After D’Angelo Russell was drafted with the number two pick in the 2015 NBA draft, Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak introduced Russell to the Los Angeles media by effusively aligning Russell as a talent to Magic Johnson. In 2015, the Lakers were knee deep in their point guard drought. Ever since Johnson had to step away from the game in 1991, it’s been slim pickings. The Phil Jackson regime was point guard lite. The offense relied on multiple ball handlers and not one central playmaker. Now, here was Russell.
From the moment he was drafted at the age of 19, Russell and the City of Angels were infatuated with one another. Appearance after appearance, from Hollywood to the beach, he was his D’Angelo best. He loved the limelight, spotlight, the center of attention. Los Angeles loves people who love it. The easy part was being the central figure in a city that is manic about the Lakers and often can’t see reason. The hard part was-well- the basketball.
Kobe Bryant was in his last season and was always going to be Kobe. Russell was immature as many kids his age are. He needed another year of college. But everyone was willing to roll with his development. Besides, the Lakers were going to stink and this was their version of The Process. Usher Kobe out and then start from scratch with young talent.
The year before, the Lakers drafted Julius Randle and he broke his leg in his first game. But he was back with a vengeance. Jordan Clarkson, who the Lakers stole from the Wizards a year earlier, was the Lakers best young scorer. Lou Williams was on the roster and dropped buckets the way Sweet Lou always does, crafty and unstoppable. Nick Young aka Swaggy P was on the roster for comic relief. Until it wasn’t so funny.
It was a lottery team as expected. Let Kobe be Kobe and get all the accolades in his 20th season. And then the bottom dropped out.
A viral video in which D-Lo put his friend Swaggy P on blast talking about Swaggy’s off the court behavior ruined the team chemistry. D-Lo denied he leaked the video. Others said he did. The locker room was broken. In a game at Utah, after it all became a thing, no one would pass the ball to D-Lo, nor would they speak to him. Privacy is a NBA value. You keep everything to yourself. It was more evidence of D’Angelo’s immaturity. But there were consequences. Nick Young’s fiancée Izzy Azalea couldn’t overcome the video and they broke up. It was a somber way to end the season and would have been the last thing remembered except Kobe Bryant dropped 60 points in his last NBA game. The last assist to Bryant in his iconic career?
A D’Angelo Russell pass.
When Magic Johnson took over 10 months later, everyone was being evaluated. At first, Magic had glowing praise for Russell who had matured in a year, and without the celebrity of Bryant overwhelming the team, Russell could show why he was the number 2 pick. He was the Lakers leading scorer and averaged 5 assists. He and Nick Young were able to put the incident behind them but it was a fragile truce. And then on draft night 2017 Johnson traded D’Angelo Russell to the Nets for Timofey Mozgov and the Nets #27 pick which would turn out to be Kyle Kuzma.
Magic has been ridiculed for some of his decisions (drafting Lonzo Ball instead of De’Aaron Fox) but the only way for the Mozgov contract to be off the books was to add in an asset. That was Russell.
What was unnecessary and lacked the class Magic had been associated with [before he took over the Lakers front office] was when he slammed Russell after the trade. Russell was already out the door. Like Ariana Grande says: Thank You. Next. But Magic couldn’t not go for the jugular.
“What I needed was a leader. I needed somebody that can make the other players better, and also that players want to play with.” (Magic Johnson)
Now that we’ve seen Magic’s act of digging the knife in an employee’s heart, we get that’s how he operates, but back then it felt unnecessary, particularly that last part about being someone player’s want to play with, referencing the Swaggy P video incident.
We don’t know if players want to play with D’Angelo Russell but we do know teams want D’Angelo Russell, who left Los Angeles and became an All-Star. His last year with the Lakers, Russell averaged 16 points with a 15.3 PER. This past season, he averaged 21 points with a 19.4 PER. He was an All-Star, and in the playoffs averaged 19 points per game. He was an important piece of the Nets resurgence, who ended their playoff drought quicker than the Lakers have been able to end theirs, and they did it without draft picks and without a superstar. But they had D-Lo.
A restricted free agent, if the Nets sign Kyrie Irving, as many expect, Russell and the Nets will part ways. He will get to choose from a number of teams that want him, the Lakers being one of them. The Pacers are another.
Russell is exactly who the Lakers need given their depth in the front court. They need outside shooting and a ball handler. Russell is both. They need a playmaker, someone with playoff experience, and a competitor. Russell checks the box. They need someone who has overcome adversity and has stabilized their career, a player who knows who he is and what his role is- what he can and cannot do. They need someone young. Russell is 23 years old. They need someone who can deal with the glitz and outside noise that is Lakers mania. Russell has played here before. And they need to not break the bank, since Pelinka screwed up the cap space.
It makes sense but only if Russell doesn’t hold grudges against the team that traded him away. Magic is gone and even after Magic took his swipe at Russell, no one else did.
Julius Randle and D’Angelo Russell have been the best of the Lakers lottery picks. Both were cut loose. Russell has a chance for a second chapter and some history. Assists to both Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.