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Why D’Angelo Russell is the point guard the Lakers need right now

D’Angelo Russell may not ever get the same credit as some of his more beloved teammates, but his passing and playmaking have been critical for the Lakers to start the season.

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If you’re a Lakers fan and have fired up the trade machine at all in the last few months, I can guarantee that you have put D’Angelo Russell into a deal to bring back some prominent player from another team. Tell the truth, now. Just admit it.

In fact, I’m pretty certain this is true even if you’re not a Lakers fan, really. After Russell signed a 1+1 contract this past summer and then waived the no-trade clause that is naturally built into that sort of contract, it was a national media talking point that Russell’s deal was signed to be traded.

That means, from now — or Dec. 15, officially — until February’s trade deadline, it will be Russell whose name gets floated any time there’s a report of some other team’s high-priced star being even potentially available. Zach LaVine? Donovan Mitchell? Kyrie Irving? Check, check, check. Whether it makes sense or not for the other team to even want him back in a deal, D-Lo will be the first Lakers player first brought up as the guy going out.

There are two key reasons for this.

First is his aforementioned contract. It’s not just short and at a reasonable salary figure, but most importantly, it is needed ballast to build out the money needed for matching purposes under the rules of the collective bargaining agreement.

Second, however, is that Russell isn’t exactly held in the highest regard as a player around the league (or even by the team’s own fans), despite his obvious talent level. Whether it’s the playoff struggles, the lack of consistent high-level success or production, or just a general dislike for some combination of his decision-making as a lead guard or the general aesthetics of his game, Russell is a player who has never seemed to be fully embraced by any team that has picked him up.

I’d imagine, too, that Russell is acutely aware of this. For any questions people may have of Russell as a player, as he has matured, his level of self-awareness and understanding of how he’s viewed is not something that seems lost on him.

With all of this as the backdrop, what Russell is doing so far this season, then, should be commended. After a rough shooting start to the season, Russell is playing some of the best basketball of his career and in the process, is showing how valuable he can be to a Lakers team that needs his specific skill set as much as ever.

Over the Lakers' last 10 games, here are Russell’s averages:

  • 31.4 minutes, 19.7 points, 51.4% FG, 43.3% 3-point FG, 80.8% FT, 3.3 rebounds, 6.4 assists, and 1.9 turnovers

While all of these numbers are befitting of the type of recognition Russell doesn’t naturally receive, his level of play and what it means to the Lakers goes beyond the statistics and more to his impact on the floor, particularly on offense. Only LeBron (+18.2) has a higher on/off offensive rating differential than Russell’s +14.5 mark this season, a testament to how much the offense struggles to get good looks without one or the other (or both) on the floor.

A key driver of that success is Russell’s shift to being more of a pure point guard who can organize the team’s offense regardless of who he shares the floor with. One of the more under-discussed changes to this season’s roster has been the departure of Dennis Schröder and how his absence, in combination with Gabe Vincent missing so much time, has left the Lakers short on ball handling and general point guard play. (Austin Reaves can pick up some of that slack, but even he’s showing it’s not his natural forte to lead a unit as the lone ball handler on the court. But that’s another topic for another day).

This has left Russell with more of an ask in playing this type of role this season, and it’s one that he is really doing well in. More specifically, within this larger concept of being a lead guard, it’s Russell’s passing that has stood out to me the most. With a healthy 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio this season, Russell is proving capable of making any pass this offense requires, particularly ones into tight quarters or through small windows that require both an anticipatory feel and great touch when delivering the ball.

Just a week ago, Russell dazzled in the weekend’s set of wins over the Suns and Blazers, dishing 20 assists to just two turnovers, with many of those coming on setups for shots right at the basket.

I understand that what Russell is doing this season may not change the minds of those who have strong beliefs about whether he is long for this roster or how much he can and will help during the playoffs. Russell’s shortcomings when gameplans tighten and the defensive intensity ratchets up won’t be forgotten with some regular season success through the Lakers' first 15 games. He will need to prove it when it matters and, if we’re being honest, he may not even get that chance if he actually is dealt away by the trade deadline.

That said, Russell has been critical to the success the Lakers have experienced this season, and his play of late has been particularly important in steadying the team’s offense and providing the type of passing and playmaking that helps keep the team afloat when LeBron rests.

And as long as he can do that, he’ll have immense value to the Lakers. Whether anyone wants to give him credit for it or not.

You can follow Darius on Twitter at @forumbluegold.

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