Lichtenstein: D'Angelo Russell Hasn’t Proven The Point In Injury-Plagued Season

D'Angelo Russell
Photo credit USA TODAY Images

When I brainstorm topics for these posts on late-March Nets basketball, I, like many of you, wonder, “What’s the point?”

Well, though another dreadful season is a few weeks away from its welcomed conclusion, the Nets do have some issues to iron out before another expectedly eventful summer.

One of those matters is "who's the point?"

I have been having some serious doubts about whether it can be D’Angelo Russell, even though the Nets invested heavily in the 22-year-old last offseason. General manager Sean Marks obtained the former Laker in a trade that cost his club its most marketable player (center Brook Lopez), a late first-round pick (used by Los Angeles to select forward Kyle Kuzma) and $48 million in wasted salary-cap space over three seasons to harbor center Timofey Mozgov on the Nets’ roster.

MORE: Lichtenstein: Nets Growing Frustrated With Crunch-Time Ineptitude

Marks was gambling that the Nets’ culture would develop Russell into the star the franchise could not acquire by other means. Lottery picks? They’re not coming back until 2019, thanks to the disastrous Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce trade by the prior regime in 2013. Free agents? The losing environment cast such a stink that the desired players refused to consider Brooklyn as a plausible destination. Marks attempted to coax restricted free agents with vastly overgenerous offers, but even those who signed were matched by the incumbent clubs.

That left the trade market, where Russell materialized after two inconsistent seasons directing a wayward ship in L.A. While his raw numbers stood out, he had maturity issues and, after the trade, his leadership was questioned by Lakers President of Basketball Operations Magic Johnson.

With coach Kenny Atkinson and a highly touted Performance Team fully committed to player development, the Nets were confident they could execute the necessary makeover on Russell.

The Nets will have one more season to get it going in the right direction before Russell hits restricted free agency in the summer of 2019. Another campaign like this one and maybe Marks shouldn’t throw good money after bad.

While it’s easy to blame a left knee injury that cost Russell 34 games for a lack of progress this season, there’s enough of a sample size on the court to question whether he could actually become the future building block he was hyped to be since being selected second overall in the 2015 draft.

Again, the basic stats have shown improvement this season, as Russell is scoring at a career-high clip (16.1 ppg) with more rebounds (4.1) and assists (5.1) per game in less court time (26.0 mpg) than he saw in L.A. His 41.4 percent field goal percentage is up slightly over his first two seasons, though his 3-point rate decline (32.6 percent from 35 percent) is worrisome.

The bigger problem, however, is that Russell hasn’t come close to grasping the concept of winning plays. To the contrary, many of his decisions -- awful shot selection, high-risk ballhandling/passing -- directly contribute to losing games. Not only do they deprive Brooklyn of scoring opportunities, these plays usually feed the opponents’ transition games.

As for defense, the Nets have often tried, to little avail, to hide Russell, assigning the task of guarding the opponent’s top threats to others, most recently Allen Crabbe. (Side note: In a curious case of eye test versus analytics, Russell is the league’s second-best pick-and-roll defender with at least 130 such opportunities this season, with opposing ballhandlers scoring just 0.64 points per possession while shooting an effective field goal percentage of 35.9 percent, the NBA’s fourth-lowest. As someone who has seen Russell die 100 deaths this season on ball screens, I don't know how this is possible.)

I’m not saying Russell has no talent or feel for the game. As evidenced by his 24-point first quarter in a March 13 home loss to Toronto, Russell is quite capable of scoring in bunches. His court vision is superb -- many of his assists have been spectacular. And he’s still young enough for the light bulb to be switched on.

However, I’m concerned that too much of his offensive prowess is accomplished through guile. What does it say that Russell couldn’t blow past a weak perimeter defender such as Jose Calderon, who I assume was in Cleveland’s starting lineup Sunday only so LeBron James can continue to prove he can win with just about anyone? In crunch time of the 121-114 Nets loss at the Barclays Center, Russell was stifled by the more capable George Hill.

I found it troubling when Atkinson provided Russell with an excuse for Sunday’s subpar outing. 

“I think teams know that (Russell) is good with the ball in his hands,” Atkinson said. “Hill was blanketing him. That’s what teams are doing. We saw it with (Toronto guard Fred) Van Vleet the other night. What we do to combat that is we have another ballhandler in the game. But tonight we felt like we needed (Joe Harris’) shooting out there, so we kept Joe in the last five minutes or so. Maybe a little regret there on my part -- should we have had another ballhandler to help DR out because they were pressuring the heck out of him and he needs help?”       

As I understand it, at this level, the lead guards are supposed to exploit pressure, not succumb to it. Good luck getting into Kyrie Irving’s or Russell Westbrook’s grill.    

Besides, the Nets have been terrible since the All-Star break when Russell has shared the court with either Caris LeVert (minus-24.8 points per 100 possessions) or Spencer Dinwiddie (minus 13.2). The net rating in the 12 minutes (small-sample-size disclaimer) when all three have played together is a grotesque minus-90.4.

If you can remember way back in October, Brooklyn started veteran point guard Jeremy Lin in tandem with Russell on opening night in Indiana. The plan was to ease Russell into the lead role.

Of course, Lin was lost for the season before the final buzzer with a right patella tendon injury. 

All four players -- Russell, Dinwiddie, LeVert and Lin -- are under contract for next season. Russell and LeVert aren’t going anywhere and Lin, after two injury-plagued seasons, would only be desired by a team looking for an expiring salary filler. Dinwiddie has trade value, but he’s so darn inexpensive that Marks might just keep him. 

In football, they say if you have two quarterbacks, you have none. Give it another year, and I might be saying the same thing about the Nets’ point guards. 

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.