The case for and against the Orlando Magic signing D'Angelo Russell

The Orlando Magic are expected to chase a point guard this offseason. Many have connected them to D'Angelo Russell. But while there is a lot of intrigue in adding Russell, he is not a perfect fit.
D'Angelo Russell is a favorite target among the media for the Orlando Magic to chase in free agency. Russell though is a better target in theory than in practice.
D'Angelo Russell is a favorite target among the media for the Orlando Magic to chase in free agency. Russell though is a better target in theory than in practice. / Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

During the 2019 season, the Brooklyn Nets came to Orlando in the middle of their playoff breakthrough. There were already rumors of the Nets' big plans for the offseason. But for now, this was D'Angelo Russell's team. And even down by 20 points against the Orlando Magic, Russell made sure everyone knew he was the star.

Russell led the Nets to a comeback and then drained a deep three-pointer to give the Nets the lead. As had become the customary celebration during Russell's early career, he pointed to the ice in his veins.

For a Magic team that would eventually rally to make the playoffs, it was a low point in the season—the game was before they rallied to go 22-9 and tie the Nets in the standings to earn the 7-seed (a three-way tie gave the Nets the 6-seed).

That moment and that season spoke to the former No. 2 overall pick's potential. It was the zenith of his career. Russell was a star, a creator, and a driving force. He was a big-shot maker and a problem for defenses.

But it was nowhere near enough. Russell averaged 19.4 points per game in those playoffs as the Nets exited quickly. It was never better for him. The idea of Russell was never clearer, and he has struggled to live up to it.

Brooklyn had bigger fish to fry. And Russell began a sojourn where he could never quite temper his desire to be a star. It did not work out with the Minnesota Timberwolves or the Golden State Warriors. His second stint with the Los Angeles Lakers went up and down.

But he turned in a solid season last year despite the Lakers' overall struggles. He continued to look like a player who wanted to be a star. He continued to look like a player with star potential. He got the contract year bump.

This is the struggle of Russell's whole career. He is a player capable of taking over games and lighting it up from three. But not a player who can be a star on a winning team. Trying to figure out what his ideal role might be and where he fits has been his constant struggle.

The missed potential has left a bad taste in everyone's mouth. Russell just has not found a home.

But he still shows what he is capable of. He did that in Los Angeles last year, averaging 18.0 points per game and 6.3 assists per game. He shot 41.5 percent from three on 7.2 attempts per game. Russell had five games of 30 or more points and 18 of 25 or more.

Russell is plenty capable of putting up high-scoring performances. And that is why he remains a huge attraction. That is why he is still enticing. The raw numbers check out.

His skill set and everything he is at his best matches what the Magic need. He would be another downhill attacker, another excellent floor spacer, and another playmaker to help others. He could be a point guard who can play off the ball and another major offensive option for this young team.

It is incredibly enticing. And yet everyone is hesitant with Russell. He has never quite lived up to his full billing.

The case for signing D'Angelo Russell

The case for signing D'Angelo Russell is a pretty simple one. Russell has a lot of the skills the Orlando Magic are looking for this offseason.

As far as a table-setting, three-point shooting guard goes, Russell seems to fit the ideal of what the Magic are looking for.

For a team that is offensively challenged, Russell would be a player capable of scoring at a high rate—he averaged 18.0 points per game and has not scored fewer than 15.0 points per game since his rookie year in 2016.

For a team that lacks a volume shooter, Russell averaged 7.2 3-point attempts per game. He has not averaged fewer than 5.0 per game since his rookie year (again). He shot 41.5 percent from three last year. He has shot better than 35.0 percent from three in all but two seasons.

Russell gets his shots in every manner imaginable.

Russell shot 43.0 percent on catch-and-shoot three-pointers, according to data from Second Spectrum. He made 39.1 percent of his pull-up three-pointers on 2.8 attempts per game. Paolo Banchero led the Magic in that category with 2.6 attempts per game and 32.2 percent shooting. No one else took more than 2.0 pull-up attempts per game.

On top of all of this, Russell is a capable playmaker. He averaged 6.3 assists per game and has averaged more than 5.0 assists per game in all but two seasons of his career.

Considering all of the Magic's needs—a player capable of creating for himself, a player capable of hitting three-pointers, a player capable of playing off of Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner while adding to them offensively, a player who can give the team some offensive variability—Russell checks a lot of those offensive boxes that the Magic should need and want.

Having some experience playing off of LeBron James too at least is a proof of concept that he could work in an offense centered on Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner's skill set as well.

Russell would give the Magic a dynamic offensively they have undoubtedly been missing. At least the numbers all suggest that.

The case against signing D'Angelo Russell

Throughout his career, D'Angelo Russell has been more of an idea of a player than someone who has been fully realized. What he did with the Brooklyn Nets seemed to be him at his zenith. But every stop along the way has seen a struggle for him to match that or play that way consistently.

Whenever everyone is eager to believe in Russell, he does something that makes you question everything.

It could be that his passing is not all that impactful despite his high assist totals. According to data from Basketball-Index, Russell rates as a below-average passer for his role despite creating 16.12 assist points per 75 possessions. He created only 3.8 high-value assists per 75 possessions last year (assists leading to a layup, 3-pointer, or free throw).

He does have some passing volume, but he is not a true point guard.

That is not something the Magic need from him. They need someone to set the table and be another option in the attack. That may not be as big of a concern for a team like the Magic.

Like so many things, it is hard to pin down what Russell is. Even this deep into his career.

Russell is not a super-skilled driver either, even though he shoots well at the rim, especially for a guard. That is not his game. Russell will hit threes and create for himself. It is how he fits in with others.

That might be why Russell's career has seemingly stalled out. It might be why he has bounced from team to team without finding his place. It is why there is still debate about whether he is the right player to fit with this young Magic team.

On top of this, Russell has historically struggled in the playoffs.

For his career in the regular season, he averages 17.8 points and 5.8 assists per game while shooting 36.9 percent from three. In the playoffs, that drops to 14.2 points per game, 4.8 assists per game and 32.7 percent shooting from three. He scored only 14.2 points per game and shot 31.8 percent from three.

Russell has never performed in the playoffs. And that likely speaks all anyone serious needs to know.

If the purpose of this team is to compete for a championship one day, it is at least mildly concerning that a veteran guard like Russell has really failed to step up in the playoffs at every turn.

It speaks to where the weaknesses in his game lie. He is a tough player to handle on a random night in January, but he may be the guy that is easy to figure out in a playoff series.

D'Angelo Russell is looking for a star payday, but is not a star

The NBA's cap environment is about to get weird. Figuring out what a good value contract is going to be strange. The next few years will see the cap explode and so a bad contract today will become market value very soon.

D'Angelo Russell will likely be opting out of a contract that would pay him $18.7 million. He is obviously going to be looking for more. And he could be someone who is hunting a star-level deal worth $25 million annually.

What that really says is that whoever is signing Russell is signing him to be a starter and a key player for their team. That means they are fully invested in him and everything about him.

The Orlando Magic need an offensive boost. That much is clear. And so it is incredibly enticing to go after a player like Russell.

He would add a playmaking dimension that is missing on this team. He would add a shooting dimension that is missing on this team. He has a swagger to take over games and Orlando needs to diversify its attack.

There are a lot of boxes that Russell checks off for this team.

But without a strong defensive reputation and a history of falling short in the playoffs, Russell seems to be better in theory than he is in practice. That is generally Russell's problem for his entire career. Everyone buys into what Russell should be not what he is.

Russell does not need to be the star of the show anymore. But this is still the problem. Those instincts have never gone away. And he has never found the right balance.

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Ultimately, the Magic are looking for the skills and versatility that Russell brings in theory. But Russell has shown time and time again that it is just theory with him.