Since he entered the NBA last season, D’Angelo Russell has been a lightning rod among fans and the media alike. Some view him as a budding superstar, others as a semi-bust, and still others aren’t sure what to make of him. Like him or not, in his absence the past few games, it has become clear that Russell is the Lakers’ most important player and his health is crucial to the team’s plans for this season.
To be fair, at age 20, Russell is still very much a work in progress, and his ceiling as an NBA player is anyone’s guess. At present, one game he is a force but the next time out he struggles, and so the cycle goes. But it is also clear that regardless of how he plays, he is the glue that holds the team together which has become painfully evident since he has been out with a knee injury.
For one thing, he is the only viable point guard on the roster. Jordan Clarkson may have entered the league as a point guard, but over the past two seasons, it has been beaten out of him and now he is a wing player. A good example is the Lakers’ recent loss to the Golden State Warriors, a game in which Clarkson was the team’s leading scorer but finished with zero assists.
Marcelo Huertas is a borderline NBA player at best, and an argument could be made that the Lakers have better point guards on their D-League team. Huertas is not a scoring threat and is a liability on defense. His forte is ball movement, but too often he is out of control and gets caught up in making fancy passes which result in turnovers.
Jose Calderon was at one time a solid NBA player, but that time is in the past. A clear sign of how far his skills have diminished is the fact he could not even crack the rotation on last summer’s Spanish national team that played in the Olympics. Calderon, at best, is good for seven minutes a night, and even then, the Lakers were better earlier in the season when everyone was healthy, and Calderon and Huertas were not playing.
Russell’s statistics are improved across the board this season, even though he is playing fewer minutes. He has shown improvement on a per game basis in field goals made, three-pointers made, three-point percentage, free throws, assists, steals, blocks, and points per game. His biggest advancement has been in assists (a more respectable 4.8 compared with 3.5 last year), three-point percentage (37 percent compared with 35 last season) and points per game (16.1 vs. 13.2). His defense is also improved, although, like the entire team, it has a long way to go.
With Russell, however, it is not just about statistics. He brings an intangible to the team, a kind of swagger that can be contagious. Russell exudes confidence bordering on cockiness, and while that may be inappropriate in the real world, in sports it may be a prerequisite for any aspiring superstar. Last year was a debacle for him, and a lesser player could have imploded, but through all the travails, he handled himself with quiet professionalism which showed a maturity few gave him credit for.
Head coach Luke Walton embraced and showed confidence in Russell from the very beginning. They formed a solid relationship from the start, something which never would have happened had Byron Scott remained the coach. Russell has willingly accepted the leadership role Walton wanted for him despite his young age.
The fact is with Russell on the court, the ball moved, and the spacing was better. That is saying a lot since one of the criticisms going into the season was that Russell is just a high volume shooter intent on taking over games himself instead of getting others involved. Russell has found a much better balance so far this year, and it was instrumental in the Lakers’ early season success.
At the pace the Lakers play, it is essential that a skilled ball handler be around to lead the fast break. Anyone watching the last couple of games with Russell absent should have noted that the Lakers fast break attempts were almost comical, resulting in turnovers, ill-timed and poorly positioned passes, and missed opportunities.
The ball is not moving like it was before when Russell was playing. Of course, Julius Randle, who has emerged as a good passer as well, has also been out. But that doesn’t mean Lou Williams has to revert to how he played last year when he jacked up a shot just about every time he touched the ball. Nor does it explain why the Lakers are standing around while the clock winds down until the player with the ball in his hands is forced to take a contested, desperate, last second shot.
In their defense, the Lakers are in the midst of a very challenging part of their schedule. Russell’s injury coincided with a period in which they have played and will continue to play for the next week, most of the top ranked teams in the league. It is quite possible the Lakers would lose these games anyway even if Russell were playing.
But that is not the point since this Lakers season is less about wins than how the team is competing. The fact is, outside of the Oklahoma City and Atlanta Hawks games, the players have not been focused, the ball has not been moving, and the defense has been porous. Since Russell has been out, the games have resembled what fans saw last year.
Here is the truth: The team will not return to how it was playing earlier in the season, and move forward from there until Russell is healthy. The best they can do is tread water until he returns. He is just too important, and they simply do not have a suitable backup option, another front office failure when the foolish decision was made to sign both Huertas and Calderon.
Russell has disclosed that the knee has been bothering him all season and he won’t return until it is 100 percent. Although it was initially announced he would be out two to three weeks, reading between the lines, it sounds like no one knows for sure. After all, this is a knee injury and for a professional athlete anything involving that area of the body must be taken seriously.
No doubt the Lakers will miss Russell on their tough upcoming road trip which includes four games in five nights (two back-to-back contests in one week) against the Memphis Grizzlies, Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls, and an improved New Orleans Pelicans. By then it is likely that the team’s early-season winning record will be upside down and they will need a jump start. Hopefully, Russell will be back to provide the spark. If it turns out he is gone longer than expected, it will seriously impede the Lakers’ attempts to make the most out of this season.