D’Angelo Russell presents Warriors with unique dilemma in lost season
Monte Poole | NBC SPORTS
Come Sunday afternoon, the Warriors should receive considerable relief from the despair that has plagued their offense during a frustrating six-game losing streak.
For one, they’re playing the Grizzlies, whose 112.4 defensive rating is 27th in a 30-team league. Memphis is where NBA teams go to pad their scoring stats.
In addition, guard D’Angelo Russell, who has missed the last six games, is expected to play. He’s the Warriors’ leading scorer (23.2 points per game) and most proficient closer on a team that averaged 99.5 points, on 42 percent shooting, over the last six games.
D-Lo’s return is the most convenient way to defibrillate this comatose offense.
But if the D-Lo who takes the court at FedEx Forum is the D-Lo that we’ve seen most of this season, there is a steep price for the Warriors to pay.
Russell’s defense tends to range from half-hearted to indifferent to utterly negligent, which makes him as capable of sabotaging the defense as he is of fortifying the offense.
In the 29 games since coach Steve Kerr expressed undiluted disappointment in his team’s defense — their 117.0 rating was dead last at the time — the Warriors steadily became respectable. They’ve moved up 10 spots, to No. 20 (111.8).
Here’s the truly revealing part: Over the six games that Russell has missed since Dec. 28, the Warriors are, gulp, ninth in defensive rating (106.0). While D-Lo was observing from the bench, always in stylish attire, they fixed their defense.
The latest proof came Friday night in Los Angeles, where the Warriors limited the Clippers, who this season have entered the fourth quarter with at least 100 points on nine occasions, to a mere 73 through three quarters. The Warriors took a 10-point into the final quarter but couldn’t hang on.
The defense that held through the first 36 minutes was not up to the task of containing LA stars Kawhi Leonard, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell over the final 12.
The Warriors’ offense, however, betrayed them the entire game. Though Omari Spellman responded to his first start as a Warrior with 17 points on 6-of-12 shooting, including 4 of 8 from deep, his teammates were 31 of 84 (36.9 percent) overall and 4 of 31 (12.9 percent) from distance.
“They overwhelmed us,” Kerr said of the fourth quarter, when the Warriors were outscored 36-17. “They played a great quarter and got downhill. Kawhi and Lou Williams both got going. Harrell got going. We just couldn’t put the ball in the basket.”
Which brings us back to Russell, who was sitting on the bench, at times flanked by disabled teammates Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. D-Lo has scored at least 30 points in eight games this season, with a high of 52. The man can get buckets with the best of them.
The man can give buckets, too. With the worst of them.
Back in October, as the Warriors were wrapping up the preseason and preparing for the opener, Draymond Green, who knows a bit about defense, responded to question about D-Lo’s defensive ability with a low-key dart.
“Watching him in practice yesterday, I told him, ‘Oh you showed me you can defend. I didn’t know you could. So that’s the expectation now,’” Green said.
“It’s interesting because you just never know what’s been asked of someone. You can easily judge a situation and say, ‘Oh man, he hasn’t really defended much,’ or, ‘He’s not that good on the defensive end.’ But if he’s never been asked to defend, it’s kind of hard to make that judgment.
“Obviously, we’re going to ask him to defend. Yesterday, he was asked to defend, and he showed that he can. I told him that’ll be the expectation moving forward. Sorry, buddy, you showed it.”
Now, 40 games into the season, Draymond still is waiting to see defense at the level he believes Russell is capable of playing. The coaching staff also is searching for it. Those who evaluated Russell during his first four NBA seasons are skeptical that it will come.
Until it does, if ever it does, the Warriors don’t have much of a choice. They will have to live with D-Lo’s defense if they want his offense.
They surely need it — at least until Curry and Thompson are ready for re-entry.