Okay…so this just happened.
Lakers are trading Tim Mozgov and D'Angelo Russell to Nets for Brook Lopez and 27th pick Thursday, sources say.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojVerticalNBA) June 20, 2017
As I pick my jaw up off the ground, here are a few scattered thoughts that probably won’t do the gravity of what just happened justice. But I will try to anyway…
I am a D’Angelo Russell fan. I believe his talent is fantastic and that, as a just turned 21 year old playing the hardest position in the league to adjust to, he was making real strides as a player. I see his trajectory going upwards and expected, if not this next season, than at some point in the next 18 months, we were going to see his full potential come into focus as an elite scoring guard who also possesses the type of court vision and passing acumen which can be the hub of a really good offense.
And now the Lakers have traded him as, basically, the grease to dump the salary of Timofey Mozgov. Read that sentence again. Did you do that? Now please do it again. Thank you.
Now to the nuts and bolts of this.
A recent Kevin Ding column said that the Lakers have real concerns about how Russell responds to criticism with the implication that it impacts his coachability. I will take Ding’s comments at face value and assume this is true. I still think this is selling extremely low on Russell and not giving enough merit to how players can grow, mature, and evolve to become the best versions of themselves. The Lakers are selling short on Russell’s potential and doing so at a point so early in his career that I struggle to understand this move in a vacuum. I just cannot agree with giving up such a talent in this specific type of deal when looking at this through the prism of actual goods exchanged.
Which, of course, leads me to the obvious next question/statement: a trade like this must not have been made in a vacuum and, thus, what is it the Lakers have planned next? Let’s do this in bullet points because, why the hell not at this point:
- The Timofey Mozgov salary wasn’t just a bad deal, it was an albatross. In forecasting things out, his contract (along with Luol Deng’s) was going to impact the Lakers’ cap flexibility in every summer for the next three years. Getting it off the books isn’t just a big deal, it’s a huge deal that signals the confidence Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka have in being able to attract high salaried star players to play for the Lakers.
- Brook Lopez (more on him in a minute) has a contract that expires in…the summer of 2018. Whether or not you believe the Lakers would be in position to sign LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, or DeMarcus Cousins, these are players who have a good chance of being free agents next summer. This cannot be understated: the Lakers must believe they have a chance at a player of this caliber next summer.
Speaking of Lopez, he can still play the game at a fairly high level. Last season the 29 year old big man averaged 20 points and 6 rebounds a game while shooting 48% from the field and nearly 35% from beyond the arc on over 5 attempts per game. We will have a post solely on what he brings to the table at a later time, but just know that he is still more than serviceable as a starting big man in this league and is flashing an evolving offensive game which can mesh well with the Lakers’ remaining talent.
So, if you’re scoring at home, here is the ledger from the Lakers’ perspective:
The Lakers are getting out from under one of the worst contracts in the league and acquiring a good (but not great) starting big man who can serve as a one year place holder. They clearly have some irons in the fire for future moves, ranging from Paul George lined up to plays on bigger free agents in the future. They also get the 27th pick overall, in a draft where there is likely to be some decent talent available at that point in the draft. They could also try to package the #27 and #28 picks to move up to the middle part of the draft, thought it’s unclear whether that is part of a plan or not. Also, it would not surprise me if the team used both of those picks in a deal for George.
What the Lakers give up, though, is a supremely talented young guard who is only going to get better. The list of players in their age 20 season who put up the stats D’Angelo Russell did this past season is small. Very small. Whatever you think of his current deficiencies, be it on the floor in terms of mental make up, have to measured against his age and the fact that he is nowhere near a finished product. To give up on him now is something I will have a hard time getting over, even if other moves make it something that is more understandable. Again, I really liked Russell as a player and wish him a great future in the league.
Now, a few closing thoughts (and more bullets!):
- Since Russell and George share an agent, some might wonder how this might impact the future of that potential deal. I would say, it’s unlikely it will at all and for two reasons. First, the Lakers have direct dialogue with Russell’s agent and will know how he feels about this move. If it was going to put George becoming a Laker in peril, I doubt this deal gets done. Second, Russell is now going to go the Nets, which just happens to be in NEW YORK CITY. While the Nets aren’t the Knicks in terms of fan following, he’ll get plenty of exposure in the biggest market in the league and will be the best young player and building block for them. From a visibility standpoint, Russell is going to do fine.
- I think this all but locks in Lonzo Ball as the Lakers’ pick. This team is now incredibly short on guards and need a lead ball handler/initiator even if they get George.
- One has to wonder how much Russell suffered from not being one of “Magic and Pelinka’s” guys. A new FO always comes in an makes changes because they have no loyalty to the previous regime’s moves. Was Russell a casualty of that? It wouldn’t surprise me.
- One last shout-out to Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak who pilfered away future salary flexibility to sign Mozgov at 12:01am on July 1, 2016 to a contract that the Lakers needed to trade less than a year later, ultimately including a top-2 draft pick from just two years ago to facilitate the exit. I love Mitch (and am mostly neutral on Jim), but dammit, guys.
I’ll have more on all of this later. But, for now, WOW. I still can’t believe it. The new Lakers have officially arrived.