By MASON BISSADA
It goes without saying that D’Angelo Russell was not an initial target of the Golden State Warriors prior to the 2019 NBA offseason. Russell was a restricted free agent looking to garner a max-contract who played the same position as Steph Curry. The Warriors were instead focused on retaining their superstar free agent, Kevin Durant. However when it became clear that Durant would not be returning, the Golden State front office attempted to make the most of an unfortunate predicament. For General Manager Bob Myers, his job temporarily ceased to be acquiring assets that fit his roster and became simply acquiring assets, period.
“It happened really quickly,” Myers said during Media Day. “But from our standpoint, it was either we try to get something from the situation…or we don’t get anything at all and Kevin goes, which he certainly had the right to do, and Brooklyn could have taken him into their (salary cap) space.”
The Warriors were fortunate that the Brooklyn Nets also had an outgoing, max-level free agent, and even more fortunate that all parties agreed to a sign-and-trade. However, before inking Russell to a hefty 4-year, $117 million deal, Golden State was forced to trade Andre Iguodala and a protected first-round pick to the Memphis Grizzlies in order to clear the cap space necessary to sign Russell. Iguodala, though now age 35, is still a more-than-capable wing-defender that the Warriors would love to have given their current lack of wing depth. They are also incapable of replacing Iguodala, as sign-and-trade transactions trigger a hard salary cap for the team. Regardless, the Warriors walked away with a new, notable name on their roster, and Myers must now cede the floor to Steve Kerr with the hopes that he’ll validate his decision.
On the court, D’Angelo Russell is still somewhat of an enigma, though he does have distinct strengths and weaknesses. Last year, his fourth in the NBA, was a breakout year for the guard, as he averaged 21.1 points and seven assists on his way to his first All-Star appearance (though it was as an injury replacement). He was a clear-cut number one option for the Nets, posting a 31% usage rate, the fifth highest usage in the league, according to NBA.com. Most of this ball-handling was spent on his bread-and-butter, the pick-and-roll.
It might be misleading to say that Russell is at his best as a pick-and-roll ball handler, simply because it’s the only form of offense he’s ever known, at least as a Net (his Laker days playing alongside old-man Kobe Bryant and Jordan Clarkson don’t hold much weight in terms of analysis). In the 2017-18 season, Russell ranked 13th in the NBA in pick-and-roll frequency as a ball-handler amongst players who played more than 30 games, running the offense for 43.5% of his possessions. In the 2018-19 season, that number rose to 49.9%, good for fifth in the league.
The play is fitting for Russell’s skillset. He’s a shifty, probing guard with a silky jumpshot that he can hit either beyond the arc or in the mid-range. When defenses would go under the screen, Russell wouldn’t hesitate to pull up. This worked to some degree in Brooklyn when Russell was paired with an excellent roll man in Jarrett Allen. But are the Warriors going to shift their entire motion offense, the offense that has thrown so many teams for a loop the last five years, to cater to Russell’s strengths?
Head Coach Steve Kerr answered this question rather definitively. “We know D’Angelo’s really good in pick-and-roll, so we’re going to put him in pick-and-roll,” Kerr said.
If this turns out to be the case, Russell will be paired with a ball-handler’s dream pick-and-roll partner in Draymond Green. The Curry-Green pick-and-roll proved time and again to be an extremely effective tool in playoff scenarios when necessary, particularly last year while Kevin Durant was injured. Green is a genius passer out of the short roll, with point guard-level vision capable of finding lob threats and corner shooters. The jury is still out on whether the Warriors have enough shooting on their roster to keep defenses honest, but they know at least one of the players standing behind the arc will be a career 44% 3-point shooter with one of the quickest releases in NBA history.
Speaking of Steph Curry, it appears that he and Russell will be sharing the ball-handling responsibilities. Russell has experience with this, playing alongside point guard Spencer Dinwiddie in Brooklyn and assuming the role of off-ball shooter. Russell shot an extremely efficient 39% on catch-and-shoot 3’s last season. If he can continue this in Golden State, he’ll provide a much-needed pressure-release in terms of spacing.
“It’s getting him used to when we don’t call plays,” Curry said when asked what kinks needed to be worked out offensively between him and Russell. “It’s our second nature, our reads, spacing and overall expectations… It’s just make the reads and go. For the most part, just don’t stop moving and good things will happen.”
When Curry is off the floor, it’ll be the D’Angelo show. It’s a safe bet to assume that one of the two guards will be on the floor at all times.
“We’ll probably end up staggering them because they’ll be our two top scorers, and we’ll figure all that stuff out as we go,” Kerr said at Media Day.
Russell will get all he can handle in terms of usage, and the Warriors will need him to create seams in the opposing defense. He still has a lot of room to grow as a go-to option. He’s never reached league-average in terms of true shooting percentage, partially because he doesn’t get to the rim and doesn’t draw fouls. But if Kerr uses him as the back-up point guard, he should be able to break down bench-level defenses and at least buy his team time until Curry checks back in.
As a whole offensively, there doesn’t seem to be a scenario where Russell isn’t at least a slight positive for the Warriors. His jumpshot is crucial and his court vision is an added bonus that will keep the engine humming.
“I think with this style of play that we play with here, the pass is valued,” Russell said. “The pass is what gets a guy the shot. The pass is what keeps the offense flowing. A lot of guys are forced to double-team, so you have to get off of it, and that creates an advantage downhill. I think just adding another passer on to the team, myself, it just can help the team.”
Where the question mark truly lies in terms of the Russell addition is on the other side of the ball. He’s never been known to be a good defender, despite decent physical tools. He’s long for his position, and has a heft to him that he could potentially use to switch onto larger offensive players in the post. But he refuses to fight over a screen and often loses his man off the ball.
This won’t fly with Golden State, a team that has notched a Top-11 defense each of the last six seasons. The Warriors cannot afford to hide him on the opposing team’s less-threatening guard, as they are already forced to cater to Curry’s defensive limitations.
Russell will likely never be an above-average defender, but the Warriors switching schemes should minimize his weaknesses to some degree. They may have lost their surplus of long-armed, strong-yet-mobile wing defenders, but they still have a former Defensive Player of the Year starting at power forward in Green who can clean up defensive mishaps when it matters most.
Russell’s fit overall is a bit round-peg-square-hole-ish, but if one were to squint, there’s a chance he can help bolster the offense while Klay Thompson is out and be just passable enough on defense for Steve Kerr to keep his remaining hair. He may very well be worth Bob Myers’ risk. However, if that is the case, the ball may not be completely out of Myers’ court in terms of asset management.
If Russell starts the season on a hot streak and his trade value increases, Myers may look to capitalize and flip Russell at the trade deadline (or any time in the next four years) for a piece that fits more seamlessly with the Curry-Thompson-Green core. But this scenario is a bit of a catch-22; if Russell is playing well enough to increase his trade value, and this play is translating to winning games, than the Warriors should want to keep him and hope that this success continues. If he underperforms, his value will diminish and the team might hesitate to trade him as they would likely take a loss on their investment. Either way, it seems more likely than not that Russell stays, at least in the short term. The Warriors seem to be viewing this year as a transition season, and should be willing to test Russell’s fit before making yet another hasty decision. At the very least, he’s an exciting, young variable that will give fans something to wonder about as the season unfolds.