D'Angelo Russell just went from point guard of the future to salary-dump facilitator in two years flat.
In June 2015, the No. 2 overall pick was pitched as a possible heir apparent to Kobe Bryant, a flashy scoring guard who would drive the Lakers’ rebuild. On Tuesday, Russell was sacrificed by L.A.’s new front-office regime to shed one of the NBA’s worst contracts.
The Lakers have reportedly agreed to trade Russell and center Timofey Mozgov to the Nets in exchange for center Brook Lopez and the No. 27 pick in Thursday’s draft. L.A.’s motivation in this deal is primarily financial: Mozgov is owed $48 million over the next three years while Lopez will make $22.6 million next season in the final year of his contract, an exchange that will give the Lakers significantly more salary cap room next summer when LeBron James, Paul George and other marquee stars enter free agency.
Let’s grade the trade.
Los Angeles Lakers: B–
Russell’s two-year tenure in L.A. should live forever in the “How Not To Develop A Top Prospect” Hall of Fame. Arriving in Hollywood at age 19, Russell was stuck playing for a coach (Byron Scott) who didn’t trust him and alongside a legend (Bryant) who had little time for him. As a result, the “highlight” of his rookie year was his release of a locker room-fracturing tape of teammate Nick Young discussing private matters. In Year Two, Russell got a new coach (Luke Walton) and was freed from Bryant, but he failed to show much progress on the court as questions about his maturity continued to dog him.
While he showed flashes of the scoring and playmaking skills that made him a top pick out of Ohio State, Russell (15.6 PPG, 4.8 APG) also proved to be a streaky shooter, a mediocre offense-initiator, and a consistently abysmal defender, posting an atrocious 113.4 defensive rating for a Lakers team that ranked dead last in defensive efficiency. Down the stretch off his second season, Russell was benched and then shifted off the ball, raising questions about his role next season. If the Lakers draft UCLA point guard Lonzo Ball at No. 2, as expected, how would a Ball/Russell backcourt ever score enough to make up for their porous defense? And, would Russell be able to reach his ceiling as a playmaker if Ball was running the show at the point?
Ultimately, the Lakers’ side of this trade can be explained by three conclusions: 1) that Russell’s untapped potential wasn’t significantly more enticing than Ball’s, 2) that the Ball/Russell/Brandon Ingram core didn’t fit well enough together to commit to incubating them together, and 3) that Johnson and Pelinka believe they have a better shot at adding star talent via trade or free agency rather than by pouring additional years into the still-unfinished Russell.
While many observers might read this trade as a slap in the face to Russell, given the hype surrounded him coming out of college, this deal really says more about just how bad the Mozgov signing was last summer. That deal, consummated in the early hours of free agency last year, looked terrible at the time and grew to look even worse as the 30-year-old center averaged a paltry 7.4 PPG and 4.9 RPG in just 54 appearances last year. L.A. needed to take drastic action to undo the Mozgov mistake, and parting with Russell isn’t quite as painful as it might appear at first blush given the other available young guards (Jordan Clarkson and, presumably, Ball) and the very real possibility that George arrives sometime in the next 12 months.
Yes, there is some backfire potential here: Russell could make the most of his change of scenery, George might go elsewhere, the James talk might prove to be a pipe dream, and the Lakers might continue striking out and/or overpaying in free agency. But Johnson and Pelinka are two well-established powerbrokers, and therefore deserve the benefit of the doubt for now. It seems unlikely they would rush to scrap their young nucleus without a clear next step or steps in mind, and they have a better understanding than outsiders how likely it would be for the Ball/Russell pairing to work, and how difficult it would be to find a home for Mozgov’s cap-crippling contract.
Adding Lopez, by the way, almost qualifies as an afterthought. The 29-year-old center has toiled away on terrible teams for most of his nine-year career and he will be in for more of the same next season barring a blockbuster addition. Lopez (20.5 PPG, 5.4 RPG) lacks the star power and charisma to be a long-term leading man for the Lakers, but his short-term contract and new-found ability to shoot threes should make him useful both to the front office and coach Luke Walton. Lopez will make LA better in the middle next season—although that’s not saying very much—and he gives Ball a proven scorer to feed. Lopez can then either smoothly exit stage left if and when the Lakers’ master plan comes to fruition or he can become another trade chip in the meantime.
Brooklyn Nets: A
The Nets are the easiest punchline in the league. They’ve given roughly 4,398 draft picks to the Celtics, their roster is incredibly talent-deficient and their short-term future is utterly hopeless given that they don’t have a lottery pick this year or next.
For a team stuck so far deep into the abyss, the smartest possible play is to acquire young talent and/or top draft picks by eating bad contracts. This is a textbook example. Brooklyn might not be able to draft Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball this year thanks to their ill-fated trade with Boston, but they now add the 21-year-old Russell to a roster that can really use his potential. Nets coach Kenny Atkinson is known for his player development and his work with lead guards, like Jeremy Lin, and he should be able to invest all of next season—and beyond—on helping craft Russell into a pick-and-roll maestro and lead scoring option.
To be sure, Russell will be tested by Brooklyn’s shaky circumstances, but he should benefit from clear role definition. Being on a bad team that really needs you is often better than being on a bad team that isn’t convinced it needs you, and the Nets really need Russell to make the leap. Last year, the Nets led the league in pace, and Russell’s per-game numbers and minutes should both show considerable bumps up in 2017-18. Whether that translates to more wins remains to be seen.
Although eating three years of a bad contract is a tough pill to swallow, the Nets have been downing slop for years with no end in sight. They have no shot at quality free agents, they badly needed to replenish their coffers of young starter-quality talent, and they had little beyond Lopez in the way of true trade assets.
This winds up as a marriage of convenience for Russell and the Nets, pairing a drifting point guard with a listless franchise. If it doesn’t work, oh well. Brooklyn was going to be terrible anyway and Lopez wasn’t carrying them anywhere. If the move does work, it very well might be regarded as the moment the Nets started ascending from rock bottom.