LOS ANGELES — Jordan Clarkson and D’Angelo Russell might be the two most important players on the Los Angeles Lakers. Both are young and talented and possess several characteristics that are necessary for success in the modern game.
Both have certainly struggled to find their way as inexperienced, high-volume options. But more important than their individual statistics is their on-court chemistry, which is crucial for a rebuilding team that hopes to have found its backcourt of the future.
Do Russell and Clarkson complement one another? It’s an important question the Lakers coaching staff and front office need to figure out as soon as possible. The good news: The two have recently combined to take a critical step in the right direction.
Every regular two-man roster combination the Lakers have is an abomination that gets badly outscored by the rest of the league. But within the frame of their own alliance, Russell and Clarkson are starting to look good.
Now in his second season, Clarkson has been L.A.’s de facto starting point guard since Byron Scott shoved Russell to the bench back in early December. For numerous reasons, this decision stands as the most controversial and significant move of the season. Above all else, it split up L.A.’s presumed backcourt of the future.
That’s bad news for Clarkson, who’s more comfortable creating opportunities for himself than for others. With the rookie in the lineup next to him, it alleviates some of the responsibilities that come with handling the ball.
According to NBA.com, Clarkson shoots 42.3 percent from the floor and 26.5 percent behind the three-point line when Russell is off the floor. Those numbers spike to 45.5 percent and 40.8 (!) percent, respectively, when Russell is also on the court.
Additionally, Clarkson makes 58.5 percent of his attempts within five feet of the basket with Russell and just 46.8 percent without him.
Look at these two examples. First, Russell initiates a pick-and-roll on the right side of the court before whipping the ball to Clarkson on the weak side and letting him attack the Sacramento Kings defense from a more advantageous entry point:
“He’s a passer who can score as well,” Clarkson told Bleacher Report. “So I think it really opens the floor for both of us: me getting into the paint and being able to kick out to him, him being able to make plays. We’re both playmakers, and I think that’s where we help each other out the most.”
On the next play, Russell does more of the leg work in this side pick-and-roll with Brandon Bass. He times it just right so that San Antonio Spurs wing Jonathon Simmons (Clarkson’s man) doesn’t have enough time to help on Bass’ roll and then sprint back out to contest Clarkson’s three:
It’s a two-way street. Here’s Clarkson driving into the paint and setting up Russell for an open three-point bomb:
“I feel like we just know when to cut off each other, we know when to find each other and get each other easy playmaking plays,” Russell said. “If that’s getting to the rim and dishing it off or getting to the rim and kicking it out for a three…I feel like we play well together.”
Other coaches around the league are taking notice. Before Thursday night’s loss to Chicago, Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg had nothing but nice things to say about L.A.’s steadily improving backcourt.
“They’re really, really good players, and I’ve been impressed with how they’ve grown together,” he said. “Both have had some really good games as of late. I think it’s a backcourt that’s going to be very dangerous in years to come as they continue to grow and continue to get to know each other.”
Cutting through L.A.’s general malaise isn’t easy when trying to analyze this specific combination, but relative to their own struggle, the Lakers have been noticeably better over the past month with their two young guards on the floor.
According to NBA.com, they’re 4.0 points per 100 possessions better than their average in January when Russell and Clarkson are the backcourt. (Unfortunately, that still ranks in the bottom five.)
The offensive benefits of letting these two youngsters run wild is increasingly hopeful, but defensive issues still hold them back.
“I think they’re both still trying to figure it out, you know, how to play together, how to be effective together,” Scott said. “Defensively, when guys come together against those two, they have to do a much better job of figuring out how to guard people, communicate on that end of the floor. They have a lot to learn.”
On paper, size isn’t an issue—Clarkson and Russell are both listed at 6’5.” But in reality, it’s a cause for concern. Defensive issues will take a backseat if they can eventually evolve into an efficient scoring duo, and it’s all a moot point if/when the Lakers sign the defensive-minded wing they sorely need in order to take the next step. But right now, neither is very effective on or off the ball.
“Oh man, you know anything can happen. Just look at Portland with [C.J.] McCollum and [Damian] Lillard,” Lakers guard Nick Young told Bleacher Report. “This is their first year playing together, they’re still young…and they’re gonna be all right.”
Almost every successful backcourt in today’s NBA has two players who can run the entire offense. Ideally, no player is more dependent on the other, and both are able to run pick-and-roll action just the same as they can shoot threes and create opportunities for themselves and others.
Russell’s vision gives him a higher overall ceiling, but that’s no knock on Clarkson, who’s far more athletic and explosive. What’s most important, though, is how they play off one another. And Scott would be wise to keep them on the floor at the same time as often as he can.
On Thursday night, L.A.'s head coach hinted that a lineup change is on the horizon, saying Russell would "probably" enter the starting lineup after the All-Star break. The Lakers fanbase should pray this move won't also send Clarkson to the bench.
All quotes in this article were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All statistics accurate as of Jan. 28.