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D'Angelo Russell was so bad against the Denver Nuggets in the 2023 Western Conference Finals that the Los Angeles Lakers nearly let him walk for free as a free agent. "I don't think we'll see D'Angelo Russell back with the Lakers," insider Chris Haynes said after the Lakers were swept. This was the prevailing sentiment leading into the offseason. Neither side found a preferable alternative, so Russell re-signed. He did so on a contract that required him to agree to waive his right to veto a trade (an implicit right granted by the nature of the deal he signed). The Lakers dangled him in trade talks for months.

But after a slow start to the season, Russell erupted. He was reinserted into the starting lineup on Jan. 13 and between then and the trade deadline, he averaged 24 points per game on elite efficiency. He wasn't quite as dominant down the stretch, but improved significantly on his early-season struggles. 

By most measures, he's more than lived up to his contract. For the right price, he has a future as this team's starting point guard. He was even essential to the Lakers' Play-In win over the Pelicans. Things couldn't have gone better for Russell over the last three months of the season. And then he played Denver again.

The final tally? A disappointing 13 points on 6-of-20 shooting and 1-of-9 from deep. Add all of that up with his Western Conference Finals flop a year ago and you get the following stats in five postseason games against Denver:

  • 38 Total points, which comes out to 7.6 per game.
  • 16-of-51 Shooting from the field, or 31.4%.
  • 3-of-24 Shooting from behind the 3-point line, which comes out to 12.5%.
  • A point-differential of -45 in 135 minutes of game action. The Lakers won the remaining, non-Russell minutes by 10 points.

There are a number of reasonable explanations for what's going on here. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is an excellent perimeter defender that navigates screens deftly. Nikola Jokic further complicates matters with his ability to defend at the level of the screen. Faster ball-handlers can punish him for playing so high, but foot-speed is Russell's biggest weakness as a player, so he has to deal with Jokic's size and intelligence defensively without having the physical advantages needed to punish him. He might not be fully comfortable playing at altitude. There probably is some psychological element to this considering just how many bad games Russell has had against Denver in a row. He averaged just 14 points on 10-of-25 shooting against the Nuggets in the regular season.

But for whatever reason, this is a matchup that Russell, in particular, struggles in offensively. Russell is only on the floor for his offense. Jamal Murray tortured him in the Western Conference Finals a year ago. Denver is perfectly equipped to continue doing so now, and perhaps do so even more intently now that the Lakers don't have a top perimeter defender in their starting lineup thanks to Jarred Vanderbilt's injury. If Russell isn't generating offense, he really can't play major minutes in this series.

He played 41 of them in Game 1. 

"DLo is a huge reason why we're here in the first place," Ham said after Game 1. "I'm not gonna bail out on my player just because he's missing the shots he normally makes." 

Russell himself echoed that sentiment."I can't be mad," he argued. "I don't recall the last time I got twenty shots. So for me to get twenty good looks -- not twenty 'good,' probably five or six of them were questionable."

There's some truth to this. The looks Russell got in Game 1 were better than the ones he missed in the Western Conference Finals a year ago. To some extent, the Lakers caught the short end of the "make or miss league" stick. Give him the same shots in Game 2 and he might make 15 of them instead of six.

But the playoffs don't wait for "mights." The Lakers entered Saturday's game four games away from elimination. Now that number is three. Another poor Russell showing in Game 2 could easily knock that number down to two. The Lakers lived that reality a year ago. They lost Game 1 by six points but were outscored by 25 with Russell on the floor. He played nearly seven more minutes in Game 2 than he did in Game 1... and the Lakers lost by five points while winning the minutes he sat by 11. Ham didn't remove him from the starting lineup until Game 4. By then it was too late.

Don't expect Ham to make the move earlier this time around. Last year, he was already relying on Dennis Schroder as a high-minutes reserve, much to Russell's chagrin. Schroder is gone. None of this year's reserves have earned Ham's trust in quite the same way. The best choice would probably be Gabe Vincent, who has experience against the Denver juggernaut from the NBA Finals last year while he was a member of the Miami Heat. He defended Murray well. His own offense hit higher highs—42 points on 9-of-19 shooting from 3 in the first two games—and lower lows—15 total points on 1-of-14 shooting from 3 in the last three games—than Russell's have. 

But Vincent played only 11 regular-season games for the Lakers this season. Spencer Dinwiddie isn't far ahead at 28, and while he's shot well from deep in Los Angeles, it isn't exactly a trademark skill of his. The way this season played out didn't exactly set Ham up for rotational flexibility.

But this, specific matchup has now been problematic for Russell across a meaningful sample of playoff games. That doesn't mean he can't have a role in this series, and it doesn't mean he can't be a part of this team's future against other opponents. But it means Ham probably needs to be a bit quicker in trying whatever else he might have up his sleeve than he was last time, because it's pretty clear Russell isn't the solution to beating the Nuggets.