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D’Angelo Russell is once again stuck in limbo

Despite a scorching shooting month, the 27-year-old finds himself in a familiar place as uncertainty about his future in Los Angeles looms as the trade deadline approaches.

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Chicago Bulls v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Tyler Ross/NBAE via Getty Images

Back in the summer of 2017, the Los Angeles Lakers decided to trade D’Angelo Russell to the Brooklyn Nets just two years after drafting him with the second-overall-pick.

The move, which ultimately served as a means to offload Timofey Mozgov’s massive contract, was a polarizing decision at the time. Despite Russell’s uneven play during his first years as a pro, there were enough tantalizing flashes of his shooting and playmaking upside that gave fans optimism about his future in the backcourt.

However, his fit both on and off the court, did not align with the vision of those within the front office.

“D’Angelo is an excellent player,” then-team president Magic Johnson told ESPN’s Baxter Holmes after the deal. “He has the talent to be an All-Star...But what I needed was a leader. I needed somebody also that can make the other players better and also [somebody] that players want to play with.”

2015 NBA Rookie Photo Shoot Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Not only was Johnson’s quote a damning indictment of Russell’s character, but it also directly played a role in shaping his checkered perception around the league according to the guard.

“I remember Magic Johnson was like ‘We need a leader’ or something like that. And I was already a natural leader. Like that was just already me and I didn’t even know I was. After I got away from that, I was like ‘Damn, that’s really me. Everything that he said, I’m actually doing that.’ I started realizing my teammates did want to play with me. I did make guys around me better. I did lead guys off the floor and help them get their s— together routine-wise, diet, sleep, whatever. I was actually that guy. But he created this stereotype that I wasn’t this guy so then I was fighting that my whole career.”

Following the trade, which netted the team Brook Lopez and the 27th-overall-pick which eventually became Kyle Kuzma, the Lakers selected Lonzo Ball in the lottery to fill their hole at point guard.

The swap would ultimately prove beneficial for both parties as Russell went on to find success in Brooklyn, helping lead the team to the playoffs and even earning an All-Star nod during his tenure.

However, as was the case in Los Angeles, Russell’s stay in Brooklyn was short-lived as the Nets shifted course from their exciting young homegrown roster and instead went star hunting, moving Russell to the Warriors as part of a sign-and-trade for Kevin Durant. Soon after, Kyrie Irving would fill the spot Russell left behind.

Unfortunately for Russell, this chain of events would kick off an ongoing journey in search of stability. At still only 27, Russell has already been traded four times in his career.

His most recent move came last season when he was dealt back to Los Angeles. Russell would play a key role in helping turn the Lakers’ campaign around as the team eventually reached the Western Conference Finals. Yet, after a disappointing individual performance against the Denver Nuggets, questions once again began to arise regarding his future with the Lakers.

Those whispers only grew louder over the summer when Russell re-signed with Los Angeles on only a two-year deal. As part of the negotiation, Russell also waived his no-trade clause.

Whether spoken or not, the contract was likely signed with the belief the Lakers would once again shop their former lottery pick. As a result, this has left Russell playing out the season in a familiar state of limbo as his fate on the team feels left to a roll of the dice.

Los Angeles Lakers v Los Angeles Clippers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Currently sitting at 23-23 and clinging onto the 9th spot in the Western Conference, the Lakers have come up short of their lofty expectations heading into the year. And with the trade deadline less than two weeks away, this naturally has dragged Russell right back into the rumor mill.

The Lakers’ desire to move on from Russell has only been made more apparent given how many backcourt players they’ve been linked to over the past month. Most notable among those has been Atlanta Hawks guard, Dejounte Murray, who is reportedly the team’s “top priority” on the market.

In terms of the on-court reasons as to why the team continues to canvas the league for a replacement for Russell, the answers mostly lie on the defensive end.

It is no secret Russell has been a below-average defender in his career. Between his waning effort and lack of traditional athleticism, question marks remain about his ability to stay on the floor in the playoffs.

This is especially the case when you compound Russell’s defensive limitations with those of his backcourt mate, Austin Reaves. Having one player opposing teams can target is one thing, having two with similar deficiencies makes it extremely difficult to construct lineups with championship-level two-way capability.

On the season, lineups that have featured the Russell/Reaves backcourt have a woeful defensive rating of 124.2 according to Cleaning the Glass.

While Russell’s defense remains shaky, his offense — and his seamless fit next to LeBron James and Anthony Davis — continues to be undeniable.

Even with the external noise that has hung over him like a cloud, there is a real case that this has been Russell’s most efficient season to date.

As of this article, Russell is shooting a career-best 42% behind the arc, is finishing around the rim at his second-highest clip (70%) and his 57.8% effective field-goal percentage would be his best mark ever for a full season.

Regardless of your views of Russell as a player, the degree to which he has stepped up recently despite his current team actively trying to trade him has been downright impressive.

Rather than simply going through the motions, Russell has instead injected the Lakers with a much-needed jolt of enthusiasm and scoring punch.

During this month (10 games), Russell is averaging 23.5 points per game, 6.3 assists, a sizzling 65.8% true-shooting percentage, and also leads the team in plus-minus.

Whether Russell’s incredible scoring outburst is a last-ditch effort to convince the Lakers he’s worth holding onto or a middle finger on his way out, there’s something admirable about watching a player control what they can in real time.

Although he is not without fault when it comes to why he’s been unable to stick on a team or perceived as a non-winning player, in many ways, Russell’s fate has largely been due to factors outside of him.

In essentially every stop he’s been in, Russell has simply been a placeholder until that next, better guard comes around. And when they do, he’s passed on to the next team for the cycle to begin again.

Now with just days before the trade deadline, Russell faces the same precarious position he’s found himself in throughout his career.

There’s context to why the writing is on the wall once again for Russell. Given the Lakers’ struggles this season, their long-term investment in Reaves, and the team not wanting Russell to walk or opt back in this summer, there are only so many remaining options left.

From a roster construction standpoint, trading Russell now simply makes the most sense if the Lakers are deadset on not investing in him for the foreseeable future.

That said, it’s still hard not to feel for him.

Yes, he’s a multi-millionaire who will continue to play basketball in this league going forward. Yet, he is also a person who like everyone else, ultimately just wants to be somewhere that genuinely wants him to be there. Hopefully, he finds that place wherever he lands next.

If this is the last we see of Russell in purple and gold, watching him go out shooting is fitting. No fear, just buckets. A player operating in his own private zone, moving at his own tempo, and living in his casual Friday on a nightly basis.

While it remains to be seen what the future holds for Russell after February 8th, maybe the best words of advice he can follow are those of his own.

“No matter what you’ve been through or what’s going on ahead, a fresh start’s always good,” Russell said following his trade to the Nets in 2017. “It’s a new opportunity, and just to be in the league in general, no matter what team you’re on, you still want to be in the league. You see guys come and go every year. Just to be in the league is a pleasure.”

You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla.

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