D’Angelo Russell Will Be Lakers’ Biggest X-Factor In LeBron James’ Absence

D'Angelo Russell

D’Angelo RussellSam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

LeBron James made the trip to Memphis on Tuesday with the Los Angeles Lakers, but he was in a jacket and walking boot on the sideline while the men in purple and gold fought, and eventually lost, to the Grizzlies, 121-109.

Two days after suffering a foot injury that led him to tell teammates, “I heard it pop,” we learned that he’s weeks away from a return.

Adrian Wojnarowski @wojespn

ESPN Sources: LeBron James’s right foot is expected to be reassessed in two weeks to see how much progress he’s made, but timeline on return expected to extend beyond that checkpoint. Where Lakers reside in standings by then could impact how soon it makes sense for him to return.

And, well, there are just over five weeks left in the season. If LeBron is out for three or four of those, the 29-33 Lakers probably aren’t making the postseason without massive strides from everyone else on the roster.

One factor could be bigger than the rest—including performances like Anthony Davis’ on Tuesday night—and that’s the return of D’Angelo Russell.

In the supporting cast’s first test without James and Russell, the loss to Memphis didn’t come from lack of effort. L.A. kept it close for much of the first three quarters. Davis finished with 28 points, 19 rebounds and five blocks. But without LeBron or Russell to engineer the attack, the Lakers ran out of gas before the buzzer sounded on a 121-109 loss.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Despite their own recent struggles, the Grizzlies are still in second place in the West. And prior to this matchup, Los Angeles was minus-8.5 points per 100 possessions without LeBron on the floor, though it was a more manageable minus-4.6 when both LeBron and Russell Westbrook were off.

Those are bad marks, and the season-long overall numbers aren’t much more encouraging.

The Lakers are 22nd in points per 100 possessions, 19th in points allowed per 100 possessions and 24th in net rating.

By just about every measure, this is not a playoff team, and the trade that added Russell to LeBron and AD hasn’t shifted that much. Multiple projection systems, including Basketball Reference‘s, ESPN‘s and FiveThirtyEight‘s, think the Lakers might be done after the regular season.

But this also isn’t the team that compiled a lot of the numbers that feed those projections. The Lakers’ midseason moves have changed things, and we’ve yet to see what Russell can really bring to the table after appearing in just four games thus far.

The X-Factor

D'Angelo Russell

D’Angelo RussellAndrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

D-Lo is undoubtedly the most important addition.

He’s missed L.A.’s last two games with his own ankle injury, but he’s listed as doubtful, as opposed to out, for Wednesday’s contest against the Oklahoma City Thunder, which suggests a return might be on the horizon.

Though it feels like it happened a lifetime ago, Russell made an All-Star team in 2019. He’s posting career highs in field-goal percentage (46.4), three-point percentage (38.9) and free-throw percentage (85.0). And his efficiency as a pick-and-roll scorer is above average.

Over the last five seasons, he’s averaged 19.7 points, 6.5 assists and 2.9 threes.

He’s not going to completely replace LeBron, but a two-man game between him and Davis is suddenly L.A.’s lifeline for the foreseeable future.

If Russell can continue to produce at that level while owning the middle of the floor with the version of Davis who was flirting with MVP candidacy earlier this season, there’s at least a prayer. AD had a 13-game stretch in November and December in which he averaged 32.4 points, 14.0 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 2.3 blocks and 1.2 steals.

Russell will defer to AD as the No. 1 option, but his ability to hit pull-up jumpers, play with pace or patience as a ball-handler and hit Davis on the roll or spray out to shooters will lend L.A.’s offense some competence in LeBron’s absence.

The Lakers will need some help from the Utah Jazz, Portland Trail Blazers, Minnesota Timberwolves or New Orleans Pelicans, but Russell at least gives the team the chance to stay competitive. And even after Tuesday’s loss, the Lakers are within a game of 10th place, the final spot for the play-in tournament, and have a middle-of-the-road remaining strength of schedule.

But they aren’t making the play-in without one or two other newcomers playing better than they have to this point of the season.

The Supporting Cast

Jarred Vanderbilt

Jarred VanderbiltGlenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

LeBron and AD remain the focal points of the roster, and Russell was L.A.’s clear prize of the deadline. But over the last month and change, the front office swung multiple trades that turned…

  • Kendrick Nunn into Rui Hachimura;
  • Thomas Bryant and Patrick Beverley into Mo Bamba and Davon Reed
  • Russell Westbrook, Damian Jones and Juan Toscano-Anderson into D’Angelo Russell, Jarred Vanderbilt and Malik Beasley.

Vanderbilt and Beasley have both had their moments as Lakers already.

Vanderbilt, in particular, was a menace in L.A.’s 27-point comeback win over the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday, when he had 17 rebounds, 15 points and four steals. Beasley already has two games since the trade with 20-plus points and six-plus threes.

But there’s a reason both of those now-starters were reserves for a middle-of-the-West team before joining L.A. You can always count on consistent effort from Vanderbilt, but you maybe can’t rely on consistent production from either.

Beasley has been an average three-point shooter this season, and he’s posting a well-below-average defensive estimated plus-minus, per Dunks & Threes (one of the most trusted all-in-one stats by NBA front offices).

Vanderbilt has moments of effort that really pop off the screen, but his four-point performance in Tuesday’s loss to Memphis was a reminder that that doesn’t always translate to numbers. He has way more single-singles (35) than double-doubles (eight) in 2022-23.

Hachimura, meanwhile, was just 3-of-7 from the field against the Grizzlies and is averaging 10.2 points while shooting 29.0 percent from three as a Laker. Reed and Bamba were limited to garbage time against Memphis.

Now, for a shocking take: Those particular new additions aren’t going to replace LeBron’s on-court leadership, 29.5 points, 8.4 rebounds and 6.9 assists, but they have to cobble together at least some of it. And they’ll have to be more consistent, especially on defense, in supporting Russell and AD.

Survival or any hope to make the play-in tournament largely depends on those two: the big man with the upside to be an MVP candidate and Defensive Player of the Year contender and the only real potential pendulum-swinger from the trades.

If Russell can look like an All-Star for a month and Davis can stay healthy and regain his form from the holiday season, L.A. might sneak in.

The Lakers’ fate is in their hands.

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