After the Lakers dropped Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals against the Denver Nuggets, and talk of a potential starting lineup change began to leak into the ether, Dave McMenamin of ESPN reported that L.A.’s coaching staff was concerned they would “lose” point guard D’Angelo Russell if he was benched.
The team ultimately did change their starters for Game 2, but it wasn’t to start the widely speculated and reported Rui Hachimura. Instead, head coach Darvin Ham’s opening chess move for the second matchup was to insert Jarred Vanderbilt back in the first five in the place of Dennis Schröder. Russell remained a starter.
It remains to be seen if that will continue, but according to Zach Lowe of ESPN — speaking during the latest episode of his eponymous “The Lowe Post” podcast — there is reason for the Lakers coaching staff’s concern, as Russell would not be thrilled if he is removed from the starting group (emphasis mine):
“I think the lineup that they have to ride or die with in this series is Schröder, Reaves, Hachimura, LeBron, Davis. I think that’s their best lineup in this series, I might just go ahead and start it, hurt feelings be damned. That lineup is +15 in 15 minutes in this series, +28 in 35 minutes in the playoffs... I don’t love DLo in this matchup, that lineup just works, and I might just go ahead and start it if I were the Lakers.”
A few minutes later into the discussion, Lowe specified that those “hurt feelings” would indeed be Russell’s:
“I like that lineup that I mentioned, whether you end up starting it or not — there are going to be some hurt feelings on D’Angelo Russell’s part if you go ahead and start that group — I think they were smartly trying to lean into the LeBron/AD pick and roll, particularly in Game 2 they ran a lot of it to test Jokic out, to test the Denver defense out, to see where the soft spots are going to be. And when Vando’s on the floor they just can’t get any traction because no one is guarding him, the whole lane is clogged.”
It’s not hard to imagine why Russell would feel that way. Former All-Star/lottery picks who are among the top-three highest-paid players on a team rarely accept being benched willingly, even if their name isn’t Russell. Russell is also going into free agency while making $31 million. If he wants to get paid anywhere near that amount by the Lakers or any other team this summer, being dropped out of the starting lineup likely isn’t going to help his case.
After two games of the conference finals, however, the numbers calling for such a demotion are fairly glaring. Russell has a team-worst plus-minus of -20.5 through Games 1 and 2 — no one else is in double digits — and the team has been outscored by 32.8 points per 100 possessions while he is on the floor, which is also a team-worst.
In such a small two-game sample size, we have to note that some of that is statistical noise. Some of those runs happened with Russell on the floor, but would be hard to attribute solely to his presence. It’s also worth acknowledging that Russell has played significantly better at home during the playoffs.
Still, when combined with the eye test and how relentlessly the Nuggets are hunting him both on and off the floor, it’s understandable to come to the conclusion that this series may just not be a good fit for Russell’s skillset. And with the team on the brink of elimination — yes, they’re “only” down 2-0, but their margin for error to stick with stuff that isn’t working is gone now — if they don’t outright start someone else over Russell for Game 3, they at the very least can’t let concern over how any player will react to changes hold them back from playing the lineups they feel give them the best chance to win the most often as they return to Los Angeles for two pivotal games and try to save their season.
There is reason to believe they won’t let such factors get in the way. When Darvin Ham was introduced as Lakers head coach last summer, he was asked about how he’d coach LeBron, AD and a different player named Russell. He said one of his core tenets for holding players accountable was the phrase “facts over feelings,” and just a few months later said “we don’t have time for people to be in their feelings” when asked about concerns over how that other Russell would handle being benched.
Ham’s empathy for his players is notable and admirable, and his ability to keep the entire locker room engaged through such care and affirmation has been a real boon to the team all season. But just like he did earlier when trying to keep the Lakers’ season on life support long enough for the ridiculous midseason turnaround this current Russell helped spearhead after replacing the former one, he has to do what he thinks is best for the whole team.
If that’s benching another Russell, he can’t let feelings get in the way now.
You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.