Rebuilds are difficult for everyone. They are difficult for front offices receiving pressure to build winners. They are difficult for players and coaches who desire to be at the top of their respective fields. And they are difficult for fans who wish nothing but to see their team’s success.
Through years of losing and disappointment, however, rebuilds often lead to a stronger attachment between fans and players. Without the pressure of doing anything and everything to win right now, fans gain a desire to see young players grow and spend their entire careers with the team.
For many, D’Angelo Russell played that role on the Lakers.
Drafted in 2015 with the second overall pick, Russell had his share of missteps. A scandal that saw him leak a video of a teammate, public feuds with a head coach that criticized his every move, and numerous rumors and reports regarding potential trades and his work ethic turned Russell into an enigma. The talent was visible but whether he would put it all together was a question.
Through it all, Russell remained the biggest sign of hope on the Lakers’ roster. He was the leader of the team last season as Luke Walton, Magic Johnson, and others stated their need for him to take on that role. He rebuilt his image among teammates after reports that the Nick Young incident made him an alienated outsider in the locker room. He persevered.
And now he’s gone.
Russell’s departure in a trade to the Brooklyn Nets was what everyone feared would happen when Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka took control of the Lakers’ front office – a lack of patience to develop the young players accumulated as a result of several years of losing.
But beyond the basketball implications (and boy, they are not pretty), trading Russell took away the biggest connection fans had to the Lakers. After Kobe Bryant’s retirement, Russell became the hope of the franchise, the favorite player of the newest generation of Lakers’ fans, and the guiding light to finally lead the Lakers out of their rebuild.
Russell did everything he needed to in order to validate that hope. He became a leader, he put up historically good numbers as a rookie and sophomore, and he seemingly worked hard to build his craft. He gave the Lakers Ice in His Veins and they responded with the cold shoulder.
Where the Lakers go from here will be what’s remembered as the lasting legacy of the trade. Perhaps they can sign Paul George and LeBron James like they seem to be aiming to do and we’ll all forget about Russell and what he meant to Los Angeles for two years.
Or this is another in a long line of mistake after mistake from the Lakers across different organizational structures where they somehow hold out more hope for a free agency splash when they have had no success in getting one.
Trading hope for hope, again. But this time, they gave up the one that meant the most to the fan base and the one that gave them the most hope.