Lakers’ D’Angelo Russell makes an impassioned case for himself – Orange County Register

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LOS ANGELES – More than likely, it’ll remain an unsolved mystery, this past weekend’s short-lived, social-media driven debate: Was D’Angelo Russell near tears on the Lakers’ bench after their victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday, or no?

No, said his buddy Austin Reaves, who told reporters: “It was nothing but positive vibes.”

Heck no, signaled Russell, in a clip of him working with assistant coaches ahead of Tuesday’s game against the Clippers: “I’m a … gangsta. What … am I cryin’ about?

But Russell, who’d be more of a professorial than criminal mastermind, has been in the game long enough to easily decipher the writing on the wall.

He’s got eight-plus seasons of built-in expertise on the nuance of the NBA contract, and so he knows that the deal he signed after his flat tire of Western Conference finals last season — $17.3 million this season with an $18.7 player option — is one that’s made to be moved.

And as someone who’s been traded by all four teams he’s played for — including his current one — he knows he’s the most obvious trade bait on a team that’s on the clock and going nowhere fast.

And so he seems to be playing for his Lakers life, on a tear that extended through much of Tuesday’s 127-116 loss to the Clippers, in which he contributed 27 points and 10 assists. It’s been a stretch so robust it could make even the most deep-seated D-Lo doubters doubt how low-down pessimistic they’ve been about him.

Since moving back into the starting lineup six games ago, he’s been 3-Lo, shooting 51% from 3-point range on 8.5 attempts per game.

He even put the D in D-Lo with a spectacular transition block on James Harden on Tuesday that led to a Taurean Prince bucket that cut the Clippers’ lead to 110-108.

Since Lakers coach Darvin Ham has given Russell a more sensible runway – almost 37 minutes per game worth – he’s reminded us that he can be the third-best player on a contender.

He’s averaging 27.2 points on 53.5% shooting, seven assists and just 2.7 turnovers per game. He has the third-best plus-minus (plus-3.8) on the team in this six-game span. “When he’s aggressive, we love it,” Ham said.

And yet!

The Lakers are just 22-23, stuck doing a repetitive step-forward, step-back dance that no one involved enjoys. Threadbare tires spinning and spinning.

They’re nearing the end of five-win, six-loss January, what was supposed to be a get-right month spent hosting beatable opponents, and it’s increasingly clear that something has to change for the Lakers to live up to the great and unrelenting expectations of their organization. If they’re going to be a team fit for the king who can’t win the race with Father Time forever.

A team that, even at one game below .500, is thinking about the postseason, with Ham waxing philosophically after Tuesday’s hard-fought loss about his roster – which is better equipped, he said, for the playoffs than the fast-paced, offensive free-for-all that the regular season has become.

Ah, the postseason. When Russell’s defensive shortcomings come into sharper focus, when he becomes a liability instead of an asset. When he could get played off the floor again as he was against the Denver Nuggets and have fans wondering why the Lakers didn’t swap him for someone at the trade deadline? Because, by then, this wintertime heater will have receded far in the rearview mirror.

It’s with that backdrop that Russell is making an impressive – and impassioned – case for himself: Good luck getting a return that would fill the D-Lo void. Go ahead, subtract Russell’s playmaking and ball-handling and IQ and see if you’re better off. Trade in his dependable and desperately-needed shot-making for an extra shot of defense and see if it’s enough.

Would the Atlanta Hawks’ Dejounte Murray, a 27-year-old two-way talent, suffice? Yes.

Would Chicago’s Zach LaVine or Toronto’s Bruce Brown or Brooklyn’s Dorian Finney-Smith? No.

Is there an avenue for the Lakers to improve and keep Russell? Might Ham, at some point, unlock the right rotations? Are there other moves that might end up making more sense?


But, for now, it’s hard not to feel for Russell – not to shed a tear, mind you; the plight of a well-compensated basketball player in this world isn’t much of a plight at all. But you have to appreciate the efforts of a player who, by doing everything right, by doing everything he can to make himself retainable, is making himself all the more tradable.

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