LOS ANGELES — In his first public comments since the Lakers’ media day in late September, vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka confirmed the Lakers will remain active in the trade market until the Feb. 9 deadline, but sounded a note of caution when asked. the team’s most valuable trade assets — two first-round picks in 2027 and 2029 — could use the opportunity to make a more significant roster update.
“I think that the calculation of the Lakers is whether to win the championship or not,” Pelinka said at the press conference before the Lakers lost to the Clippers (133:115). “There is no intermediate or incremental growth. So when we analyze opportunities, we have to do it through that lens. And I said this at the beginning of the season, if there’s an opportunity to go all the way and win a championship, there’s no resource we’re going to hold onto if we feel like it’s there.
“At the same time, it would be completely unwise to fire the bullet early and then not get it later when you have a better championship move.”
Pelinka’s comments came after his team made one of the first moves of the NBA trade season, acquiring forward Rui Hachimura from the Washington Wizards in exchange for Kendrick Nunn and three second-round picks. Hachimura’s arrival bolsters the frontcourt, adding offensive punch along with additional size, length and athleticism defensively.
“(We) felt it was an opportunity for us to strike early and address a need in a market that has proven to be a little slow,” Pelinka said at a joint news conference with Hachimura. “And (it) does not mean that our work is finished. we will continue to monitor the situation with the other 29 teams. Our job as a front office has always been to improve our team both now and in the future, and we felt Rui was the perfect way to do that. That’s why we hit early.”
According to head coach Darwin Hamm, Hachimura will make his season debut against the Spurs on Wednesday. Anthony Davis is also expected to return, barring a running back during pregame warmups, according to ESPN. Davis will be minutes limited. In Davis’ absence, the Lakers went 10-10, staying afloat in the postseason race. They are 1.5 games out of 10th place and 2.5 games out of 6th place.
Hachimura’s acquisition, while helpful for the Lakers’ present and future, isn’t enough to give the Lakers a real shot at making it out of the West. The loss to the Clippers dropped the Lakers to 13th in the West at 22-26. They need to make a more flashy deal that brings back a high-profile starter, at the very least, closer to title contention.
Any deal to move the needle would almost certainly require the inclusion of one of the Lakers’ future trade picks in 2027 and 2029, as well as some combination of their three mobile non-minimum contracts (Russell Westbrook, Patrick Beverley and Lonnie). Walker IV). For months, there have been mixed signals about what type of deal the Lakers thought was worth including the picks. As he did at media day, Pelinka stressed the importance of only getting them into the right deal, whether that happens in the next two weeks, this offseason or at some point in the future.
“It’s a really delicate calculation and something that we appreciate across the front office all the way through,” Pelinka said. “If we see a move that puts us in the lead to get another championship here, 18th here, we’ll go for it. And if that move doesn’t come, we’ll be smart and do it later.”
As Pelinka explained, the stakes are high. The Lakers used most of their future trade assets to sign Davis in 2019 and Russell Westbrook in 2021, so the 2027 and 2029 first-round picks represent their last shot at significantly improving the roster, at least next season. Miscalculating their value could potentially hurt the rest of the LeBron James-Davis era and beyond, depending on the severity of the mistake.
In the meantime, standing beyond the Hachimura trade is like hitting the season. The Lakers don’t have the depth or top-level players to compete with the elite in the West, much less the elite in the East. Time is running out to get them.
For all their flaws and limitations, the Lakers might be the only team in the league that can say they have two top-10 players on their roster. When healthy, James and Davis both have played at every level of the NBA in 2022-23. That might not happen next season, when James will be 39 and Davis will be on the other side of 30 with long injuries. There is a legitimate argument that the Lakers should be in this season regardless of their current record.
It could just be semantics, but Pelinka’s use of the term “leader” was potentially revealing, even if he was using the term as “championship contender.” If the Lakers are only looking to make a trade that will make them the “frontrunner” for the title, then their pursuit of the trade market will likely be fruitless.
It’s hard to see any realistic deal that would take the Lakers from 13th in the West to leading the way. The Lakers must leapfrog seven teams to reach the top six that would guarantee a playoff spot. Even if they were to get a high-profile difference-maker, the Lakers would have a maximum of 34 games to do so. Beyond that, history shows that nearly every champion has been a top-three pick, suggesting the Lakers’ championship odds are low with or without a move. If that is indeed their barometer for making another trade, there may not be another move.
James, who has subtly and not-so-subtly shown his displeasure with the roster, walked away from the team-building process when he relayed Pelinka’s comments after the game.
“Rob is going to do his job, that’s his job,” James said. “My job is to go out on the floor and make sure my guys are locked in and ready to go.”
James, who scored 46 points against the Clippers and became the first player in NBA history to score 40 points against all 30 franchises, was more testy than usual in his postgame media address. He had a lukewarm response when asked about the Hachimura trade.
“Looking forward to it,” James said. “The game is between the four lines and we’ll see what happens when we adjust him and get him on the floor.”
James has made it clear repeatedly that it’s the front office’s job to fix the roster, not his. Pelinka agrees with that sentiment and even spoke up when asked about the decisions made by James and Davis, a departure from his previously more collaborative tone.
“I think we’ve said before that our seniors, LeBron and Anthony Davis, are always involved in what coach Hamm is doing, what the front office is doing,” Pelinka said. “At the same time, I think LeBron said it very well in the press conference last night when he said, “My job is to play basketball. It’s the front office’s job to do their job and build a roster. And Coach Ham’s job is to coach. I agree with that. We all have to do our jobs and do them with excellence and all be together. This is how we act and will continue to act.”
Ham, who always exudes a sense of optimism no matter the circumstance, refrained from using a binary lens when discussing the list.
“We’re headed in a great direction,” Hamm said. “… In terms of adding to the roster, as I’ve mentioned a few times, you’re constantly evaluating and trying to see different ways you can get better. And Rui is a step in the right direction in terms of that thinking, and we’ll continue to see what’s going on, what’s there, what we can do. If we are confused, we stop. If we study and do more, it is what it is.”
One wrinkle in the Lakers’ deadline plans this season is their cap. The Lakers could generate around $30 million in cap space this summer depending on how they handle their free agents. Pelinka said the Lakers have “tremendous flexibility to pivot in a few different directions” this offseason, indicating they don’t have to be tied to one plan.
Given that Hachimura is a restricted free agent, the Lakers will make a decision on his future. The Lakers made the deal with the intention of keeping him, and Pelinka made it clear the Lakers view Hachimura as a member of their young core.
“It’s easy to get a veteran at the end of his career with a pick, but when you can get a player who hopefully has a 10-plus year runway of great basketball ahead of him like Rui does, it’s a really unique opportunity. to get the trade deadline,” Pelinka said. “And we wouldn’t trade for a young player without diving deep and exploring and having plans to hopefully keep him here long-term.”
With the trade deadline looming, the next few weeks will finally reveal how the organization truly views the team’s chances of competing this season.
“Hopefully we’ll have a chance to get healthy a few weeks before the trade deadline with guys like Austin Reaves, Lonnie Walker and Anthony Davis coming back for us,” Pelinka said. “And we expect to play very, very hard in those games and hopefully continue to win at a high clip.”
(Photo by Rob Pelinka, Rui Hachimura (left) and Darwin Hamm (right): Jane Kamin-Onsea / USA Today)