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.
I get this a lot. Russell is a LEAD guard more than a POINT guard. Can work well on or off the ball. He's had the ball a ton to start today. https://t.co/DpD775HtOc
— Darius Soriano (@forumbluegold) March 20, 2017
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.
D'Angelo Russell (40 pts): "Whatever position they have me on the court — I'm a basketball player, not a point guard or a shooting guard."
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) March 20, 2017
Clay Bertrand says
Nice assessment Darius. We all carry with us our OLD SCHOOL mentalities when evaluating these guys even though we all know that the NBA game has evolved. Hard to shake that CONFIRMATION BIAS when we have had the position of PG defined so rigidly for us by history.
“LEAD GUARD” is a nice accurate term for Russell. He seems to me most engaged in the game with the ball in his hands and a fairly high usage rate.
This game suggests to me that the Lakers will have a hard time keeping their lottery pick this year. I know this was perhaps an outlier performance for Russell and that the CAVs are in a funk right now, but there are a handful of WINNABLE games remaining on the Lakers schedule while Phoenix embarks on a long tough road trip.
The Lakers have 3 (YEAH THREE!!!) games against the TWolves. They also play the Blazers at home on the 2nd of a back to back with the Blazers flying in from Minny the night before. They play the Kings and New Orleans in their last 4 games, and they play the Spurs and the Warriors in their last 5 games.
Are the Spurs and Warriors winnable games??? Not normally. But given BOTH games will be in the last week of the season with the Warrior game being THEEE LAST GAME of the year, I can see Pop and ESPECIALLY KERR resting many key guys (ALTHOUGH MAYBE, Durant will have to be playing to get in better game shape after sitting out injured for a good spell). The last game of the season the Lakers will be playing very loose and this game could torpedo the tank operation if one of the previous winnables doesn’t.
Granted the Lakers don’t play the way they played the CAVs every game. But I think they will win a couple more this year which isn’t good for the prospects of retaining their Lottery pick. Interesting times.
Alex M Amerling says
Think positively. We still have a lot of loseable games coming up and who knows, maybe Phoenix will win a couple they aren’t supposed to.
George Best says
Still too early to tell how good or great DAR will be but no way Porzingis is a better draft pick.
Rick in Seattle says
Disagree George. If you polled all the leagues GMs (excluding Mitch Kupchak) most would select Porzingis over Russell.
Not seeing the reasoning here. Porzingis has not really visibly improved much, but he is still ahead of Russell in PER, VORP, and WS/48. In addition, Porzingis has a rarer skillset. Finally, as per Bask Ref, Porzingis is only 205 days older than Russell. I would trade for Russell for Porzingis, and I think the Lakers FO would too.
I have defended Russell some, and I still think he can be a very good NBA player. I would rather have him than Okafor. I would not rather have Russell than Porzingis, though.
Finally, we got to see a game where both Russell and Clarkson are starters. They performed very well together even though they were on the court for extended times and should have been running on fumes in the 4th quarter. Unlike Young, Clarkson is a triple threat with the ball and can take some of the ball handling duties from Russell. As you illustrate so well, this frees up Russell to be creative and wreak havoc with his shooting. Magic does not need to look far for his alpha male and maybe can focus on finding wing defenders who can shoot the 3.
Love that DAR scored 40 against the Cavs — just as I did for Randle going for 32 against the Rockets. The issue I have is with consistency.
DAR and Randle are both as likely to have ho hum games as they are to have a great game. Sure the ‘averages’ look OK but my gut says this is a concern.
Foundational players have to be consistent. If DAR/Randle continue to be erratic in their performances I don’t see the Lakers moving up the standings in the division/conference. It feels that the large variability in their performances will act like a ceiling on how high the team can go.
We’re getting to the point, in their young careers, where regardless of the team they are playing and what their opposing match-up is DAR/Randle have got to find a way to contribute. If they can’t figure this out I don’t see how they are part of the next truly competitive Lakers’ team.
Enjoyable read Darius !
Right O’,.. Russell has made Laker history again,. in his short career. We should chew on that, and recognize that we have something here.
Exactly what,. remains to be seen, but let it never be said that he’s a player we trade off like a failed experiment.
That last quote from him “Whatever position they have me on the court — I’m a basketball player, not a point guard or a shooting guard.”
He’s been saying it since the beginning, goes to show he knows who and what he is, and evidently we now, do too.
I hope to see him with Lonzo Ball in the back court.
Another great loss, showing off DAR this time, but the real action begins when the season ends.
I see this all setting the stage for Pelinka and his Magic (pun intended!). If there is a major free agent and a trade upcoming, the “salary money guy” in a trade might be Clarkson. Under such circumstances, I see at least one more year for DAR. He might pair well with several mid career back court veterans who could become available. I’ll leave it to our brain trust to figure out who and how.
I remain hopeful that we’ll get our two first round draft picks. I see at least one of them used in trades.
LT Mitchell says
I respectfully disagree, Darius. The Lakers need to add a “point guard” to this roster to eventually compete for rings. Whether this position is defined as a “lead guard” or a “point guard”, this player ideally will be able to:
(1.) spread the floor
(2.) slow down the opposing PGs
(3) penetrate to draw fouls and create for others.
IMO these areas will be crucial for the rapidly evolving PG or lead guard position. Russell’s potential to spread and score points is sky high…..but he does not have the ability to penetrate, draw fouls and create for others like the players you mentioned (John Wall, Westbrook, Lilliard, Kyrie, Kemba, Isiah, etal), nor does he have the defense to slow down opposing PGs. All the “PG’s” you mentioned excel at two or three of these attributes…Russell is good at one, and poor at the other two. If your “lead” guard cannot guard the other team’s lead guard, and at the same time, is poor at penetrating, the Lakers will be in a vulnerable situation going forward when it comes to wins and losses. Adding a “PG” will help resolve this issue, and will also help Russell excel at his own strengths. Everyone wins.
Nice game from DAR. Not having NY in there assisted in this.
mattal: “how they are part of the next truly competitive Lakers’ team.” All of our decisions in terms of who we keep, and how they fit in, needs to focus on this. When is the next competitive team going to be here, and which members of the current roster will be a part of it.
While DAR’s 40 points is commendable, I did notice a couple of P&Rs in the highlight reel where it seemed the screener (usually Zubac) had an easy “downhill” lane to the basket. Rather than dish the ball, DAR opted to pull up for a jumper or floater.
I hope as DAR matures and becomes more familiar with his teammates, he starts to consistently make those passes. Sometimes being aggressive needs to be tempered recognition of when a good shot can be improved to an even better shot.
Still, in a season lacking much optimism since the 10-10 start, it’s nice to see some of the young core show their potential.
david h says
darius: what is important to remember here is that when the decision to start Russell at the two guard, he immediately responded. I say good for him and good for the lakers. The remaining games will probably continue to be an experimentation period. Dependent on the opposition, I could even see Nance Jr start in place of Randle; with Randle moving to either start or back up the center position. The moving parts are endless; just stay healthy so that this short term evaluation period can continue thru to the end of season without incident.
This was a great game by D’Angelo Russell. I’m not only glad for him. I’m frankly relieved because he had struggled of late, especially when he was asked to come off the bench. Some players can come off the bench. Others can’t. D’Angelo is a player who must start. It’s that simple.
But I think that there was actually a bigger story to this game…and an encouraging one for Lakers fans. And that was the play of the young core as a whole against a very formidable opponent.
Not only did DAR score 40 points (14-22 shooting) with 6 assists and 2 rebounds in 41:16 but Jordan Clarkson matched Russell with 6 assists while scoring 19 points (8-18 shooting) and grabbing 3 rebounds (in 41:06). That’s 59 points and 12 assists between them. It’s true that that won’t happen very often. But the incontrovertible fact is that they produced mightily together against the reigning NBA champs. Despite the protests of some commenters, Clarkson was not a black hole on offense (he shot less than Russell and had 6 assists and seemed more than willing to share the ball). And Russell clearly demonstrated his true potential as a guard who can literally score on anyone when he has the mind to do it.
Furthermore, Ingram has impressed me as much as any other Laker over the last 10-12 games. Last night he had 18 points, 6 rebounds, and 1 assist and Randle, despite a tough defensive assignment that often took him away from the paint, had 10 points, 7 rebounds, and 7 assists. He remains, IMO, the Laker with the greatest potential for a triple-double.
And finally, Ivica Zubac has proved (not too strong a word, I think) that he is the real thing. Against the Cavs he had 10 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists, and one block against Tristan Thompson, a tough defensive player. I would have liked to have seen him play more than 19:16. But he was absolutely solid last night and, unless I’m mistaken, will be the Lakers’ center for the foreseeable future. Now, how many of us a year ago would have dared to think that the Lakers would find their center of the future with a 2nd round pick in the 2016 draft, a player that most of us (including yours truly) had never even heard of?
This is all goodness.
Now, if you factor in the age quotient, the Lakers performance last night was even more remarkable. After all, Ingram and Zubac are both only 19 years old. Russell is all of 21; Randle is 22; and Clarkson is 24. Their average age? Twenty-one (21.0) years.
It would take a true cynic not to find something encouraging in all of this. Yes, I know. The Lakers need to improve on their defense. But don’t most 21 year olds have to do that? And yes, they must learn to consistently move the ball to find the open man. But last night they had 23 assists against only 5 TOs. I realize that this won’t happen every night. But they’ve just shown what they can do. Young players must learn not only from their mistakes but from their successes (or near successes) as well.
Now what they need most (as Magic Johnson has said) is to develop consistency. And that, I’m sorry to say, will be the last thing to come.
It is up to the fans to be patient. This team is still growing. There should be another infusion of cost-controlled talent this summer. But it all takes time.
There’s no other way.
Nice post, Mid. Hard sometimes to see the silver lining in the years of development.
Interesting factoid from Mark Medina: “Russell joined LeBron James (2004, 06), Stephon Marbury (1999) and Michael Jordan (1985) as the only players 21 or younger since 1983 to post at least 40 points and six assists while committing one of fewer turnovers.”
Rick in Seattle says
On Bleacher Report, David Murphy suggested 5 free agents that the Lakers should consider: Patty Mills (PG), Ersan Ilyasova (PF), JJ Redick (SG), Nerlens Noel (C), Jrue Holiday (PG). All but Noel are unrestricted FA’s.
In consideration of the debate going on with regard to Russell, why not look at a veteran PG like Ricky Rubio?
He is rumored to be available in trade. He is a good defender and distributor, and might be a decent complement to Russell, if the team chooses to move Russell to SG.
But, any way you sort it out, one of the guards has to play defense. If I were GM I would seriously look to keep Russell at PG for the time being and try to match him up with a veteran two-way SG, someone with the defensive intensity of a Jimmy Butler! Magic are you listening?
Craig W. says
If the Lakers are able to draft Ball, then they will either pair him with DAR, trade DAR, or start him out as the first 1-2-3 off the bench to mesh with DAR for part of the game. So much depends on the ping pong balls in May that it seems pretty silly to propose what the Lakers should do before we know where we draft.
Rick in Seattle says
Craig, I think you’re overlooking my main point which is that the team needs at least one guard that plays defense.
If the team drafts and keeps Ball (lots of ifs), is he the defender they need? Probably wont know for another year or two.
The team is now in the 4th year of its rebuild. Tell you the truth, I kinda agree with Jeanie & Magic, so lets get this show on the road. There are teams like Orlando that seem to be constantly rebuilding. Lets not keep going down that road.
Your main point is correct. No decisions can be made until the team knows how the ping-pong balls land. But it seems good planning to have several options at hand whether the team lands one of the top 3 picks, or whether it doesnt. With this being a strong draft, lots of teams should be interested in acquiring picks. With that in mind, there may be a way to convert a pick into a good veteran player.
Lakers are a very young team. Having a few good veterans is probably a good thing. In the short term MWP needs to go so they can look at other prospects. In the long term, Deng & Mozgov need to go, for the purpose of future cap space.
Lakers need more defenders, whereever & however they can get them. Irregardless of Houston’s offensive juggernaut, Defense wins titles, and that’s a true fact.
Rubio MAY be one of the ONLY POSSIBLE avenues to unloading Deng……….. MAYBE….. Just MAYYYYYBEEEEEE………….
Rick in Seattle says
For god sakes Yes! Let’s keep our fingers crossed that Minny still has some interest in Deng! If the Lakers need to throw in some cash (I think max cash is $3.5 mil), then do it! If it takes bringing back a bad one or two yr contract, do it. If an opportunity exists, Magic & Pelinka need to persue it–which I believe they would.
Remember the trade when the Lakers picked up Quame Brown? The Lakers took a gamble and it didnt work out. Did the same thing with Hibbert, yet amazingly in both cases, other teams were still interested in those players.
That’s why (surprisingly) no player is truly untradable. One team’s junk is another team’s treasure.
Hopefully, Minnesota still sees some value in Deng if the price is right. If not maybe the Lakers should contact Chicago, Miami, Orlando, or my favorite Brooklyn. Brooklyn would also be a good new home for Mozgov. Brooklyn owner is Russian–Mozgov is Russian. Maybe they can go bowling together!
Mozzy and Proky can exchange Borscht recipes!!!!!!!!!!!