On D’Angelo Russell…

Darius Soriano —  January 29, 2016 — 21 Comments

I have many thoughts about D’Angelo Russell. Most of them good, some of them concerning, all of them pitted against the backdrop of his age, the direction the league is headed, and his current position on this specific version of the Lakers.

That’s a mouthful, I know.

In a shade under 4 weeks, Russell will turn 20 years old. In NBA years, he is a baby. And while he possesses a polished game, it sometimes only takes a light wipe to pull away some of that veneer and see all that he currently is not. And when playing for an organization that is not used to the types of lows currently experienced and in an era of instant gratification/reward seeking, the breaking down of what Russell isn’t has become a favorite pastime for some.

I am not completely exempt from this. I look at Russell and have concerns. He has a laid back demeanor that can, visually, influence how hard I think he’s playing — especially defensively. There are some bad habits I see nightly. Not running back hard on defense. Not defending with assertiveness. Relaxed hands when guarding on the ball. Lack of effort to fight on the glass when switching in the P&R. Not enough…well, effort. I see it.

Then I reflect. These are flaws, but they seem to be habits that can be broken. I watch guards who came into the league young and see where they are now and understand that the things I don’t like now are things which can be learned and executed as a career advances. I remember that he’s not yet even 20 and I know through good teaching and a want to be better, improvement comes over time. That doesn’t just apply to basketball.

I also see all the good in this kid’s game. All that skill. The ball handling — which could be tighter, but is still excellent. The shot making and pure stroke. The feel for passing and how defenses move. The ability to not only see the pass, but execute it on time and on target. The desire to lead. The recognition of the moment and the visual uptick in wanting to do more in games that are tight, late. And then I remember that he’s not yet even 20 and that through good teaching and a want to be better, improvement comes over time. And that, in this case, it does apply to basketball.

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Records: Lakers 9-38, Last in the West; 25-19, 4th in the East
Offensive ratings: Lakers 97.1, 29th in NBA; Bulls 100.7, 26th in the NBA
Defensive ratings: Lakers 108.3, Last in the NBA; Bulls 100.3, 8th in the NBA
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Clarkson, Williams, Kobe, Randle, Hibbert
Bulls: Rose, Butler, Tony Snell, Taj Gibson, Pau

The Lakers Coming in: The Lakers have lost 7 games in a row, tied for their longest losing streak of the season. Their recent games have offered some glimmers of hope for a win, but the team has either not been able to close (Dallas) or been outclassed by much superior opponents in the 4th quarter (San Antonio). These aren’t new themes, but for a team which consistently finds ways to drop games, it is impressive in its own sad and frustration inducing ways.

Beyond the losses, I don’t have much to say about this team. Recent news is that Jordan Clarkson and D’Angelo Russell were chosen to play in the Rising Stars game on All-Star weekend while teammate Julius Randle was not. I actually think Randle was deserving, but the format of the game — USA vs. the World — and the fact that two players who will play internationally for other countries (Karl Anthony-Towns plays for the Dominican Republic and Jordan Clarkson will likely play for the Philippines this summer) are on the USA team means deserving American players didn’t make the cut. Randle is one such guy.

I’d get upset about this — and I’m sure Randle sees this as another reason to play with a chip on his shoulder — but with the longer All-Star break and the game being in Toronto, I might just enjoy a vacation on the beach rather than trudging around in freezing temperatures. I get that Randle is a young player who would (probably) appreciate the recognition, but some time off the refresh never hurt anybody. Or maybe I’m just old.

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The Lakers are back in business tonight, facing off against the Mavericks for the final time of the season. This, of course, means this will be the last time Kobe Bryant faces off against Dirk Nowitzki in an NBA Basketball game. Actually, unless they meet up at the local Y, it will be the last time they face off ever since Kobe has pulled his name out of contention for the 2016 Olympic Team and Dirk has retired from the German National team.

Tonight, then, really should be a bit of a celebration. Well, at least for me it will be. Dirk has always been one of my favorite players. Recently, Kevin Durant called Kristaps Porzingis a “unicorn” because of his varied skill set at a guy his size. Dirk, though, was the original unicorn — a 7-footer with unlimited range on his jumper — and the player who paved the way for players like Porzingis to make it to the NBA and be drafted as high as he was.

So Dirk, like Kobe, is somewhat of a pioneer. The fact that this will be the last time they play means something to me and I’ll try to reflect on that and appreciate the moment while it’s happening.

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Happy Monday, everybody. Here are some of the best Lakers-centric reads from around the web:

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The Lakers lost their 6th straight game and second in two nights on Saturday, falling to the Blazers 121-103 in Portland. While there were couple of good individual performances on offense, the team, as a whole, played poorly on both sides of the floor. This isn’t new for a team which ranked 29th and 30th (last) in the league in offensive and defensive efficiency, respectively, heading into the contest.

What was new, however, was that Kobe Bryant took a break from the feel-good vibes of his retirement farewell tour to reportedly voice his displeasure about the loss and the team’s poor defense to his teammates during and after the game. Mark Medina of the LA Daily News has the report:

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I am keeping this short and sweet today since, like the Lakers, I am on the road (and short for time because of my travels). The Lakers visit Portland tonight in a game which will be Kobe’s last game in the Rose Garden (I know it’s the Moda Center now, but I don’t call it that). These “last game in city X” are always a bit tricky to navigate for Kobe and the rest of the team and I expect tonight to be no different.

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Records: Lakers 9-35, Last in the West; Spurs 37-6, 2nd in the West
Offensive ratings: Lakers 96.8, 29th in NBA; Spurs 108.6, 3rd in the NBA
Defensive ratings: Lakers 107.8, Last in the NBA; Spurs 93.3, 1st in the NBA
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Clarkson, Williams, Kobe, Randle, Hibbert
Spurs: Who knows, they could rest everyone or play everyone. Ask Pop pregame and get the side-eye or have him wax poetic on it. It really is that unpredictable.

The Lakers Coming in: The Lakers have lost 4 straight games. On the season, this is the 7th time they have had a streak of 4 or more losses. Considering the Lakers are 9-35, this isn’t super surprising. However, the math also says, then, that of their 35 losses 28 of them have come in these 7 different streaks. That seems like a lot. Or maybe it’s just me.

Anyway, that 3 game winning streak at the turn of the year seems so long ago now. At that time it seemed the Lakers were playing better and trending…if not up, then at least no longer sinking. But look above at those offensive and defensive rankings. The Lakers are 2nd to last and last respectively in those categories. They are, essentially, the worst team in the league. I mean, even the 76ers aren’t bottom 5 in both those categories (they are 21st in OEff)!

In other words, things aren’t good, Bob. But, hey, the Cavs fired David Blatt today. So if you’re the type of fan who rejoices when other teams do things that come off as a bit crazy, this day is for you!

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Following Kobe Bryant’s final season has been a bit surreal. After he announced this season would be his last, he has been showered with cheers, treated to tribute videos from NBA legends, and been as well received as he ever has been. Considering this is a guy who has received “MVP” chants in opposing stadiums over the course of his career, this is saying something.

But time is getting shorter. We are now past the halfway point, the Lakers playing their 44th game on Wednesday and their 45th tonight against the Spurs. There will only be 38 more of these regular season contests (starting tonight) and a few other moments to celebrate it all before it’s over. The finality of that hasn’t yet fully sunk in, but it will. This week, for me at least, that process took another step forward.

It started with the final tally of votes for the All-Star game being released. Kobe maintained his lead as the top vote-getter, outpacing reigning league MVP Steph Curry and the always present LeBron James. Kobe has been named an all-star every season the game has occurred (curse you 1999 lockout!) since 1998. Injuries have kept him out of several contests, but this year I don’t think anything could keep him from stepping on that court one last time.

Second, though, has been the build up to today, January 22nd. Ten years ago today Kobe scored 81 points against the Raptors. It is, for many, his greatest individual performance and the feat by which he will most be remembered. That was the night where it all sort of came together — him being incredibly hot, the Lakers playing poorly enough where his scoring exploits were a needed component for the team to compete, and the Raptors being just bad enough defensively to give him the room to establish his rhythm. It all culminated with him getting to 81.

In the lead-up to today, we have gotten the best glimpse into that night to this point. First was this fantastic oral history of the game put together by ESPN’s Arash Markazi. Arash spoke to many people — broadcasters, front office members, players, and more — who were all there that night and/or involved in some way. There were so many great anecdotes revealed, but one of my favorites was the exchange between Kobe and Brian Shaw from the night Kobe outscored the Mavs 62-61 through three quarters:

A month before playing Toronto, Bryant outscored the Dallas Mavericks by himself through three quarters 62-61 (the Lakers’ lead was 95-61). Bryant played only 33 minutes that night and sat out the entire fourth quarter of the Lakers’ blowout win over the eventual Western Conference champions. When he was asked after the game how many points he would have finished with had he played the fourth quarter, Bryant shrugged his shoulders. “Probably 80,” he said. “I was in a really, really good groove.”

Brian Shaw: After the third quarter, the players were on the bench and the coaches went out and huddled on the court. Phil asked me to go ask Kobe if he wanted to stay in the game and try to get 70 and then come out. So I went up to Kobe and said, “Hey, Coach wants to know if you want to stay in for the first few minutes of the fourth quarter, get 70 and then come out.” He looked up at the scoreboard, and he said, “Nah, I’ll get it another time.” I looked at him and I kind of got mad. I said: “What?! You have a chance to get 70 points. How many people can say they scored 70 points? Just stay in the first few minutes and get another eight points, get 70 and then come out of the game.” He said: “I’ll do it when we really need it. I’ll get it when it really matters.”

Kobe Bryant: Brian was mad. He was like: “Man, are you crazy? You know what you could score tonight?” I just said, “I’ll do it when we really need it.” Brian was like, “What?!” It was something that just rolled off my tongue because I trained extremely hard and the physical tools were there. I just felt like I could have a game like that again.

The concept of “I’ll do it when we really need it” is so outlandish to me, yet, when you listen to Kobe talk about his preparation heading into that season, totally believable and understandable at the same time. Friend of the site @basquiatball recorded a bunch of games from that season and let me borrow the DVD’s (I’ll return them some day, J.D.!) and I have randomly watched multiple games from that season. Kobe really was on a level that is hard to describe. He was simply beyond what defenses what prepared for.

The second tribute I really enjoyed was the five short videos the NBA released about that night:

Looking back at that night combined with this week’s news of Kobe being named a starter in the ASG really has reminded me that we are getting close to the end. Ultimately, this makes me sad, but also gives me pause to remember to appreciate what Kobe has done in his career. The first to approach Wilt’s 100 and closing down his last season, the memories of what he’s accomplished really will live on forever.