So, we’ve had some time to process the Nets first-round loss to the 76ers, and now it’s time to turn our attention to the offseason and, specifically, the offseason’s biggest question: What’s going to happen with D’Angelo Russell.
There seem to be two camps right now when it comes to Russell. There’s one that’s extremely devoted to him and think Russell’s a star in the making, a guy who you’d rather have over Kyrie Irving. There’s another camp that thinks Russell is going to be an albatross the moment the Nets ink him to a big deal, that they’ll never be able to win with him on the roster.
But the truth, as it so often does, lies somewhere in the middle. I don’t think D’Angelo Russell can be the best player on a championship team, but I think he can be a player on a championship team, if the right pieces are around him.
So, I’ve decided to undertake the arduous task of giving a complex look at all the angles of the Russell decision — why he’s should stay, why you might look to move him, and, ultimately, what should be done with Brooklyn’s All-Star guard.
The Case For D’Angelo Russell
D’Angelo Russell just finished his fourth NBA season. As a 22-year-old, Russell averaged 21.1 points and seven assists per game, made his first All-Star appearance, and was a big part of the Nets earning the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. With the team’s other blossoming star, Caris LeVert, missing a large chunk of the year with a foot injury, a lot of the scoring responsibility fell on Russell. So did the playmaking responsibility. He did a great job with both things.
Russell made his living as a shooter from midrange and out. He took 3.8 midrange shots per night – 19th most in the league — and made 43.4% of them, and took 7.2 above the break threes per night, hitting 35.9% of those. Would you like a little more efficiency on those? Sure, but Russell was shooting a lot of shots off the dribble, which is always going to be a tougher shot than shooting off the spot up. 9.8 of Russell’s attempts per game were pull-ups, versus just 3.4 of them coming off catch and shoot looks. He shot 39.4% on his 3.3 catch and shoot threes per game, an incredibly solid mark.
And he’s still young! David Berri and Martin Schmidt analyzed player performance and aging and came up with this chart that shows how player performance should change on a season-to-season basis by age:
Russell hasn’t even hit his age-23 season yet, meaning his prime is still ahead of him. A five-year contract taking Russell through the end of his age-27 season gives you his prime and doesn’t really give you diminishing returns at the end of that contract. The Nets have a chance to lock up a solid shooter and passer.
Speaking of passing, Russell was second in the NBA in assist percentage this season. He runs those pick and rolls with Jarrett Allen extremely well and while he was seventh in the NBA in turnovers last year, his assist-to-turnover ratio was pretty much right in line with Ben Simmons’, who gets so much credit for his passing skills. Don’t underestimate Russell’s passing ability.
The Case Against D’Angelo Russell
Now, advanced stats aren’t the end-all, be-all when it comes to determining things about a player’s value, but some of Russell’s numbers are…not what you want to see from a player who’s heading towards a max contract. His O-PIPM of 1.0 last year ranks outside the top-50; factor in defense, and his overall PIPM of 0.2 ranks outside of the top-100.
There’s also the fact that Russell didn’t have some huge impact in terms of on/off stats. The Nets had a 109.5 offensive rating when Russell was off the floor, but that rose to just 110.3 when he was on; they were better, but not significantly better. This can be partially attributed to the Nets having a solid guard rotation, with Spencer Dinwiddie coming off the bench. Russell’s departure would obviously put a lot of pressure on Dinwiddie and subtract from the team’s biggest strength, but that’s also something that could be addressed with Brooklyn’s cap space in free agency.
Russell also struggled to finish near the basket this season. I wrote pretty extensively during the season about that — check out this piece — but to sum some things up:
Russell finished with the lowest free throw rate ever among players with a usage rate over 30% and at least 1500 minutes played. This is evidence of a serious issue: that Russell doesn’t get into position to be fouled, i.e. he doesn’t get into the paint and instead turns a lot of his drives into pull up midrange shots.
The big reason Russell doesn’t get into the paint? He can’t finish there. Here, via Positive Residual, is Russell’s hex chart from last year, showing how his true shooting percentage compared to the league average from various spots on the court:
Russell’s a good finisher in the midrange, but he struggled immensely vs. league average in the restricted area. Russell has to finish stronger there if he wants to be a more efficient and effective weapon.
There are also concerns about Russell on the defensive end. Synergy’s defensive tracking numbers can be a little wonky at times, but Russell ranked in the 43rd percentile or worse in the three play types he defended the most — pick and roll ball handler (41st), spot up (43rd), and handoff (29th). Overall, he ranked in the 41st percentile in points allowed per possession. For comparison’s sake, another offensive-first point guard, Kyrie Irving, was 62nd percentile defensively.
Can Russell be a competent defender? Sure! But he doesn’t have the same physical tools as someone like Caris LeVert, and it’ll always be an uphill battle for him on that end of the floor. His shooting ability on the offensive end can definitely make up for some of those deficits, but not all of them.
So About Free Agency…
This all leads us into the real question: What do the Nets do with D’Angelo Russell in free agency?
Russell is restricted, so the Nets can match whatever offer sheet he gets. But the Nets also want to be big players in free agency, and unless I’m mistaken, the only way to end up with two max free agents is to get off of the Allen Crabbe contract and also to renounce rights to Russell, which is where things get interesting.
Kevin Durant is the big name people have been talking about, and if Durant comes to Brooklyn and the Nets fail to lure another big star, bringing back Russell as a complementary player makes a ton of sense. I know I’m not the world’s biggest D’Lo fan, but after Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, and Jimmy Butler, there’s no one who interests me more than just re-signing Russell does. Yes, I have concerns about what his ceiling is, but a young, All-Star player can’t be easily replaced.
To me, two scenarios are pretty easy: If you get Kevin Durant, you bring Russell back to play beside him. If you somehow get Durant and can get Kyrie Irving, you let Russell walk, because a Durant/Irving core is instantly a contender in the East.
Where I wonder about things is the scenario where the Nets strike out in free agency. Signing Russell at that point would eat up a ton of cap space and limits your future ability to be players in free agency.
I think a big question the Nets have to answer is this: If you end up having to max D’Angelo Russell, do you think you could potentially trade him if needed in order to go after bigger name players? I think they could, and that’s part of why I’d lean toward bringing Russell back even if you strike out in free agency. This is a playoff caliber team as presently constructed, though they feel like they’re a piece away from being more than a team that loses in the first round. If you lose Russell, you’re two pieces away and back to playing the lottery game, but you’re too far from the bottom to end up with good lottery odds. Basically, you’re a worse version of the Hornets if you let D’Lo go; re-signing him gives you a good, young player to keep you in the playoff hunt and also gives you a good trade chip if needed. And while I’m not a cap expert, I’m pretty sure you can find a way to create space again next Summer, though that free agency class isn’t quite as good as this one.
So, essentially, I’m saying that the people who are vehemently against D’Angelo Russell and the people who want to keep him at all costs are both off base. He’s a good player who can pair with a star, but you should be willing to move on in a scenario where you stars are attainable.