Wrapping My Mind Around the D’Angelo Russell Trade

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If you are a Laker fan, like I am, your mind probably ran the full gamut of emotions like mine did when, two days before the 2017 draft, this Woj bomb hit your Twitter feed:

After only two years since he was drafted, the Lakers decided it was time to part ways with D’Angelo Russell, leveraging him to unload Mozgov’s contract in exchange for Brook Lopez and the 27th pick in this year’s draft. The move has immediately been billed as a way for the Lakers to not just set their sights on acquiring Paul George (either this summer via trade or next via free agency), but also to create cap space to add a second superstar to play with George (the hot name being one LeBron James). Be that as it may, parting ways with Russell creates a domino effect in the Lakers’ plans that leaves many fans feeling unsettled. With some in Lakerland clearly calling this trade a mistake.

Now, is the trade a clear and outright mistake? Personally, I think it’s too soon to make that decision - which essentially means the answer is no. Is it highly possible that the Lakers will regret trading Russell? Yes, that is highly possible given his talent and potential. But there are so many moving parts that I think the answer to this question won’t be clear for another couple of seasons. And I believe for a few different reasons.

What if the Lakers land Paul George + Superstar X?

Here’s why it’s so hard to say anything either way about this trade for me. Sure, Russell arguably has superstar potential, but there is still a big “if” on whether he will reach it or not. Moving to Brooklyn could be just what the doctor ordered for him, but it was also clear that the Lakers didn’t feel like they could afford to sit and wait for him to blossom. And with Paul George coming to the Lakers looking more and more like a reality, Lakers decided they needed to make their move now to clear cap space, not necessarily for George himself, but in order to bring in a secondary star to pair with Paul George.

Despite all the LeBron to LA rumors, I doubt that will be the superstar they bring in — but it’s clear they are looking to add more than Paul George to position themselves back into Championship contention. DeMarcus Cousins is Unrestricted Free Agent in 2018, and there are other players like Russell Westbrook, DeAndre Jordan, and Carmelo Anthony who have player options they can choose to opt out of. If the Lakers can add one of these guys, along with Paul George, because of the cap availability they created by getting to include Mozgov’s contract in the Russell deal, the trade could be considered worthwhile in that regard. But being able to do this remains to be seen.

The instant rebuttal, of course, is that the Lakers never should have signed the Mozgov deal (or the Luol Deng deal for that matter) in the first place. And that’s a very fair and true point. But that was also a previous regime who signed those contracts. Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka are moving forward with their vision, not Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss’ vision. Which leads me to another possible reason for this trade.

Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka made their own evaluation of Russell

Remembering that Magic Johnson and Pelinka are moving forward with their own vision, with a roster that they inherited, its reasonable to assume they are in the process of doing their own evaluations of this roster. And it’s clear the one young player they deemed untouchable was Brandon Ingram. And they also made sure to point out that the № 2 pick, who we now know to be Lonzo Ball, was also untouchable. Russell, on the other hand, persisted in trade rumors ever since the rumors of the Lakers wanting to draft Lonzo Ball began to surface.

It’s possible, then, that the Lakers new front office were not sold that Russell was a franchise-building piece for the near future. Debating this evaluation is fair, but ultimately this was their decision to make and they have made it. It is clear that Magic has visions of recreating that 80’s “showtime” he brought to the Forum so long ago with the team he is building. If he did not believe Russell could be a fulcrum for helping bring that back, then he became one of their best assets for making a move to get players who can bring showtime back to LA.

Rob Pelinka, for his part, shared his reasons for why they made the D’Angelo Russell trade:

It’s also important to realize that with constant talk and rumors about Russell’s immaturity issues, unwarranted or not, it was clear his value was not as high as it should’ve been around the league, but also shows why the Lakers might be willing to part ways with him in what could be perceived as a salary dump. And as Pelinka outlines, they like Russell’s talent, but this move opens up a huge window of opportunity for them moving forward. Plus, they get a very good player in Brook Lopez to help improve the quality of play this season, and perhaps even bring in more assets in a February deadline deal. And another pick in this year’s draft which they used to leverage two more picks later on while taking a shot at a player they liked in Kyle Kuzma.

It was only a few games in summer league, but for what’s it worth Kuzma looks like he can be a useful contributor to the Lakers this year and beyond. Many have even considered him one of the steals of the draft given where the Lakers got him. And that doesn’t even get into who the Lakers took with their first pick…

Lonzo Ball is clearly Magic and Rob’s Point Guard of the Future

This is probably ultimately the bigger point to be made here. It was a badly kept secret for months leading into the draft that Magic Johnson, and presumably Rob Pelinka as well, were very interested in drafting Lonzo Ball. Magic was seen watching him play several times for UCLA, even at the penultimate game versus De’Aaron Fox and the University of Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament. And once the Lakers received the number 2 pick in the draft via the lottery, the noise about them drafting Ball only intensified.

While Magic may have played it cool leading up to the draft, leaking they were also considering taking Fox and even Joshua Jackson at number 2 instead, they ultimately did in fact draft Lonzo Ball. And they’ve had nothing but effusive praise for Lonzo since drafting him.

The fact that Magic has been generous with comparing Lonzo to himself speaks volume in how highly he views him and his talent, specifically as a point guard who can bring out the vision he and Pelinka have for the Lakers moving forward. So it’s become very clear that Lonzo is their guy to play point guard, the very position Russell has played for much of his pro career.

Now, it’s true, Russell has learned to play off the ball during his time on the Lakers. He did so during Kobe’s farewell season, and at the end of the 2016–2017 season Russell began to primarily play shooting guard for the Lakers. So fans, myself included, believed this meant that Russell and Lonzo could play together in the same backcourt. And that may have been a legitimate consideration for the Lakers’ front office leading up to the draft.

The reasons they did not move forward with that plan, we do not know. In an interview about Lonzo, Magic referred to his “leadership” and how that was a big factor in why they believe he will be successful. Many in the media took that to be a shot at D’Angelo Russell, that by Magic saying Lonzo is a leader that means he did not feel that Russell was a leader. And that could be true, but I think that’s reading too much into the words being spoken personally. I think it’s as simple as Magic and Rob Pelinka are high on Lonzo, but did not see it working long term playing both together. And Russell was able to offer them flexibility and assets that they wanted, so they made the move and traded him knowing they had their point guard of the future coming in. It’s a reasonable take, and one that I don’t think is necessarily a bad decision on their end.

In summary, I would’ve loved to Russell and Lonzo play together. Now Laker fans will have to focus more on seeing Lonzo and Brandon Ingram play together. But that’s also a very good thing to be excited about. D’Angelo may very well become a star in Brooklyn, the talent to do so is clearly there. And if he does let’s be happy for him there. At the same time, I think it’s also highly likely it won’t be so painful for Laker fans to see, as they will be watching a playoff team and potential contender taking the court every night at the same time. For now, we’ll have to wait and see how it all plays out.