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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

How Lakers’ D’Angelo Russell is playing his way into team’s future, and possibly keeping Trae Young out of it

SportsHow Lakers' D'Angelo Russell is playing his way into team's future, and possibly keeping Trae Young out of it

When the Los Angeles Lakers drafted D’Angelo Russell in 2015, they did so hoping they’d found a long-term solution at point guard. He was traded two years later, and when he returned last February, his presence felt unstable and temporary. 

An up-and-down playoff run led to his benching in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals against Denver. Reports at the time hinted that a new contract was unlikely. When the Lakers did re-sign him last summer, it came with only one guaranteed season. The contract’s structure typically would have allowed Russell the right to veto any trade. He waived that right. So when head coach Darvin Ham benched him in January, it looked like such a trade was inevitable. He was linked to everybody from Dejounte Murray to Bruce Brown. A temporary return was rapidly becoming a hasty exit.

The Lakers fell below .500 on Jan. 11. Ham returned Russell to the starting lineup two days later, and he’s averaged almost 22 points on over 45% shooting from 3-point range ever since. The Lakers are 17-10 in that span when Russell has played. They are 32-23 in games he’s started overall this season compared to 4-8 in games he hasn’t. He hasn’t just been the third-best Laker this season. He’s likely been the best No. 3 option LeBron James and Anthony Davis have ever had in purple and gold.

Still, it’s a relatively small sample size, and his flaws certainly still exist. He can’t defend the ball and he provides minimal rim pressure. His postseason track record is spotty and will be put to the test again next month. But Russell is hardly the problem in Los Angeles right now. Frankly, he’s their best chance at a solution.

The best versions of the James-Davis Lakers have been the ones that have emphasized depth, defense and shooting. The worst have been the ones that have frittered away assets on one-dimensional ball-handling (yes, we’re looking at you, Russell Westbrook). Buzz leading up to and following the deadline suggested that the Lakers planned to veer back in the “let’s add a third pricey ball-handler” direction.

It’s hardly a surprising inclination. Trae Young is a star and the Lakers value stars above common sense. One could even argue that with James approaching his 40th birthday, finding a younger headliner is a necessity for life after LeBron. But nothing that has happened to the Lakers since 2018 suggests that spending three first-round picks on another high-usage guard that doesn’t shoot especially well from 3-point range would be a good idea. Russell might be the only player on the team that can save this front office from itself.

If Russell maintains this level of play for the rest of the season, letting him walk only to spend three first-round picks and precious depth and matching salary on a marginal upgrade like Young would be organizational malpractice. Keeping Russell, particularly if this is the player he can be under the right circumstances, would allow the Lakers flexibility to build a team closer to the ones that genuinely contended earlier in the James-Davis era.

So now that Russell’s stay in Los Angeles is looking increasingly permanent, we’re going to have to rethink this team’s entire approach to rebuilding the roster in the offseason. So what does the Lakers’ future look like with Russell in it? Let’s try to figure it out.

Russell’s contract

Russell is getting paid at the low-end of the starting point guard market right now—24th, according to Spotrac. He won’t approach that max contract he got as a 2019 free agent. Market conditions just won’t allow for that, as no obvious suitor for Russell exists. But a long-term Lakers contract should at least take him to the middle of the starting point guard market, if not slightly higher.

A comparable number here might be the contract Terry Rozier started last season. His $21.5 million salary in the first year accounted for 17.38% of the cap. If we use that as a baseline and adjust for next season’s projected $141 million cap, we get a starting salary of $24.5 million. Throw in maximum raises and you’re looking at a total contract value in the $110 million range over four years or closer to $80 million over three.

That figure could rise or drop depending on how the rest of the season goes, but Rozier is an effective point of comparison. They aren’t especially stylistically similar, but the end results are similar. They are high-volume 3-point shooting point guards that can pass, but aren’t being asked to be primary playmakers. Neither gets to the rim often, and both have defensive flaws that leave their virtues under appreciated. Neither should run an offense fully, though both can wonderfully support a better star who does.

What it means for the current team

The Lakers have made the Russell-Austin Reaves fit work out of necessity this season. Unfortunately, it’s not sustainable for the long haul. When they share the floor this season, the Lakers are allowing over 120 points per 100 possessions, putting them in the 18th percentile among all lineups, according to Cleaning the Glass. They are essentially the same player defensively. They both communicate and know where to be. Neither can stay in front of anyone. Jarred Vanderbilt took care of that when he was healthy. Rui Hachimura has played too well to surrender a starting spot when Vanderbilt returns.

Reaves is overqualified for a bench role. That’s not the worst problem to have. Bring him off of the bench and he’d get to handle the ball more. As much as his 3-point shot has improved, he’s more valuable when he has a bit more room to create. He’s not drawing fouls nearly as often this season. His assist numbers are around where they were at the end of last season. He has a level to climb here. He’s a natural point guard. He doesn’t get to show it sharing so many minutes with another point guard and LeBron. In the grand scheme of things, moving Reaves to the bench would look more like a rotational shuffle than a demotion. He’s too good to stay off the floor for long.

Ham’s future has less to do with Russell, but Dave McMenamin’s profile for ESPN didn’t exactly paint a rosy picture. Specifically, Russell pointed to Ham’s seeming favoritism of Dennis Schroder last season as a problem with his own fit. “His relationship with Darvin is the reason I couldn’t have a relationship with Darvin,” Russell told McMenamin. 

Ham’s developed a bit of a reputation for overusing players he knew outside of Los Angeles to the detriment of the team. The Lakers are 14-3 when Taurean Prince plays less than half of the game, for instance, but Ham leaned on Prince months after it became clear he needed a smaller role.

Russell’s relationship with Ham has seemingly improved, and midseason rumblings about his job security seemingly fizzled. But the Lakers are a No. 9 seed despite miraculously healthy seasons out of James and Davis. Ham’s slow adjustments have cost the Lakers plenty of winnable games. Here’s a fun fact: 20% of Dante Exum‘s 3-pointers this season came in a single game against the Lakers because Ham refused to guard him. That Vanderbilt-Reaves-Russell trio that started down the stretch with James and Davis last season barely shared the floor this year. It took everyone else failing for Hachimura to finally get a chance to start.

A coaching change still seems unlikely. No front office wants to explain to ownership why it deserves to hire a fourth coach, after all. But the Lakers are more talented than their record suggests. Does that mean they should be competing for a top seed? Not necessarily. But they likely won’t have the margin for error that this year’s team had next season simply because James and Davis probably won’t be this healthy again. If Ham’s already underwhelming record is a function of unsustainably positive health, at least where the stars are concerned, that doesn’t paint a great picture of his performance as a second-year coach.

What it means for offseason player acquisition

Young is a better player than Russell in a vacuum. How much better is he than Russell for a Lakers team built to devote a significant number of possession to James, Reaves and Davis already? Keep all of this in mind:

  • Russell has made 105 catch-and-shoot 3’s this season. Young has made 111 in the last three seasons combined. Young has gravity by virtue of his reputation, but he’s a less valuable off-ball player than Russell.
  • Lineups featuring Russell and Davis but no James are already scoring in the 75th percentile among all lineups this season, so you’re unlikely to see a significant bench bump by slotting Young into Russell’s place when James rests.
  • Russell can be re-signed with Bird Rights. The Lakers would have to match salary to trade for Young, and the new CBA is going to make that harder. If the Lakers plan to operate above the first apron next season, which looks likely given their current commitments, they’d have to send out a bit more than $39 million to match Young’s $43 million cap figure. Vanderbilt’s $10.7 million and Gabe Vincent‘s $11 million would almost certainly be included, but more distressingly, either Austin Reaves ($13 million) or Rui Hachimura ($17 million) would almost have to be included to make the numbers work.
  • Russell would cost no first-round picks to retain. Young would likely cost all three of the picks available to the Lakers.

The argument in favor of a Young pursuit over Russell is two-fold. The first is that James not only wants to function in more of an off-ball role, but is proving this season that he’s suited for one. He’s shooting over 45% on catch-and-shoot 3’s, has done quite a bit of good screening work over the past several years and has always been an elite cutter. This is a reasonable point with James turning 40 next season. The counter is that James has never willingly ceded much of his offenses. Finding a middle ground would take time.

The second point is that acquiring a Young-type player would have less to do with what happens when James is a Laker and more to do with what the Lakers look like after he’s gone. Young creates a higher-floor than Russell does. This is where his high-usage style becomes more valuable. In theory, he could be the next face of the Lakers. Russell couldn’t be. If finding that player is the priority, Russell loses out to basically any All-Star.

But consider next year’s team in a vacuum. Would you rather have Russell, who would almost certainly walk as a free agent if Young came, along with those depth pieces and three first-round picks? Or Young and the cavalcade of minimum-salaries the Lakers lived through after the Westbrook trade? Door No. 1 appears far more appealing, especially when you consider what the Lakers could do with those picks if they widen their scope beyond stars.

James and Davis are literally the only two players on the Laker roster to have a positive offensive EPM and defensive EPM. The same is true using Bball-Index’s LEBRON as the base metric. The Lakers don’t have a single reliable two-way role player on this roster. You can get those players with three first-round picks at your disposal. We’ve covered a possible Reaves move to the bench. He and Russell would both benefit from a true defensive stopper in the backcourt.

And then there’s increasingly dire need for a true center to pair with Davis, at least on occasion. Though the numbers suggest Davis is more effective as the lone big man on the floor, certain matchups—Domantas Sabonis and Nikola Jokic come to mind—have proven unsolvable for Davis alone. The Lakers have tried to find viable solutions using minimum contracts. They’ve found that 2020 Dwight Howards don’t grow on trees. This is an area in which the Lakers might need to direct real resources.

Russell’s renaissance is making these problems solvable. The longer he keeps this up, the less inclined the Lakers should feel to add a star for a star’s sake. Right now, point guard is the last of this team’s worries, and with a critical offseason coming, there is real space to fix the rest of the roster for the first time since the Westbrook trade broke it.

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