The Los Angeles Lakers are down 0-2 to the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals and the team has to come to terms with the fact that benching D’Angelo Russell might be what helps them keep their championship aspirations alive.
Russell has started every postseason game for the Lakers. However, the 27-year-old guard has struggled against Denver. He finished a team-worst in the plus-minus department in Game 1 (minus-25) and Game 2 (minus-16) and is averaging just 9.0 points on 36.8% shooting. He’s hit just one of his eight 3-point attempts.
On top of his offensive woes, Russell has also been a liability at the defensive end, with the Nuggets taking full advantage of that.
“He’s not the best defender, so we wanted to make it tough on him,” Nuggets forward Bruce Brown said after Game 1.
Lowe: Lakers Need to ‘Ride or Die’ With Russell-Less Lineup
The Lakers need to make put aside the idea of hurt feelings when it comes to running out the most effective lineup. ESPN’s Dave McMenamin hit on that after Game 1, saying the Lakers are worried they would “lose” Russell if they sent him to the bench.
McMenamin’s ESPN colleague, Zach Lowe, believes it’s time to pull the trigger on the move.
“I think the lineup that they have to ride or die with in this series is Schroder, Reaves, Hachimura, LeBron, Davis. I think that’s their best lineup in this series, I might just go ahead and start it, hurt feelings be damned,” Lowe said on the most recent edition of his podcast “The Lowe Post.” “That lineup is plus-15 in 15 minutes in this series, plus-28 in 35 minutes in the playoffs … I don’t love DLo in this matchup, that lineup just works, and I might just go ahead and start it if I were the Lakers.”
Lakers Have to Weigh Impact of D’Angelo Russell Benching
Russell will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year and the Lakers are hoping to keep him around on a new deal. With free agency ahead of him, there’s no doubt Russell would feel slighted for being sat, which Lowe acknowledged.
“There are going to be some hurt feelings on D’Angelo Russell’s part if you go ahead and start that group,” Lowe said. “I think they were smartly trying to lean into the LeBron/AD pick and roll, particularly in Game 2 they ran a lot of it to test Jokic out, to test the Denver defense out, to see where the soft spots are going to be. And when Vando’s on the floor they just can’t get any traction because no one is guarding him, the whole lane is clogged.”
Russell averaged 17.4 points and 6.1 assists and shot 41.4% during his 17 regular-season appearances with LA and was a big part of the team locking up a postseason spot. Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka was very complimentary of Russell’s growth when he was acquired at the trade deadline.
“I think D’Angelo has shown a lot of growth since we had him here,” Pelinka said in February. “We do see him not just as a player that’s a short-term rental. So, we think that he’s a player that can really fit nicely, again, with our core pieces of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, just bringing spacing and shooting and playmaking and efficiency.”
Russell might still be a long-term piece for the Lakers. However, they have to do what’s best for the team right now to keep their unlikely title run alive.