After tossing D’Angelo Russell in as a pot sweetener in his 2017 trade to get off Timofey Mozgov’s albatross contract, Magic Johnson stated that he felt D’Angelo had the talent to be an All-Star, but the Lakers needed a leader, someone who would make his teammates better - perhaps someone a bit more mature. Johnson caught heat for these harsh comments in 2017 and trading a young player with All-Star potential looks no better when he realizes that promise in his next stop, but just on the surface it appears Magic Johnson may have been right — two years on and Russell has matured, grown into his game, and developed into an All-Star.
Just days after Johnson stepped down from his role of President of Basketball Operations for the Los Angeles Lakers, Russell will lead the Nets into his first career playoff game — the teams first since 2015. This season Russell experienced his first sustained taste of personal and team success, and it all likely tastes a bit sweeter with the demise of Johnson and the Lakers.
D’Angelo Russell is an incongruity in the Nets offense, sometimes operating on a completely different plain than the rest of his team. As a team, the Kenny Atkinson lead Nets seek out the three ball (ranking 5th, 2nd, and 5th in 3pt Frequency in his first three season), desperately avoiding ball-stopping and the mid-range jumper.
Brooklyn as a whole takes just 25 percent of their shots from the mid-range, compared to Russell who takes 42 of his total attempts from the middle distance.
The chart above, created by Liberty Ballers’ mad scientist Andrew Patton, examines the likelihood of a field goal attempt by Russell from each spot on the floor. Two things immediately jump out from this chart, one being the frequency of shots coming from the short-mid to floater zone - one of Russell’s signature shots.
Also notable, is just how often Russell finds himself using the middle of floor, operating mainly in a straight line from the top of the arc down to the rim. This all stems from the blitz of pick and rolls Russell throws at opposing defenses. Equaling to just under 50 percent of his total possessions, D’Angelo has averaged 11.4 pick and rolls per game this season, only Kemba Walker averages more per game.
While his shooting clips have improved marginally over his time in Los Angeles, it’s Russell’s playmaking that has taken a major leap forward this season, seeing his Assist Percentage jump from 26.8 his final year in purple and gold to 34.9 a year ago and all the way to 39.3 in this breakout campaign. He’s not only throwing lobs - he’s mastered that left handed pocket pass to a diving big and always has his eyes peeled for the whereabouts of Three Point Contest winner, Joe Harris, on the perimeter.
From the middle pick and roll, Russell has a bevy of options based on what the defense gives him. He can get a floater or mid-range jumper if the center drops, fire from deep if his man goes under, or toss a lob up to rim runner extraordinaire Jarrett Allen if the defense pauses. This is the exact threat that the Sixers struggle to contain, and Brett Brown knows it. When asked about the matchup, Brown immediately brought up the middle pick and roll and kept coming back to one word - dangerous.
It’s no secret that the Sixers have struggled to contain middle pick and rolls this season, it’s also no secret that the Nets have had enough success against Philly’s drop scheme to be a Jimmy Butler game winner from taking a 3-1 regular season series victory. Philadelphia should take solace in the fact that Russell’s 38 point explosion against the Sixers came early in the Jimmy Butler era, almost three months before the Tobias Harris trade rounded the 76ers into their final form.
Looking at Russell’s approximate field goal percentage floor map, it becomes obvious that the southpaw is much more comfortable moving to his left, and it shows in his game. Not only does his shot struggle from this side of the court, but his vision suffers as well. The Sixers could, try and employ a strategy similar to what Milwaukee has used to some success against reigning MVP and fellow lefty, James Harden, broken down below by Brew Hoop writer Bucks Film Room.
The Bucks played an exaggerated defense on Harden, forcing him to his right, denying ball screens. This gave Harden a free run at the rim until he would be met by Brook Lopez, it worked in part because Houston’s starting center, Clint Capella, was not a threat to take Lopez away from the rim.
Like Capella, Jarrett Allen is not a threat to stretch Embiid away from the rim. Even when Brooklyn went to a smaller lineup in the second half of their recent loss to the 76ers, Embiid found himself matched up with Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, another non-threat from the three point line. Russell, although dangerous, does not pose a threat level in the same stratosphere as Harden and likely won’t require such an outside the box scheme — but there are certainly pieces of this strategy Philadelphia can use to limit the Nets’ star.
The Sixers don’t have a regular contributor who is a natural fit defending ball dominant guards (unless, is that Zhaire Smith’s music I hear??), and because of that likely use a committee of defenders consisting of Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler, and TJ McConnell to guard Russell. In the regular season, it was Butler who got the call when he was on the floor with DLo, taking primary control on him 38 possessions in just two games, compared to 30 and 27 possessions over four games for Simmons and McConnell respectively. It was Simmons, though, that was able to handle Russell, holding him to just 40 percent from the field over those 30 possessions compared to 56 for Butler and 62 for McConnell.
For all his growth and improvement in this campaign, D’Angelo Russell is still a rather inefficient player. On some nights, he’s just as likely to go 6/24 as he is to go 12/24 from the field. The old mantra of a player being a shot maker rather than a shooter certainly could be applied to the young point guard. Because he often operates outside of the Nets regular scheme, the Nets offensive success is as intertwined with Russell’s performance as you might expect - the Nets actually score 2.5 less points per 100 possessions with Russell on the court.
Brooklyn has a drove of guards capable of hurting Philadelphia — Caris Levert, Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, and even Shabazz Napier all have the ability to be a throne in the Sixers side, but it is Russell who has the skill to lift up this offense above it’s 19th ranked slot and poise a true threat to the Sixers. In order to stop that from happening, the Sixers will need to figure out their middle pick and roll struggles and keep the microwave that is Russell from turning on.