Tuesday night, the Los Angeles Lakers suffered their 21st loss in their last 26 games and their fifth in a row, this time to the “mighty” Denver Nuggets who entered the contest with only one more win on the season than the Lakers. The final score was 127-121, which means neither team played a lick of defense, but the Nuggets have more offensive firepower. It was the first time the Lakers lost this season when they scored more than 120 points.
There were plenty of negatives to go around. The team fell behind by double digits almost immediately. The first unit was so bad that all five starters were removed at the same time just a few minutes into the game. They were also on the bench in the fourth quarter when reserves Jordan Clarkson, Lou Williams, and Ivica Zubac brought the team to within one point of the Nuggets.
For the game, the Lakers starters were badly outplayed by their Nugget’s counterparts. Denver’s first unit shot 60 percent to 40 percent from Los Angeles; scored 103 points to the Lakers’ 53 points; and shot 53 percent from three-point range to 37 percent from D’Angelo Russell and company. The Lakers came out flat and stayed that way most of the night, with the first three quarters as bad as the Lakers have played all season. It was yet another game against a beatable foe where the team foundered.
As bad as the game was, however, the most startling revelation came after it was over. Julius Randle had another poor performance, finishing with only seven points and five turnovers, but at least when he was interviewed after the game, he was angry which is exactly how he should have felt.
D’Angelo Russell, however, was impassive. He was equally bad during the game, played only 17 minutes, and not at all in the fourth quarter. Yet Russell’s demeanor when the game was over was the opposite of Randle’s. He calmly explained to reporters that, “I haven’t been bringing it” (via Lakers Nation reporter Serena Winters) so it was perfectly fine that Coach Luke Walton has been giving him reduced minutes.
Respectfully, that is not the attitude a team wants from its starting point guard and supposed floor general. You want fire. You want passion. You want disgust like Randle showed. A docile point guard is unacceptable. It is unimaginable that fellow point guards Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, or James Harden, whose careers Russell hopes to emulate, would ever have trouble “bringing it” at any moment of any game.
While Russell’s honesty is admirable, what rational explanation or excuse is there for a 20-year-old, second-year NBA player, who was handed the keys to the Lakers’ storied franchise the moment he was drafted, is paid millions of dollars a year, and was anointed the team’s leader entering his second season, to fail to “bring it” every moment of every game? How can one read that passive, matter-of-fact quote from Russell without being shocked?
The Lakers are heavily invested in Russell. They desperately want and need him to succeed. He may never be Westbrook or Kyrie Irving because he lacks their speed and athleticism, but can’t he at least match their fire? Russell’s game more closely resembles that of Mike Conley of the Memphis Grizzles and Tony Parker of the San Antonio Spurs: Both play more of a sneaky, deliberate, and slithery game and have done well at it – Conley is the highest paid player in NBA history, and Parker is a five-time champion.
History shows that while the first choice in any NBA Draft is almost certain to go on to stardom, second selections have not fared as well. Russell must know that the fans and media are badly divided on his future: Whether he is a real point guard; whether he can be an effective leader; whether the Lakers are wise making him the focal point of their future plans; whether he will be a successful NBA player at all. In light of all the questions, it is disheartening that the one thing he can control, his effort and energy, is so often lacking.
There are 35 games left in the season, and Russell should not waste one of them. At age 20, he has a lot to learn, and that is fine. There will be nights when his shot is not falling. But his shooting percentages are lower this year than last when he was a rookie, which is not supposed to happen. For the season, he is shooting below 40 percent overall from the field and below 35 percent from three-point range.
The way the Lakers are constructed they need Russell to consistently score 18 points to go along with five assists a game, or better. In the modern NBA, point guards are supposed to light it up – many lead their respective teams in scoring. By any measure, Russell simply has to get better. Of course, there are other issues too like his often atrocious defense.
But most important, he has to “bring it” every game in terms of effort and energy. Russell may lack the speed and quickness of a Westbrook or a Harden, but he has to match their fire. It is inexcusable for a young professional basketball player, especially one with as many blessings as Russell, to have a hard time “getting up” for games.
It has played in a small number of games in which he has really excelled, enough to entice even the harshest critic to take notice. But if he cannot be counted on to bring maximum energy and effort each and every game, it will soon be time for Russell to lose his starting role and his future with the team could eventually be in doubt.
The Lakers have another guard by the name of Jordan Clarkson. Once upon a time – and it wasn’t that long ago – people thought he was the team’s point guard of the future. He started every game last year but hasn’t started a single game this season. That job has been Russell’s and his alone.
Clarkson has his own issues, but one thing he can never be accused of is giving less than maximum effort. He has boundless energy whenever he is on the court and is always in attack mode. Last season, Byron Scott handed Russell the starting job, but he lost it 20 games into the season. If Russell doesn’t look carefully in the mirror and start leaving it all on the court every single night, history may repeat itself, Russell may lose his starting gig again, and this time Scott won’t be around to blame.