D’Angelo Russell returned to the starting lineup in Sunday’s matchup vs. the Cavs and he brought an offensive explosion with him. Russell shot the lights out, scoring a career high 40 points while dueling with Kyrie Irving the entire night. It was quite the sight to watch Russell score almost at will and from all three levels of the floor:
HIGHLIGHTS: D’Angelo Russell sets a new career-high in points with 40, connecting from downtown seven times. pic.twitter.com/halIIWjZYz
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) March 20, 2017
No, the Lakers didn’t win the game. The Cavs turned up their defensive intensity in the 4th quarter, started to hedge hard and trap Russell out of the P&R to block off driving lanes and dissuade his pull up jumper. When Russell moved off the ball to compensate, Iman Shumper denied him all over the floor, basically abandoning his help responsibilities to ensure Russell didn’t beat them. The result was Russell only getting off two shots (he made one) for 3 points.
Considering his hot game, this might be disappointing to some. But, for me, Russell garnered the full attention of the defense and opened up the floor for the rest of his teammates. These are ways you help your team even if you’re not pouring in baskets like he did the rest of the game. At some point, the synergy between how you attack and what those attacks ultimately open up for others needs to be capitalized on by teammates. That didn’t happen last night, but credit the Cavs for a lot of that. Again, they turned up their defense and Kyrie Irving went nova in the final frame to lead his team to a W.
What Russell did, though, shouldn’t be dismissed. With his 40 points scored and the 14 points which came off his 6 assists, Russell had his hands in 54 of the Lakers 120 points on the night. Without him, this game isn’t close, much less a game which the Lakers led through the first 3 periods. Additionally, his lone turnover meant he was not only impacting the game positively offensively through his scoring and assists, but through the absence of turnovers which can often fuel the other team’s attack.
Lastly, Russell starting next to Clarkson and playing “shooting guard”, then having this type of performance seems to have folks going down the familiar path of “Russell is better at shooting guard!” — a recurring theme over his first two seasons. I don’t really agree with this sentiment, but it’s for different different reasons than what might be expected.
Against the Cavs, Russell led the team in usage rate at 29.1% and assist percentage at 22.7. He was the main offensive creator, their best distributor overall – but especially out of the P&R, was the guy most calling out the team’s sets offensively, and brought the ball up probably 6-7 out of every 10 possessions he was on the floor. He was the engine to the team’s offense. Most nights this is his role, even if he’s not shooting as well as he did against the Cavs.
Now, does that make Russell a “point guard”? I don’t know. Because “point guard”, like “center”, carries certain connotations with it that, for some reason, some people have a hard time getting over when evaluating players. When people think of a point guard, they think of Magic Johnson or Zeke or Chris Paul or John Stockton or Steve Nash. They think of guys who dominate the ball, but do so mostly as passers or set-up men. Guys who the “leader”. The guys who “control the tempo”. I can go on and on, but I think you get my point. If the NBA were the movies, “point guards” would be typecast and played by a certain type of dude.
These connotations are mostly outdated, though. In today’s NBA, point guards come in all shapes and sizes and mostly play a style which resembles that of the mid-80’s combo guard who wreaked havoc off the bench as a scorer and driver of the offensive attack. There are some exceptions to this, I know. I already mentioned Paul, but John Wall is another really good example of a guy who, I think, skews more towards “traditional” in how he plays even though he can be a dynamic scorer in his own right.
But if you look around the rest of the league, even guys who put up gaudy assist numbers, play more of a “lead” guard role than a traditional point guard one; a style where they are attack players who are volume scorers more than the types of guys who bring the ball up the floor, call out the team’s sets, and then get them into their offense. Curry, Westbrook, Thomas, Lillard, Kemba, Lowry, and several other above average guys take on a role which can belie the point guard moniker.
Maybe all of this is a distinction without a difference, but I think the main point stands. Russell is going to have the ball in his hands a lot because he does really good work with the ball in his hands. That said, he should also be used off the ball because, you know, he does good things operating that way too! He’s a fine spot up option, can be used coming off screens of all types (pin downs, flares, etc), and can even be used as a screener on and off the ball to free up teammates or himself for good looks.
All of which is to say, it’s often too simple to slap a label on someone and tell them what they are or how they should play. Russell has the type of skill set where such limitations or boxes shouldn’t be part of the discussion. Something which, if you listen to him talk, he is keenly aware of too.