D’Angelo Russell Doesn’t Fit In Golden State. Does it Matter?

After Klay Thompson’s knee crumbled in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, the Golden State Warriors’ blueprint for next season seemed clear. Already down Kevin Durant and now devoid of the team’s only other shooter beyond Steph Curry, Coach Steve Kerr would tilt his vaunted offense away from the cutesy split-screens and constant motion, and put the ball in Curry’s trusty hands.

We would see a retooled team, sure, but also one built around the familiar Curry-Draymond Green axis.

Nope.

Upon losing Durant just as the free agency bell tolled, the Warriors went out and acquired D’Angelo Russell via the same sign-and-trade with the Brooklyn Nets, moving on from franchise icon Andre Iguodala in the process.

Russell isn’t a cheap reclamation project like DeMarcus Cousins was last season. And he’s definitely not a multiple-rings-guaranteed superstar like Durant. He’s a $117 million gamble who fundamentally alters the Warriors’ short- and long-term plans.

DLo’s payday comes off a breakout 2018-19 season as the Nets’ pick-and-roll chief. Playing with three shooting threats and a bouncy roll man in Jarrett Allen, Russell controlled games at the point of attack.

He used his 6’5” height to pull-up over dropping bigs for in-rhythm jumpers or to scan the floor for left-to-right dimes:

49.9 percent of Russell’s possessions last year came out of the pick-and-roll—a league-high mark among starters. The Minnesota Timberwolves (who were supposedly Russell’s primary Free Agency preference and suitor) would’ve loved to have a player like that.

The Warriors? It’s a tougher sell.

The Dubs ran the fewest pick-and-rolls of any team in the NBA last season. Kerr instead uses Green as a facilitator at the elbows or out of the post, with Curry and Thompson running off screens or even screening for each other. Their combined gravity sows confusion in any defense, leading to uncontested layups, dagger threes and plenty of finger-pointing among opponents.

DLo isn’t anonymous away from the ball. He shot 39.4 percent on spot-up threes last season, and teams will be wary of helping off him. But his lack of footspeed hampers his ability to create space off of screens, and even his off-ball work last year—largely handoffs and “Iverson cuts”was designed to get him a live dribble.

Less than five percent of his possessions came from cuts or off-ball screens, a shockingly low number.

That’s just not how Russell plays. His usage rate has crept up every year of his career, surpassing even Curry’s last season. The dude is a ball-dominant guard entering a ball-movement ecosystem. He’s only going to change so much.

Warriors GM Bob Myers surely already knew all this. If he’d wanted Klay Lite or a 3-and-D forward, he wouldn’t have traded for Klay’s polar opposite. Golden State brass is, apparently, comfortable reorienting the offense to incorporate Russell’s skill set.

It’s just unclear how the Warriors will be better with the ball in Russell’s hands as opposed Curry’s (or even Green’s).

DLo still has questions to answer as a primary ballhandler. His lack of explosion prevents him from beating both his direct defender and the helping big, resulting in a barrage of floaters, leaners and off-balance jumpers:

Those shots finally started going in last season, especially in the clutch, leading to a first career All-Star berth. But there’s a question whether last year’s career-high marks in three-point shooting and true-shooting are sustainable.

And even if they are, will Russell find the same space on a suddenly shooting-deprived Warriors roster?

Curry is the more proven playmaker. The baby-faced assassin has finished above the 90th percentile in pick-and-roll efficiency three of the last four years. He has a quicker trigger than Russell from deep. (Actually, he has a quicker trigger than anyone ever.) But he also leverages that transcendent shooting ability to draw bigs out of the paint and create open escape passes or driving lanes.

A conventional pick-and-roll offense with DLo running the show and Curry effectively playing shooting guard will be fine. Green remains one of the league’s craftiest short roll passers, and Curry is an offense unto himself. But Kerr will have his hands full incorporating a player so seemingly allergic to his tried-and-trusted system.

Defense will be an even greater challenge.

Curry is an imperfect option at the point-of-attack. He’s prone to greedy fouls and can get overpowered in isolation. Making the 31-year-old fight around picks for 82 games is asking a lot of his endurance and health.

Quick enough to check point guards and famously stout in the post, Thompson is the perfect complement, however. Kerr often assigned Klay to opposing ballhandlers in Golden State’s switch-heavy system. That versatility allowed the smaller Splash Brother to rove around as an off-ball irritant.

Nets coach Kenny Atkinson similarly preferred to stash Russell on spot shooters last season—he often picked up 6’9” Mike Scott in the playoffs—due to his athletic deficiencies against quicker guards.

Switching isn’t a viable alternative either. DLo became less spacey last year when making on-the-fly reads and calling out switches, but as one of the least physical players in the league, he can’t hold up in the post or on an island against bigger wings:

Perhaps Kerr will continue switching and bet on Green and Kevon Looney to help Curry and Russell fight mismatches. Either way, it’s tough to play solid defense with two athletically limited guards and, as of right now, no starting-caliber wings.

The Dubs’ offensive floor remains somewhere above league-average by virtue of merely having Curry, but their defense doesn’t have the talent, or the fit, to make any similar guarantees.

There are reasons, of course, why Golden State felt compelled to make this gamble. Iguodala’s departure hurts, but the Warriors can no longer function on autopilot for the regular season before hitting first gear in April.

And Russell will offer more production in the regular season than a 35-year-old Iggy who played just 23 minutes per game last year.

That production will be especially crucial when Curry sits. Russell may not create the best shots, but he is a shot creator nonetheless, which matters for a team thin on scoring options. Kerr will likely stagger his MVP and his newest backcourt addition to keep the team afloat in non-Steph minutes.

Some have even suggested the Dubs are in full light-years mode, acquiring Russell simply to package him in a trade for better-fitting pieces once Thompson returns. Plenty of dominos have to fall correctly if that’s the case. Thompson must breeze back from a torn ACL, and DLo’s $117 million deal needs to be a positive asset.

May 31, 2018; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson (11) forward Draymond Green (23) and guard Stephen Curry (30) celebrate against the Cleveland Cavaliers during overtime in game one of the 2018 NBA Finals at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe he’s here to stay, and Thompson returns early to add more “spread” to that spread pick-and-roll attack.

Maybe.

For now, Russell is a polarizing asset, an out-of-the-blue addition, and a decidedly un-Warriorsy player. He leaves the team with two point guards who don’t really defend point guards, and he creates an instant tug-of-war over offensive responsibilities.

The NBA universe has long theorized that Curry is most adaptable superstar in the NBA—willing and able to fit alongside any kind of teammate.

D’Angelo Russell will push that theory to the limit.

 

H/t Tim Faklis (@timfaklis) for contributing the videos in this piece.

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