As per franchise tradition, the Lakers have many decisions to make this summer. Perhaps the most prominent question looming over the team is what they do at point guard, and whether D’Angelo Russell is part of the answer.
After being dealt (back) to Los Angeles at the trade deadline, the team’s former lottery pick helped shore up the starting guard minutes in impressive fashion. The combination of Russell’s shooting, playmaking and fit alongside their stars indicated the team had finally found the type of player they’ve lacked during the LeBron James and Anthony Davis era.
However, while his regular season performance helped serve as a catalyst for their late surge, his postseason struggles created doubt regarding his future as the solution in the backcourt.
With Russell about to enter free agency and likely pursuing a hefty contact, the team must decide which sample — the regular season or playoffs — they trust more.
How was their season?
Between his play with the Timberwolves and Lakers, Russell made a strong argument for this being best season to date. Or at the very least, his most efficient.
In hist 17 games following his trade to Los Angeles, Russell made 41% of his 3-point attempts and had a scorching eFG% of 58.8% For context, that number would be a career high and rank in the 98th percentile among all point guards this season according to Cleaning the Glass.
Arguably more impressive than the shooting numbers was how quickly and smoothly Russell slotted in next to James and Davis.
Through his ability to soak up on-ball playmaking responsibilities, the 27-year-old helped steer the ship with James on and off the floor. And once he was designated off the ball, Russell’s catch-and-shoot ability burned defenses that over-helped on Davis in the post.
In the 291 regular season possessions the trio of James, Davis and Russell shared the floor, the Lakers were a staggering +23.4 points better than the opposition. When Austin Reaves joined them, the new backcourt and star duo were a +28.6.
A strong signal that what they had worked extremely well.
Should the Lakers bring them back?
If based solely on his regular season performance alone, Russell outperformed expectations and solidified a starting role for himself within the very franchise that once lost faith in him. Unfortunately, that role and faith was once again tested in the postseason.
To be clear, Russell had his moments in the playoffs. A few highlights include his 31 points in the team’s deciding Game 6 win over the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round, as well as his 21 points in a pivotal Game 3 win over the Warriors.
Although factoring into the Lakers’ success in the first two rounds, Russell, and his jumper, struggled mightily in the Western Conference Finals.
After converting 34.7% of his 3-point attempts against Memphis and Golden State, Russell made just 2 of his 15 opportunities (13.3%) against Denver.
The combination of his cold shooting and routinely getting targeted on defense, forced Darvin Ham to remove him from the starting lineup in the team’s deciding Game 4 loss.
It was an unfortunate lasting image that perhaps unrightfully overshadowed the many positive contributions he had in helping the team get as far as they did.
That said, the series also revealed Russell’s limitations. When his jumper isn't falling, Russell lacks the force to get downhill consistently to create advantageous opportunities for himself or others. And on the other end, he proved too small to hold up against the Nuggets’ physical perimeter players.
Some of that was also a virtue of the roster as a whole, which mostly had shooting/size issues all season long. The Nuggets, as the buzzsaw they proved to be, simply brought those weaknesses into the spotlight.
Whether or not the Lakers should be ready to commit to Russell longterm rests heavily on how much they value ‘82 vs. 16.’
As an innings eater, complementary piece and still just entering his prime, Russell is among the most skilled players on the market (the Athletic’s projection system ranked him as the best 7th best free-agent this summer).
Also, his postseason struggles may actually end up helping the Lakers sign him to a more reasonable number than previously assumed.
There is also the potential value in his contract as a trade piece. Either as a sign-and-trade option or ballast in a deal later on, a Russell return makes sense even if the last we saw of him was at rockbottom.
Will he return?
There are enough rumblings out there that suggest the Lakers themselves are uncertain about his future.
The club have also been heavily linked to other high profile point guards of late. Namely, Fred VanVleet, and most recently, Chris Paul (who has been helmed a part of the team's plan A in free agency).
It’s worth noting that even if the Lakers bring in a player like Paul, there still is an avenue where Russell is also retained to help solidify the backcourt. That said, with the amount of noise surrounding the team’s point guard hunt, it’s a pretty clear the front office are at the very least open to parting ways with Russell for a second time.
That said, the easiest path forward may simply be to run it back with Russell. With his Bird Rights in tow and the potential to finally build some continuity, there is rationale to a return.
At some point the Lakers will need to invest in a core of players and build from within. However, If they believe Russell is a part of their young pillars and a clear upgrade is available, then that’s something they should pursue.
It’s a complicated decision, but if the worst outcome (in some eyes) is a 27-year-old with proven synergy with your stars, things could be a lot worse.
You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla.