The D’Angelo Russell era is over.
On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Lakers surprised everyone by shipping Russell and center Timofey Mozgov to the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for Brook Lopez and the 27th pick in Thursday’s NBA Draft.
There is no question that losing Russell hurts. He was the second overall pick just two years ago, and at the time was thought to be the modern guard needed to bring the antiquated Lakers into the 21st century.
However, since then, questions have arisen regarding his maturity and work ethic. With the Lakers poised to select Lonzo Ball with the second pick this year, the decision was made to move on. It’s disappointing that we never got to see a Ball/Russell backcourt because it’s an intriguing idea offensively, but Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka clearly decided that they needed to make a move.
Most would have preferred a larger return for Russell, an improving young player who is still on his rookie contract, but given the realities of their situation, the Lakers did better here than it appears at first glance.
Most notably, with this deal, Los Angeles managed to clear the $48 million owed to Mozgov over three years off their books. Former GM Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss gave sizeable deals to both Mozgov and Luol Deng last year, and those contracts were clogging up crucial cap space.
Had Kupchak and Buss not spent so recklessly last summer, then this move wouldn’t have been necessary, and the Lakers wouldn’t have had to part with a skilled young player like Russell as payment for Brooklyn absorbing Mozgov’s deal. It’s a tough pill to swallow, particularly because it was unnecessary and self-inflicted, but Johnson and Pelinka decided that they needed to pay the price for the sins of the previous regime in order to build a better future.
In return for Russell’s upside and Mozgov’s bloated contract, the Lakers managed to get an expiring deal in Lopez, which means that the Lakers will have regained some of their precious cap space squandered by Buss and Kupchak. This provides them with enough room to sign one max player next summer and potentially sets them on the path to two max deals.
That said, Lopez is much more than simply an expiring contract. At 29 years old he doesn’t have nearly the upside that Russell does, but as of right now he is definitely the better player and is one of the best big men in the league.
A true seven-footer with a 7’5” wingspan, Lopez gives the Lakers a real presence inside, something they haven’t had in years. He doesn’t have the quick feet necessary to defend the pick and roll, which has become a requirement for centers in today’s NBA, but Lopez still has his usefulness.
He is a force to deal with in the paint, with a soft touch and an array of fakes and up-and-under moves to keep defenders off balance. On the defensive side of the ball, Lopez uses his length and excellent timing to effectively block shots, which allows him to be a real deterrent at the rim.
While that will certainly come in handy on a defensively-challenged Lakers team, the most noteworthy thing that Lopez can do is shoot threes, something he only fully incorporated into his arsenal last season. Despite his lack of experience stepping beyond the arc, Lopez led all centers in made threes last season (for reference, he hit just one less than Russell did), which should have a positive impact on the Lakers floor spacing.
Additionally, should the Lakers not move power forward Julius Randle in a trade for Paul George, who the team is in pursuit of, a potential Randle/Lopez front court partnership is promising. Randle’s rebounding and quick feet on the perimeter help make up for Lopez’s deficiencies in those areas, while Lopez’s floor spacing and rim protection figures to hide Randle’s own weaknesses.
While he was force-fed the ball on a bad Nets team last season, Lopez put up 20.5 points per game last season with solid efficiency, including hitting 81 percent from the free throw line. His rebounding leaves a lot to be desired at just 5.4 per game, but that number is low partly because he was used as a floor spacer so often by Brooklyn, which often robbed him of opportunities to grab offensive boards.
Big, lumbering centers like Lopez tend to not age gracefully, but it’s always possible that the one year left on his deal turns into a longer stay in Los Angeles. Most assume that the 27th pick received from Brooklyn will be used to try to coax the Indiana Pacers into giving up Paul George, and if that happens a George/Lopez combo along with likely pick Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram could have the Lakers contending for a playoff spot next season, something that few would’ve thought possible.
Meanwhile, Russell gets a fresh start in Brooklyn, and he will have plenty of motivation to prove the Lakers wrong.
Of course, the bottom line is that the success or failure of this deal will come down to exactly what the Lakers do with the cap space they created. If Johnson and Pelinka are able to use the 27th pick to help bring in George and then can add a second star next summer like LeBron James or DeMarcus Cousins, then the ends justify the means.
On the other hand, if Johnson and Pelinka are unable to hook a whale, then they just dealt one of their best assets needlessly, or at the very least prematurely, especially when one considers that Mozgov would’ve likely been cheaper to unload next season with only two years remaining on his deal.
Russell was a big price to pay, even with the arrival of Lopez, and the pressure will now be on Johnson and Pelinka to make a painful decision worthwhile.