No sooner had the Warriors’ acquisition of all-star guard D’Angelo Russell been public than the speculation began, with reporters as established as Marc Stein floating thinly sourced reports that the acquisition was nothing more than an asset play, that Russell would be shortly flipped for parts that fit the team better.
This idea has gained a lot of traction, based on, as far as I have been able to tell, no actual reporting and the idea that Russell and Curry are both “point guards” and thus can’t really play together.
This analysis is, in my opinion, wrong.
Before I explain why, a caveat: I believe that the Lacob-Myers Warriors will trade any player whose name isn’t Steph Curry if they see a clear-cut chance to improve the team. Despite Lacob’s promises to the contrary, don’t be surprised if Draymond Green doesn’t finish his career as a Warrior. So it is entirely possible that D’Angelo will get traded, at some point.
Also, this move is an excellent move as an asset play. If that’s all it was, it’d be smart. However, I think it makes just as much sense, if not more, as attempt to put the team in a position to contend through Curry’s mid-30’s.
There are two main reasons why Russell makes sense as a long-term piece for the Warriors. They are fit, and the long-term structure of the team.
While D’Angelo ran more pick-and-rolls than the entire Warriors roster last year, he’s also an excellent spot-up shooter, shooting over 40% on catch-and-shoot attempts. Curry, you might have noticed, is also an excellent off-ball player, who excels at sprinting off picks.
Last year, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, and Shaun Livingston often played the role of distributor when Curry and Klay ran split-action plays, but two of those players are no longer on the team. D’Angelo Russell is an excellent passer and can fill that role well.
In fact, he can probably fill it better than any of the other three can. One of the problems the Warriors have started to face with Curry running off-ball is the lack of threats elsewhere on the floor. You didn’t have to guard Iguodala that closely - he’s only a threat to beat you off the dribble when attacking a close-out, and only a threat from long distance in big moments - so the defense’s attention would be entirely on the cutting and screening action on the weak side.
But you can’t do that if Russell has the ball, because if the defense looks away, he can take it to the rim. All of a sudden, there are threats on both sides of the court. The help defense doesn’t know which way to cheat - so either Russell is attacking into space, or somebody’s trying to stop a Curry-based dive/pop action with two players. Both of those are wins for the offense.
When Curry has the ball, Russell can focus on shots from the arc and cuts to the rim, which should improve his efficiency - the number one weakness in his offensive game is his over-reliance on mid-range shots, which puts a cap on hit shooting percentage and stops him from getting to the line enough. Playing off-ball more will help.
Both capable of hitting from the outside, distributing, and creating, D’Angelo and Curry fit together as well as, if not better than, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker did. Those two guys managed to do alright.
The Long Term
There are two long-term plays at work with the acquisition of D’Angelo Russell.
First, look at the San Antonio Spurs and how they handled Tim Duncan. Once Duncan hit 30, the Spurs began a slow, steady process of reducing his minutes, season-by-season, which allowed him to maintain his per-minute production; on a per-minute basis, Duncan was essentially the same player at 38 that he was at 31.
D’Angelo allows the Warriors to adopt a similar approach to Curry’s thirties. Rather than run him into the ground, they are free to let Curry be Curry when he’s on the court, while gradually ramping down the number of minutes he plays.
It seems like just yesterday Curry was “the baby-faced assassin” who looked like he still belonged in high school, so it’s weird to start thinking about how to navigate the tail-end of his career, but a smart GM (and Bob Myers is a very smart GM) gets ahead of that.
The second aspect of D’Angelo’s fit into the long-term plan has to do with the team’s goals. A lot of Warrior fans are speculating about a trade for Robert Covington, which superficially makes a lot of sense (Covington is probably better than D’Angelo right now. He also plays small forward, the position where the Warriors just lost two players).
The problem is that Covington doesn’t solve the Warriors’ real problem. You probably need 7 or 8 players who you trust in a big series to win the title - and Curry, Klay, Draymond, Covington, and Looney leaves the Warriors at least two (and probably 3) short.
And the Warriors have no real prospect of adding those other players. Hard-capped, that would really be about it. Even if everyone stays healthy, that team is just getting killed in the minutes when any of those guys sit. Expecting Curry and Klay to go supernova four times in a seven game series, for two or three playoff series in a row, is not a reasonable plan.
Part of the problem is that outside of Curry, Klay, and Dray, the Warriors are a very young team. Russell and Kevon Looney are 23. Jacob Evans and Eric Paschall are 22. Jordan Poole is 20. Alen Smailagic is 18.
Quite simply, those players are too young to expect them to contribute substantially to a title-level team. But the thing about young players is that they get older, and they (usually) get better.
Look at those names again, and squint. Even if Evans or Poole wash out, those names form a cadre of players who could be an excellent supporting cast to Curry and Klay starting in a year or two and lasting, well, as long as Curry and Klay do. Covington, by contrast, is likely to be in decline in 2-3 seasons.
Even the draft picks the team traded fit into this plan. 2024 or ‘25 draft picks won't help the team while Curry still matters - but more recent picks might, and the ‘20 pick will probably be the best the team has had for quite some time.
It’s not that the team is punting on ‘19-’20; rather, they realize that they’re really unlikely to win the title anyway, so instead they’re playing to maximize their chances of winning the title in ‘21 and beyond. This is a development season, where they get to try out the young guys, make firm decisions about their future prospects. Over the next two years they can use the taxpayer MLE to fill in any gaps, trade away players who don’t mesh, and heck, if they only play a playoff series or two this season, that has the silver lining of giving Steph a much-deserved summer off for once.
Bob Myers is not trying to squeeze one last title out of the remains of the last dynasty. He’s laying the foundation of a new one.