Can D’Angelo Russell Keep the Warriors in Finals Contention?
You’d be forgiven for skipping D’Angelo Russell on the early list of offseason acquisitions amid the most turbulent offseason in recent memory. The Finals MVP left the Raptors for the Clippers, and James Harden was reunited with his long-lost teammate Russell Westbrook in Houston. Russell’s arrival is the Bay Area may be a touch muted around the NBA. It’s hard being the next guy after Kevin Durant.
There’s no denying Golden State received a talented asset in its sign-and-trade with Brooklyn. Russell averaged 21.1 points per game as a 22-year-old last season, and he averaged career highs in nearly every statistical category. Russell couldn’t handle running the show with Los Angeles in 2016-17. He acquitted himself fairly well last year in Brooklyn. The Nets weren’t world beaters by any means–19th in offensive rating, a 42–40 record–though Russell deserves a sizable share of credit for their 14-win improvement. He’s an unquestioned asset for the reigning Western Conference champs. But can he keep the Warriors in the Finals conversation?
Questions remain regarding how Russell will be deployed in Steve Kerr’s maze of screens and misdirection. At first Russell appears to be a natural fit. Brooklyn finished 11th in pace last year. Golden State ranked 10th. The Warriors were third in threes made while the Nets were fifth, and both teams finished in the top eight in three-point frequency. Russell will be free to run and gun with the Warriors to his heart’s content, feasting on free triples created by Curry and Draymond Green. Klay Thompson is in another class from beyond the arc (though it’s more like a four-person seminar) but Russell can similarly swing games with a quick scoring barrage. The Warriors will still bury teams via the three, especially at home. Russell will be fully involved.
The dynamic becomes more complicated in the halfcourt. Russell carried a hefty share of Brooklyn’s offense last season with a 31.9% usage rate, sixth-highest in the NBA. Curry posted a 30.4% usage rate alongside Kevin Durant last season. LeBron James’ usage rate fall a tick below Russell at 31.6%. Such ball dominance doesn’t portend to mesh well with Curry. Thompson’s brilliance lies in his low-maintenance. 14 threes in five dribbles. The fastest jumper in the West. Thompson’s eruptions can create a blowout in three possessions across a single minute. Russell’s scoring requires more labor.
Russell was among the highest volume pick-and-roll creators in basketball last season. Only Kemba Walker logged more possessions as a PnR ball handler, and only Walker and Damian Lillard scored more points in the pick-and-roll. Russell ran pick-and-roll on 49.9% of his possessions last season, the fifth highest mark in the league. Curry posted a paltry 21.6%, sandwiched between luminaries Wayne Selden and Courtney Lee. Kerr is likely to bend his philosophy to accommodate Russell to a degree. But ditching the Warriors’ identity is senseless. Russell will need to adapt.
There’s plenty of evidence to suggest a severe minutes split is the best route. That’s not a detriment to either player, and recent evidence suggests the separation can be quite healthy. Chris Paul and James Harden logged just 970 minutes together in 2017-18, while the Rockets’ leading duo (Harden and Trevor Ariza) played 1,648 minutes together. Houston was just fine with such a split, winning 65 games with the NBA’s best offense by net rating. Russell isn’t the Paul of two seasons ago, nor is he relatively close. But even passable production in non-Curry minutes could salvage the Warriors’ season. Golden State scored 117.5 points per 100 possessions with Curry on the floor in the 2019 playoffs, the top mark in the NBA last season. They averaged just 108.5 points without Curry, tied for 25th alongside Cleveland.
Golden State’s bench scoring may be even lighter this season. Veteran mainstays Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston are gone, as is guard Quinn Cook. Golden State’s bench units weren’t particularly efficient last season. Livingston struggled and Cook regressed. But their replacements have plenty to prove. Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III will have ample opportunity. Perhaps Jacob Evans or Jordan Poole are ready for sizable minutes. There are few reliable options.
Russell could save the undermanned second units. He scrapped the Nets to the playoffs without a single minute next to a player of Curry or Green’s caliber last season. The floor of non-Curry lineups are inherently raised with Russell. The Russell minutes may be a bit of a slog, shockingly un-Warriors as he probes and slithers his way to a floater or short jumper. Yet those possessions could be the best Golden State has to offer without Curry. The Warriors used to let Durant go to work when Curry sat. Allowing Russell to do the same isn’t the worst consolation.
Curry and Green should be enough to anchor a playoff team, even surrounded by a general skeleton crew and an injured Thompson. Add Russell, and competition for a top-four seed isn’t out of play. The more interesting question arises if Thompson comes back healthy for the postseason. His emergence should spell a pair of outcomes for Russell. The first may be difficult to accept. Russell could be squeezed out of the starting lineup, and certain matchups could keep his late-game minutes to a minimum. Pairing Curry and Russell as late-game defenders is a dicey proposition, especially against an isolation master like Harden. Such diminutive guards can pose a rotational problem. Ultimately, though, moving Russell to a larger role with the second unit could catapult Golden State to the Finals discussion given good health. Russell is at his best as a sparkplug scorer. Like former Lakers teammate Lou Williams, a five minute stretch of scoring from Russell can swing a game. The scoring diversity can be critical in a playoff series.
Russell became a bit of a cult hero in Brooklyn last year, guiding a cast-off franchise back to the postseason after a jarring three year collapse. Yet he’s landed softly in his new destination. Russell has a $117 million deal and a legitimate chance at the championship. Perhaps he won’t be in Golden State through his full contract. For now, he could be the Warriors’ key piece in keeping their Finals streak alive.