Despite its lengthy seasons, the NBA can be a fickle place. Players are more often than not judged by their last games or postseason series and in doing so, their body of work prior to that is diminished or worse, forgotten.
Such was the case with D’Angelo Russell, who returned to the Los Angeles Lakers in a trade-deadline deal last season. His addition, among others, sparked a Laker rally that saw Los Angeles enter the play-in tournament, advance to the playoffs, and end their season in the Western Conference Finals, a place few expected the Lakers would reach.
There were of course, a lot of reasons as to why Los Angeles was swept by the eventual NBA champions Denver Nuggets, but Russell’s production or lack thereof, was a lingering topic during the offseason.
Russell’s per-game averages of 6.3 points, 2.0 rebounds, and 3.5 assists through the 2023 Western Conference Finals were below the 13.3 points, 2.9 rebounds, 4.6 assists he averaged throughout the postseason. Numbers aside, he had a harder time getting comfortable against the Nuggets and was an easy target on defense for a bigger and more cohesive unit in Denver.
This season may be his chance to rectify that.
Russell’s resigning drew mixed reactions but a full training camp and regular season with Los Angeles should allow him to fully integrate with the team.
Through two preseason games, Russell has shined. The shooting was stellar to say the least as he made at least 60 percent of his field goals and only two missed 3-point attempts (out of eight) in as many games.
Of course, the preseason is rarely ever a barometer for regular season and playoff success, but his quick assimilation last season should certainly invite conversations of a better second season (well technically fourth if we count his first stint). Moreover, it was evident that he was more comfortable in leading the offense as both a scorer and playmaker. That will be important in the moments where LeBron James and/or Anthony Davis are on the bench or in street clothes.
At 27, Russell comes in a more nuanced player than the one the Lakers drafted second overall back in 2015. He’s also developed into a leader that can set the tone for the rest to follow. Of course, he will still defer to James and Davis, but if things are clicking for him, he has the green light to go all out.
Healthwise, it would be great if he can play around 80 games (a figure he last reached in 2018-2019), given how James and Davis have had the unfortunate tendency of missing significant time due to injury. More games mean more opportunities and for Russell, that is crucial.
D’Angelo Russell may very well be playing with a chip on his shoulder given how the last postseason ended. The early returns have been impressive, but the rave reviews now won’t matter if he won’t be able to keep this up until May or even June.
Such is the life of being a Los Angeles Laker, where championship droughts are as short as the careers of NBA journeymen. But for someone who has ice in his veins, this shouldn’t be a problem.