season?
D’Angelo Russell is nobody’s fool. He knows better than anyone that he was awful against Denver. He knows his performance hurt the team’s chances to win and also impacted his own market value, leading to his acceptance of a whopping 42% salary cut of nearly $13 million.
Russell also has a burning competitive drive. That alone won’t improve his athleticism or reduce his shooting streakiness. But chances are better than not that he worked hard in the offseason and will bounce back strongly to have an excellent NBA season.
Is there a chance the Lakers will trade him at midseason? Of course, there is, that’s the nature of professional sports. The Lakers are expected to be a top NBA team this season. If they fail to live up to expectations and believe a change is necessary, or if D Lo himself under-performs, his expiring contract could be an attractive trade chip.
But if the Lakers are winning games at a respectable clip, and if Russell has just a typical season (averaging 15-18 points and 5-7 assists while shooting 36-40% from deep), you can bet he will remain in purple and gold throughout the season.
What about the following season?
It’s never easy to project forward. From the Lakers’ viewpoint, much will depend on whether LeBron stays with the Lakers or moves on elsewhere, whether that means playing with his son or bidding goodbye to the NBA.
From D’Lo’s perspective, there’s a pretty good chance he won’t exercise his player option, instead re-entering the open market, where he stands to get a healthy raise. And since the Lakers will still have Russell’s Bird rights, it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising if he signs a longer-term deal to stay with the team that drafted him.
Regardless of what happens a year from now, D’Angelo Russell is poised to return as the Lakers starting point guard and will shine, better than ever, in the role.