A sure way to get Los Angeles Lakers fans on social media riled up is to bring up D’Angelo Russell’s minutes, especially those in the fourth quarter. It’s been a running conversation basically since he got into the league and, based on Luke Walton’s philosophy, it seems as if the discussion isn’t going anywhere.
Yet, Walton said he did not bench Russell as a way of “dangling a carrot” to motivate him.
“It’s never about ‘This what you need to do so this is your reward,'” Walton said. ‘This is what you need to do because this is what’s right, this is what we need out of you and this is how we become a better team.’ It’s not about the end result. It’s about what he’s doing possession by possession to start the game. Then if that all happens, naturally he’ll be in at the end of the game because of the way he’s playing.”
It’s still pretty hard to tell the difference between this and what Walton has said previously on the topic. This isn’t “riding the hot hand”, necessarily, but it still sounds like Russell has to earn minutes in the fourth quarter based on his play throughout a game. This is obviously fair on its face, but only so long as Russell has a definitive understanding of what it takes to show the coaching staff he deserves to play when the game is on the line.
The other issue that’s popped up is when Russell re-enters the game in such situations. Even if he does come back into games, it’s typically been after long stretches on the bench. So, in order to be successful, Russell needs to not just get his energy level back up to what it was a half hour prior, but do so when the intensity is at its absolute peak for any given game. That’s a lot to ask of someone who doesn’t always know if he’s going to get back into a game.
Handling a rotation is tough for any coach, let alone one in his first full year, and it’s impossible to know what’s being said behind closed doors in team meetings. So, judging the situation just by the quotes surrounding it isn’t necessarily fair. That said, that’s really all there is to work off of.
So long as Walton is crystal clear to Russell, Julius Randle and anyone else who hopes to play in the fourth, the benching is fine. If everyone is on the same page, it becomes up to those players to do whatever it takes to earn the staff’s trust. It’s all a process.