The Los Angeles Lakers’ decision to trade D’Angelo Russell to the Brooklyn Nets seemed to mostly be motivated by their desire to get out from under Timofey Mozgov’s cap-crippling contract and open up cap space for the summer of 2018.
Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka seemed to confirm that notion when he praised incoming center Brook Lopez and the 2018 No. 27 pick the team acquired in the deal, as well as calling the salary cap relief the trade offered “amazing.”
Pelinka also seemed to allude to the deal not being about the Lakers having a negative view of Russell, something Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson appeared to contradict in his first public comments on the trade.
Right after lauding the Lakers 2017 No. 2 pick Lonzo Ball as the face of the franchise and leader the Lakers need, Johnson implied that Russell was anything but (via Baxter Holmes of ESPN):
Magic Johnson on D’Angelo Russell: "We want to thank him for what he did for us. But what I needed was a leader.” Full quote: pic.twitter.com/3FhPthOpN1— Baxter Holmes (@BaxterHolmes) June 23, 2017
The first two sentences of Johnson’s comments read like the opener of a press release, before flipping into a swift kick of Russell on the way out the door, a bad look for an executive.
In addition to being fairly classless, it’s also not hard to imagine Russell’s agent, Aaron Mintz (who also represents Paul George and Julius Randle) being less than thrilled about comments like this, which obviously isn’t ideal when the Lakers are potentially on the verge of negotiating two contracts with him.
Aside from the practical problem of dealing with Mintz, Johnson should also just be better than this. Was Russell difficult to deal with? Sure. Does that make it a good look for a team executive to unceremoniously ship him across the country and then trash him publicly while anonymous sources continue to crap on him through leaks to the media? No. No it does not.
This is especially bad because as far as making teammates better, the Lakers set Russell up for failure from the start. Johnson may not have built the shooting-starved, talent-bereft rosters Russell was surrounded by for his entire Lakers tenure, but neither did Russell.
This isn’t to completely absolve Russell for blame in his situation. He made things harder on himself by being needlessly difficult with the media at times during his tenure and not always taking feedback from two separate coaching staffs. He is also 21 years old, and came into the league at 19. Raise your hand if you were totally mature at those ages.
Magic Johnson is one of the best players in NBA history, a talent so transcendent he was able to lead the Lakers to a title in his first season in the league. Russell wasn’t Johnson, and neither are most first and second year players. He shouldn’t be held to that standard or expected to have immediately improved the team from day one, and there is certainly nothing for the Lakers to gain by impugning his character on the way out the door.