The NBA is a results-based business. Or, a more commonly used phrase, it’s a make-or-miss league.
D’Angelo Russell’s game is one that is prone to strings of makes and strings of misses. When he’s running hot, he can shoot a team to a win, or a run of wins. At his best, he can parlay that into an All-Star selection.
When he’s running cold? He’s played off the court, as we all saw during the Western Conference Finals. His productivity is directly tied to his shot-making and when he isn’t making shots, he hasn’t offered enough in other facets of his game to be a positive player.
D’Lo isn’t a unique player in that regard. There’s been plenty of players like him before and there will be plenty like him in the future.
But what does make him unique is his self-awareness of everything I just said. To make it in the NBA, an incredible amount of self-confidence and belief is required. Often, that leads to some blinders as to what a player is and isn’t.
“A big reason guys get stuck in the G-League is because they don’t realize the position they’re trying out for. It’s like going to a job interview thinking you’re going to be the CFO of the company, and they’re looking for someone to clean the bathrooms.”
Russell started showing that refreshing level of honesty when he stated this preseason that he wanted to be more like Derrick White, that he wanted to try to find ways to be impactful defensively and in ways other than scoring.
For much of this season, Russell was largely who he’s always been, a streaky shooter but one who was making more of an impact as a playmaker. As soon as the shot tailed away, though, Russell became ineffective once again. Not Western Conference Finals levels of bad, but a level that still led to him getting benched.
Again, not the first player to get benched, not the last. The writing was on the wall that his time in the starting lineup was coming to an end after a Minnesota game when he started 2-12 from the field before a strong finish to the game. Still, after the contest, Russell admitted that he was really only effective when making shots, an admission most players do not make.
“When you’re not making shots and things like that, it’s not relevant to our success,” Russell said after the team’s loss to Minnesota, his final start of the season. “We need guys that are going too make shots. We need guys that are going to get shots. If I’m not making shots and I’m depending on me just getting a (defensive) stop, that’s where I work, that’s where I try to be better but that’s not what I do. Doing that is an extra and that’s where my focus is but knowing what I do, that’s something that I know as well.”
Prior to the season, Russell spoke about building a relationship with head coach Darvin Ham, something he hasn’t been afforded the opportunity to do in his career as a result of his bouncing from franchise to franchise.
“I really like our conversations,” Ham said before the Christmas Day game against Boston. “We had a sit-down one-on-one. He shared a lot of things, I shared some things but at the end of the day, I think we both landed on ‘It’s all about winning.’ How can we best put ourselves in a position to get wins? He’s a trooper, man. No one likes, whether it’s being taken out of the starting lineup, being taken out of the rotation but when you have a deep team and you get bodies or something’s not quite going right and you’re on a little bit of a slide, you have to be real. You have to look at yourself in the mirror and be real. Like, what can I do better? What can we do better? It’s just how you articulate things.
“The best way to do it is base it in fact. The fact of the matter was we were on a four-game slide and the one thing that we’ve been able to do consistently is play good defense, starting from the trade deadline last year all the way up to this year being a top-ten defense. We wanted to lean into what we’re doing well and allow that to be the foundation that spreads out to the rest of the segments of our game and how we can be productive. The one-on-one conversation we had was great. He’s free to communicate with me. We’re both respectful and we shared things but, again, we landed on the fact that whatever we can do to have the team be the most successful, we need to try to look at it.”
None of this excuses D’Lo’s performances. He deserved to be benched and, based on these quotes, I think he’s aware that was a strong possibility given his struggles.
None of this is also going to take him off the trade block, either. If the Lakers are going to shuffle pieces around at the deadline, it’s hard to imagine Russell isn’t one of those players sent out.
But there is some reason to express caution with that, as our own Darius Soriano detailed. Trading him will come at a cost to matters on the court, but also the off-court vibes. It’s inarguable to say D’Lo helped improve those vibes drastically. It’s the human aspect of these trades that isn’t always taken into account.
And D’Lo has found success early on in his move to the bench alongside Reaves. He’s scoring with efficiency and still being a consistent playmaker. Perhaps a bench role is the best case scenario for Russell on a title-contending team.
More than anything, as a fan base that saw Russell enter the NBA and see his maturity level come under fire, rightly and wrongly, seeing this version of D’Lo is even more gratifying. And hopefully, this level of refreshing honesty becomes more of a norm.
You can follow Jacob on Twitter at @JacobRude.