There’s no mistaking that D’Angelo Russell is the antithesis of what constitutes a typical Warriors offensive possession.
For the five years that Steve Kerr has been the mind behind the Warriors’ offensive explosion that sparked a league-wide revolution, the team established an identity of egalitarianism. Emphasis was placed upon both ball and player movement. Quick-hitting decisions were not only encouraged, but essential. This required the team to have several high-IQ playmakers who were cognizant of when to pass, who to pass it to, and when/where to move without the ball in their hands.
But with the acquisition of Russell — at the expense of losing several of the aforementioned high-IQ players such as Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, and Klay Thompson (due to injury) — the team needed to incorporate a different approach. The motion offense would still be there, since it would be difficult for someone like Kerr to entirely do away with what made the Warriors who they are. But with different personnel who possess different skill sets, some things needed to be fine tuned — and Russell is perhaps at the forefront of that fine-tuning process.
Russell isn’t known for his off-ball prowess; he hasn’t shown a proclivity for backcuts or navigating around screens to set himself up for a catch-and-shoot jumper. He is a player who thrives with the ball in his hands, in a similar mold as that of ball-dominant scorers such as James Harden and Damian Lillard. According to Second Spectrum data, Russell was ranked 6th in the 2018-19 regular season in terms of time of possession.
But unlike a player such as Harden, Russell doesn’t merely try to isolate and create a shot on his own. He prefers to operate in the pick-and-roll, which has become his bread-and-butter approach to success. According to nba.com/stats, during the 2018-19 regular season, Russell was 5th in the league in terms of pick-and-roll ballhandler frequency, at 49.9 percent.
Russell succeeds at a pace that is deliberate. His basketball mind operates at a slow but methodical pace, where he prefers to choose his method of attack according to how a defense chooses to cover him and his screening partner in the pick-and-roll. Whereas the Warriors approach their multiple-choice exams as if time was about to expire and quick decisions have to be made, Russell takes the approach of a student who carefully weighs the options given to him and chooses the one that is “most right” — or in some cases, is “least wrong.”
In Russell’s mind, the options presented to him are endless. A big man who elects to drop in the pick-and-roll finds themselves the victim of an open three-point shot from Russell, or in some cases a mid-range jumper that is virtually automatic. Upon facing mismatches as a result of switching, Russell’s excellent command with his dribble allows him to take advantage of such mismatches.
Russell’s versatility in the pick-and-roll isn’t limited to his scoring. His exceptional court-vision and pinpoint passing ability make him all the more dangerous, especially when paired with a mobile and athletic pick-setting big man who is capable of rolling to the rim and finishing with aplomb.
Take this possession, for instance, against the Los Angeles Lakers last night. The Warriors, after winning the opening tip, look to Russell immediately to create their first points of the night.
The set above is an intersection of the Warriors’ quick-hitting offense and Russell’s effectiveness in the pick-and-roll. Catching the Lakers defense off-guard, Russell partners up with Marquese Chriss for some classic roll-man action, helped in huge part by Russell’s accurate and perfectly-timed bounce pass to Chriss for the dunk.
In another possession involving the pick-and-roll, Russell involves a third party, showing the potential of merging his preferred method of attack with that of the classic movement-based offense of the Warriors.
In the sequence above, Russell rejects the screen. He is aware of the loose defense being played on Damion Lee, who takes advantage of being ignored by cutting hard toward the rim. Russell times the cut perfectly with a bounce pass, and it results in free throws for Lee.
Whenever a staple motion offense set breaks down and fails to generate scoring opportunities, Russell’s ability to improvise in the pick-and-roll will be valuable to the Warriors, as displayed during this possession.
The Warriors intend to run a motion set through the left elbow, but a strip and near-turnover throws a wrench in the sequence. The ball is recovered, and with the shot clock winding down, Russell has to resort to another pick-and-roll. He shows incredible chemistry with Kavion Pippen, who immediately dives to the rim after the pick and receives another sublime pass from Russell for the dunk.
Shown from another angle, Russell actually threads the pass in-between the legs of Dwight Howard, which adds an element of pizzazz to this eye-catching sequence.
In an otherwise nondescript — if not painful — preseason game for the Warriors, Russell was perhaps the lone bright spot for them, scoring 23 points on 8-of-17 shooting. Seven of those points came from these three possessions, which showcase Russell’s scoring versatility in the pick-and-roll: A mid-range jumper against drop coverage; a drive and finish over Howard; and a deep three late in the shot clock after getting an open look from a solid screen by Chriss.
While Russell’s addition allows the Warriors to rely on the pick-and-roll, there are still pressing questions that need to be answered.
Can the Warriors accommodate Russell’s deliberate pace and incorporate it seamlessly within their tried-and-tested motion offense? Will Stephen Curry, the focal point of that offense, be able to co-exist beside Russell without taking away from the best tenets of what makes him an all-time great?
On Russell’s part, will he show a willingness to move off the ball and come off screens? Will he display an awareness of when to cut, when to bump to the corner, or an ability to recognize a non-audibled motion set that has been a staple of the Warriors offense these past five years?
As the preseason winds down with no clear answers in hand, those questions are atop the enormous pile of other mysteries and potential problems the Warriors will have to address during the regular season, such as the lack of perimeter defense, ineptitude in rebounding, and questionable personnel depth, among many others.
As their 126-93 thrashing at the hands of the Lakers has shown, they are far from solving all of those predicaments.