On June 22, 2017, D’Angelo Russell simultaneously became the most excited and unhappiest player in the NBA. Just hours before the Lakers would select Lonzo Ball with the second pick of the 2017 NBA Draft, D’Angelo went from being the unopposed face of the second most valuable franchise in the league to a soon to be starting shooting guard for the fourth most valuable franchise in the league.
The trade was as much a way for the Lakers to host an offensively minded Center in Brook Lopez as it was an opportunity for them to clean house in anticipation of Paul George next summer. Although a one-year rental of the scoring Lopez brother might lead the Lakers to a few more closeout wins (assuming the team keeps games close and competitive), D’Angelo Russell is through and through the winner of the swap, even if he’s no longer suiting up under the dimmed stage lights in Los Angeles.
A Losing Culture
In the modern NBA era, when players are less defined by the jerseys on their backs than the brands they’ve built, the emphasis on “culture” runs deep. The Miami Heat are the quintessential example of late, having turned around its rag-tag band of misfits from an 11-30 start by finishing an even 41-41. The biggest influence on the success? Beyond the undeniable will of “The Godfather” Pat Riley (I swear that man’s made of equal parts spite and charm) and some Erik Spoelstra elbow grease, the “winning culture” that permeates every member of the staff, team and management drives the Miami Heat to rarely take a season off (2007-2008 I’m looking at you). The same holds true for Gregg Popovich’s Spurs and Rick Carlisle’s Mavericks, both of which are franchises that thrive on attracting players on the assumption of long-term success.
Where the Lakers differ – and Magic Johnson recently gave credence to this theory – is in their ability to holistically develop players. Since stealing Shaquille O’Neal away from the Orlando Magic in 1996, the Lakers have predicated their aspirations of filling seats and filling the win column by attracting the biggest names in basketball. While gambling on a trade for then high school senior Kobe Bryant in the ’96 draft panned out (and even selecting Andrew Bynum in 2005 gave the Lakers an instrumental piece for the 2009 and 2010 championships), the “win now, win forever” mantra adopted by the Lakers was evident in the D’Angelo Russell trade.
In a conversation with Lonzo Ball, Magic made it clear of the supersized expectations on the No. 2 overall pick. “I’m going to put a little pressure on you right now, you look to your right, there’s some jerseys hanging on that wall. We expect a Ball jersey hanging up there one day, all right? Good.” Though Magic’s words were apropos particularly considering the confidence instilled in Lonzo by his father LaVar, his expectations rival those on LeBron James from the city of Cleveland on draft day 2003.
Magic followed these lofty remarks with a quick take on the Russell trade saying, “D’Angelo is an excellent player,” according to a report from ESPN’s Baxter Holmes. He continued, “He has the talent to be an All-Star. We want to thank him for what he did for us. 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.”
That the 21-year-old who suited up for 143 games as a Laker did not have the makings of a leader is equal parts believable and absurd. Of course there is the Nick Young fiasco but there is also the indelible imagery left by Russell’s “Ice in my veins,” celebration that accompanied the highest scoring game (39 points) by a Lakers rookie since Elgin Baylor in 1959. Whether that, or any of Russell’s other big games were signs of his future leadership is debatable, though he was unequivocally bound to be the face of the franchise, a role he would have almost certainly shared with Ball. Though Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr. provide a number of franchise cornerstones namely in the former’s perennial triple double threat and the latter’s length and athleticism, a one-two combo of Ball and Russell was surely worth a look, though the dead weight of Mozgov’s and Deng’s contracts challenged the feasibility of that future.
Antagonizing the Laker’s infatuation with ready-made prospects was Russell’s stumbling into a pair of poor seasons, on-court occurrences notwithstanding. The fan-named “Tank Commander,” Byron Scott juggled Kobe’s final season with a tough-talk approach to player development, both of which backfired after his second season as head coach. Similarly, the Buss Family drama moved the spotlights from the hardwood to the back-offices just as a shift to first year head coach Luke Walton brought an increase of just nine wins and growing pains for all involved. Taken together and Russell was doomed from the start. While the 2015-16 All-Rookie Second Team member wasn’t entirely free from blame, somewhere an L.A. bookie tallies the payout for bets against Russell’s Hollywood adventure.
Now, away from the insanity, Russell joins a team that has embraced the rebuild process, likely focused on finding the right fit for coaching staff and players alike. Teaming up with a hopefully healthy Jeremy Lin in the backcourt could prove exciting, if only considering the sole expectation on him of playing better than the night before.