Los Angeles Lakers fear they could lose star player if demoted to bench role

The Los Angeles Lakers put up a fight in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals against the Denver Nuggets Tuesday evening.

Despite Nuggets star Nikola Jokic recording a 20-rebound triple-double, the Lakers had this thing to within three points on the road with just over two minutes remaining. Unfortunately, Los Angeles could not pull off the victory.

What we saw transpire during Game 1 in Denver was also interesting. D’Angelo Russell and Dennis Schroder were part of a three-guard starting lineup to go with Austin Reaves. However, it was Russell who saw a lack of playing time as the game continued.

Recently acquired from the Minnesota Timberwolves, Russell shot 4-of-11 from the field. The Lakers were also minus-25 in his 26 minutes of action. When Russell was riding the pine, Los Angeles was plus-19.

Meanwhile, another somewhat recent acquisition in that of forward Rui Hachimura continued his brilliant postseason play. He hit on 8-of-10 shots for 17 points while actually playing solid second half defense on Jokic after Denver’s star big man took Anthony Davis to task in the first 24 minutes.

This has led to renewed questions about Los Angeles’ starting five heading into Game 2 Thursday evening. Should head coach Darvin Ham relegate D’Angelo Russell to bench duties moving forward? It just makes too much sense.

At issue here is Russell’s status as an impending free agent. If he views a move to the bench as a demotion, it could impact the guard’s decision-making process.

“Multiple team sources told ESPN that there is concern the team could ‘lose’ the 27-year-old point guard if he views the adjustment as a demotion after starting every other game this postseason,” ESPN’s Dave McMenamin on D’Angelo Russell and Los Angeles Lakers’ lineup situation.

The other option would be to bring Schroder off the bench. It’s a role he played all postseason leading up to starting Game 6 of the Western Conference Semifinals against the Golden State Warriors. Ham’s decision to start Schroder in that game was primarily due to the defense he played on Stephen Curry. It worked wonders with Los Angeles blowing out the defending champs in Game 6.

Related: Takeaways from Denver Nuggets Game 1 win over Los Angeles Lakers

Los Angeles Lakers must start Rui Hachimura in Game 2

NBA: Playoffs-Los Angeles Lakers at Denver Nuggets
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Regardless of Russell’s feelings and the long-term implications, Ham needs to make the decision that’s best for the Lakers’ championship aspirations this season. He can’t worry about someone’s ego at this point in the playoffs. Hachimura is the obvious start.

  • Rui Hachimura stats (2023 NBA Playoffs): 11.6 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 59% shooting, 55% 3-point
  • D’Angelo Russell stats (2022 NBA Playoffs): 15.1 PPG, 4.8 APG, 44% shooting, 33% 3-point

In addition to boasting better overall numbers, the Lakers are plus-21 over the past five postseason games with Hachimura on the court. Russell? That number is just plus-three.

It doesn’t hurt that Rui can actually work to contain Jokic on the low-post while Russell is a net-negative as a defender out on the perimeter.

“You have to switch up matchups at times and you have to switch up coverages. Gave us a chance to get back into the game,” Darvin Ham said about playing Rui Hachimura in the second half of Game 2.

That has to be the case if these Los Angeles Lakers are going to steal home-court advantage in Game 2 of the conference finals Thursday night.

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