D’Angelo Russell wasn’t moved at the trade deadline. Instead, he became vital to L.A.’s playoff hopes

HOURS AFTER A midseason trade sent him to Los Angeles, D'Angelo Russell picked up the phone. It was Feb. 9, 2023, and on the other end was Lakers president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka, calling to welcome the 28-year-old guard back to the franchise that drafted him second overall in 2015.

Russell heard Pelinka say how vital his contributions would be in L.A.'s late-season push after the Lakers acquired the former All-Star in a deadline deal with the Minnesota Timberwolves. How he'd be relied upon to play point alongside his childhood hero, LeBron James, whom the Lakers were able to sign in 2018 thanks in part to the cap-clearing trade that ended Russell's first stint with the team.

But Russell, who was going from the eighth-place Wolves to the 13th-place Lakers, didn't share the same optimism as his new GM.

"I told him we weren't s---," Russell told ESPN. "[But] the team complemented one another ... and we started winning."

L.A. jumped to seventh in the Western Conference over the final two months of 2022-23. The run catapulted the Lakers to the conference finals and Russell came up huge in consequential moments.

There was his 31-point performance on 12-for-17 shooting in Game 6 of the first round to close out the Memphis Grizzlies. "I remember Dillon Brooks going from trying to harass Bron, to actually trying to guard me," Russell said. He followed it up with 21 points in Game 3 of the second round to go up 2-1 on the Golden State Warriors and 19 in Game 6 to close them out.

But Russell, who had started every game he played for L.A. after his trade, had his playing time slashed as he shot just 8-for-27 through the first three games of the conference finals. Then, Russell was demoted to a bench role for Game 4 as the eventual champion Denver Nuggets finished the sweep.

Suddenly, the normally verbose playmaker didn't feel like he had much of a say. Lakers coach Darvin Ham limited Russell's role while leaning more heavily on veteran guard Dennis Schroder for the series.

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Russell knew Ham and Schroder's history went back nearly a decade to their time together with the Atlanta Hawks, where Ham was an assistant coach. Russell, meanwhile, had been around Ham for two months. (Schroder signed a two-year deal with the Toronto Raptors in the offseason and was traded to the Brooklyn Nets last month.)

"His relationship with Darvin is the reason I couldn't have a relationship with Darvin," Russell said.

"When I was struggling, I would've been able to come to the coach and say, 'Bro, this is what we should do. Like, I can help you.' Instead, there was no dialogue. ... I just accepted it.

"And we got swept and I'm here and he's not. And I like our chances."

It wasn't long ago that Russell, his role limited yet again earlier this season, was an assumed trade chip for Pelinka ahead of last month's deadline. Now, six weeks before the postseason, Russell has vaulted to third on the team in minutes per game and fourth in games played, all while averaging a career-high 42% on 3-pointers as one of the league's elite catch-and-shoot threats. (Russell is 11 3s behind the franchise record for a season, a mark set nearly 30 years ago by Nick Van Exel.)

Just 10 months after Russell was, in his words, "the scapegoat" in that Denver series, he's emerged as a major X factor in the Lakers' 12-5 run since Feb. 1 heading into Wednesday's road meeting with the Sacramento Kings (10 p.m. ET, ESPN).

But perhaps most importantly, Russell has gained the trust of Pelinka, Ham and L.A.'s stars.

"I think he has the ability to do whatever the team needs, especially offensively," James told ESPN of Russell's impact on L.A.'s playoff push. "That's what's special about him. He can adapt to whatever the game calls for.

"But when D-Lo is at his best, he's in attack mode."

AFTER BEING BENCHED against Denver in the playoffs, Russell wasn't thrilled about returning to the Lakers in free agency. He said as much in his offseason exit meeting with Pelinka and Ham.

"They were like, 'We're going to do whatever to try to keep you here,'" Russell said. "And I was like, 'Are y'all going to let me rock out, though?'"

Schroder came to an agreement with Toronto on the first day of free agency. The following morning, Russell re-upped with L.A. on a two-year, $37 million deal -- with a player option on the second season.

The Lakers preferred a deal with no player option, sources told ESPN, but Russell's side pushed for one, allowing for the scenario where he plays well, ups his value and hits free agency again this summer.

"That was our idea," Russell said, referring to the stipulation he and his agent, Austin Brown of CAA, added to the deal.

Granting an opt-out meant that the contract would, by rule of the collective bargaining agreement, become eligible for a one-year Bird restriction that would allow him to veto any trade. Waiving that no-trade clause was the compromise; if both sides needed a change, Russell wouldn't block it.

"Because, I mean, I'm a point guard for the Lakers. All there has to be is another point guard ... that wants to be here," Russell said. "And that's something that the Lakers are capable of doing. Not every organization is."

Lakers guard D'Angelo Russell has quieted doubters -- and opposing defenses -- during his recent run of clutch scoring performances. Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Russell began the season in the starting lineup, helping L.A. to the inaugural in-season tournament title in early December, but he struggled overall that month, averaging just 10.2 points on 41% shooting (32.7% from 3). He was benched just before the new year. "When I took him out of the [starting] lineup, we tried to lean into the defensive side of things," Ham said.

Russell began the new year on the injured list. He suffered a bruised tailbone on Dec. 30 after he took a charge against his old team, the Timberwolves. It was a flash of the defensive commitment that Ham hoped to see out of him more often.

While he was sidelined, Russell studied his team and looked for ways he could be more effective. He turned to the film room, a place where James said Russell has been "locked in on what we want to do."

A film session in early January, following a 110-96 loss to the short-handed Miami Heat, led to Ham and Russell clashing. The coach wanted to see better effort and execution; the player wanted to see sharper schemes. Ham was headstrong in his instructions, illustrating through the film where his team would "half-ass it through possessions," he said.

Russell dismissed the lack of execution, focusing rather on an alternative approach he believed would be better for the team.

"There's times we agree to agree, agree to disagree or come to an understanding," Ham said of his relationship with Russell, acknowledging his responsibility to improve their discourse after last season's finish.

"But it's not so much the dialogue as it is the access to have it. And I can't stress that enough. I can go to him and let him know how I feel and meet him halfway, or tell him I need him to come more over to my way, or [it can be] him telling me how I need to trust him more and come more over to his way. And it's a workable relationship."

Russell invites the back-and-forth. "We played tennis with that," he said. "I hit the ball back, he hit it to me. ... That's the season. That's what you use 82 games to develop, and we developed it."

Russell relishes discussing strategy. He recalled a game when he played for the Nets, during which he and then-Nets coach Kenny Atkinson tried to match wits with Hall of Famer Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs.

"I was like, 'Kenny, let's go zone. Let's go zone,'" Russell recalled of his conversation with Atkinson. "He was like, 'Pop knows we're going to go zone.' We came out, Pop drew up a play for the zone. But we were in man.

"Because Kenny knew that he knew that we knew. ... It was cool to see."

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He applied that same spirit of gamesmanship when, during a practice earlier this season, he had the team follow his lead in disguising a page from the Lakers offensive playbook.

"He was like, 'Yo, we're running this play and we're going to call it these things, but it's all the same play," Lakers All-Star big man Anthony Davis told ESPN, adding he sometimes texts his point guard late at night to discuss playcalls.

"And it was clever. ... We might have had eight different calls, but it was the same exact play."

Russell said he honed his tactical approach from a former teammate: Warriors forward Draymond Green.

"When I got around Draymond, I seen him in the film room, like really talking and really creating controversy. Really challenging [teammates] and really doing that on purpose," Russell said "And I saw how we grew. We weren't even a good team, but we grew because of that dialogue in the film room.

"Then I get here and nobody talks but Bron. I was like, 'What the f---?' And then I just started being vocal, and that became where my IQ is exposed now."

And with the Lakers playing the second night of a back-to-back on Jan. 13 against the Utah Jazz and James sitting out to rest, Ham turned to Russell. Despite the loss, Russell responded with 39 points on 15-for-26 shooting. He finished January averaging 22.7 points on 48.8% from the floor (45.9% from 3) and regained his starting spot.

Russell recognized that sharing his opinions often comes with greater accountability on the court, a leadership role he has welcomed this season.

"I'm ready for it," Russell said. "I studied for this test."

IN THE WEEKS leading up to the trade deadline, Russell's name was attached to nearly every potential scenario involving the Lakers.

He was linked to the Chicago Bulls in Zach LaVine talks, league sources told ESPN. His name surfaced when there was reported interest in Raptors forward Bruce Brown and Brooklyn wings Royce O'Neale and Dorian Finney-Smith, sources said.

Russell's salary number alone, as much as his attractiveness as a trade piece, made his name a barrier for entry for many of the deals the Lakers explored.

The various iterations of a deal involving Russell for Hawks guard Dejounte Murray were such an open secret that when L.A. played inside State Farm Arena on Jan. 30, Hawks fans heckled, "We don't want you!" toward Russell when he was at the free throw line.

Without any certainty about his future and no say in the decisions of the front office, Russell channeled his energy into something he could control: his individual performance.

He said he thought back on wisdom imparted to him by Kobe Bryant when Russell, as a rookie in 2015-16, teamed up with the Lakers legend in his 20th and final season.

"'Create new headlines,'" Russell said of the advice that Bryant passed on about navigating the narratives that can come with being a Laker. "And that stuck with me. ... Don't care about that. You can't do nothing. How did you grow from it? That's how I approach s---."

He started putting in extra time at the practice facility, meeting Lakers head video coordinator Micah Fraction at the gym during odd hours and off days.

"When I'm straddling the line of 'I can be traded,' ain't nobody saying, 'Hey bro, don't worry about that trade s---,'" Russell said. "I'm getting ate up in the media and ain't nobody saying nothing? Cool. I'm on my own. I'm on my own s---. I ain't tripping, I'm built for that.

"My approach: Care less, do better. And that's what was."

With the franchise looking for moves to maximize James' win-now championship window in his 21st season, Pelinka would have been dishonest to promise Russell untouchable status in talks -- especially without his no-trade clause.

Instead, Pelinka continued the conversation he established with the nine-year veteran just after the team's LeBron-led minicamp in late September, stressing the importance of maintaining a stable outlook as he takes his next step as a professional.

"He was just [saying], 'It's kind of like an emotional roller coaster,'" Russell said of Pelinka's preseason message. "'This league is going to eat you up. ... So just find a way to stay even-keeled -- not too high, not too low -- and when you get the opportunity, showcase it. Let your game kind of speak for itself.'"

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Since returning to the starting lineup on Jan. 13, Russell has averaged 22.5 points on 48/46/85 shooting splits, along with 6.4 assists. For the season, L.A. is 11-3 when Russell scores at least 25 points.

The Lakers are 5-4 in games without James this season, thanks in large part to Russell's 21.7 points and 10.7 assists per game when L.A. has been without the league's all-time scorer. (A LeBron-led team hasn't had a winning record in games without him since the 2012-13 Heat.)

"It takes a strong individual, especially when you're hearing everything that goes around," James said of Russell. "You're hearing the trade talks, you're hearing this and that and whatever the case may be and 'Is D-Lo the right fit?' or whatever. One thing is, he just don't waver.

"We never gave up on him either. Even when he went to the bench, we just still wanted to instill confidence in him because we knew we were going to need him. We need his ability -- his uncanny ability -- to rack up points in a bundle very fast."

D'Angelo Russell, right, shouldered the scoring load when LeBron James was out due to injury, dropping 44 points in a thrilling win over the Bucks on Friday. Jim Poorten/NBAE via Getty Images

RUSSELL GREW UP idolizing James. So much so that Russell admitted earlier this month that he cried the first time he saw James play live when he was a kid. His father took him and his older brother, Antonio "Tone" Russell, from Louisville to Indianapolis to see James' Cleveland Cavaliers play the Indiana Pacers.

"When I was a kid and I'd shoot those jump shots, I'd say, 'Jordan! Kobe!'" Tone Russell told ESPN. "He was coming through dunking socks on a hanger basketball goal in the room, like, 'I'm Bron!'"

When he made it to the pros, Russell tracked down James' contact info and reached out just before his lone All-Star season in 2018-19.

"I was like, 'Bro, how do you become more consistent of a player?'" Russell said. "He said, 'I read. I sleep. I eat. My routine is on point.' I still got the text. And honestly, he was the reason I developed a routine."

Last week, with James out because of a chronic left ankle issue and the Lakers hosting a Milwaukee Bucks team on a 6-1 run since the All-Star break, Pelinka found Russell in the players tunnel before tip-off.

"LeBron's out, Milwaukee's tough," Russell told ESPN, paraphrasing Pelinka's directive. "I could use a 40-ball out of you."


D-Lo hits 3 straight treys for the Lakers

D'Angelo Russell heats up in the fourth quarter as he knocks down 3-pointers on three straight possessions.

Russell went off, scoring 21 in the fourth quarter to finish with a season-high 44 points. He tied a career-high with nine 3-pointers, dished out nine assists and capped his night with a go-ahead floater over Bucks star Damian Lillard with 5.9 seconds remaining.

Russell's clutch performances haven't been limited to Friday's crucial win, and the Lakers have needed them all as they battle for seeding down the stretch: His 14 straight points in under two minutes in a win against the New Orleans Pelicans. His "catch high, shoot high" corner 3 during a 21-point fourth-quarter comeback against the LA Clippers. His three straight 3s in 66 seconds in a win over Oklahoma City, the last of which came after a hot-potato moment with LeBron, who urged his point guard to let it fly from long range over Thunder wing Jalen Williams.

The moment that gives Russell the most satisfaction, however, is his double-overtime, pull-up 3 in a win against Golden State on Jan. 27. Russell had turned the ball over twice in the second extra session when, trailing by two in the final minute and leading the break with two Warriors in front of him and James trailing just behind him, he fired from 3 with more than 20 seconds on the shot clock and nailed it.


D-Lo gives Lakers the lead back with 3 in 2OT

D'Angelo Russell flushes 3-pointer to put the Lakers ahead 142-141.

"I think the icing on the cake for that wasn't the shot, wasn't the game, wasn't any of that," Russell said. "It was all my people texting me, like, 'Bro, that shot is an explanation for who you are. ... All the bulls--- that went up into it: turnovers, the game on the line, LeBron wanting the shot and trailing. You shoot it, you don't care.'"

Austin Reaves, who has become Russell's closest confidant on the team, said that being on the court in crucial moments such as the finish against Golden State has been Russell's goal ever since the conference finals disappointment against Denver.

"He just came into the season with a mindset of, 'I'm not going to be put in that situation again,'" Reaves told ESPN. "[We've] talked about ... 'If you go handle your business, you're plenty good enough to be on the court every single game regardless of what's going on.'"

As improbable as it might sound that Russell is leading the charge for L.A., it was just as improbable that he would even be on the team at this point. So, he figures, why not enjoy it?

"I really have fun out here. For real," Russell said. "And respectfully, my approach is 'All these people came to see AD, LeBron ... but I'm stealing the show.'"

ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this report.


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