NBA

What the Lakers’ ‘championship or not’ mentality could mean at the NBA trade deadline

LOS ANGELES – In his first public comments since 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 before the Feb. 9 deadline, but preached caution when asked about the possibility of using the team’s most valuable trade assets — the two first-round picks in 2027 and 2029 — to make a more significant upgrade at guard.

“I think the bottom line for the Lakers is to win a championship or not,” Pelinka said at a news conference before the Lakers’ 133-115 loss to the Clippers. “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 is an opportunity to get all the way to the end and win a championship, there’s no resource we’ll hold on to if we feel it’s there.

“At the same time, the absolutely unwise thing to do would be to shoot a bullet early and then not have it later when you have a better championship move you can make.”

Pelinka’s comments come 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 and adds offensive punch to go 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 bit slow,” Pelinka said at the joint news conference with Hachimura. “And (it) doesn’t mean our work is done: We will continue to monitor the situation with the other 29 teams. Our job as a front office is always to look to improve our team both now and in the future, and we felt that Rui was the perfect way to do it. That’s why we struck early.”

Hachimura will make his season debut Wednesday against the Spurs, according to head coach Darvin Ham. Anthony Davis is also expected to return, barring a setback during pregame warmups, according to ESPN. Davis will be on a one-minute restriction. The Lakers went 10-10 in Davis’ absence, treading water to stay in the middle of the postseason race. They are 1.5 games out of the No. 10 seed and 2.5 games out of the No. 6 seed.

The acquisition of Hachimura, while helpful for the Lakers’ present and future, is not enough to give the Lakers a real shot at getting out of the West. The loss to the Clippers dropped the Lakers to 13th in the West with a 22-26 record. They need to make a splashier deal that at least brings back a high-level starter to get closer to title contention.

Any needle-moving deal would almost certainly require the inclusion of at least one of the Lakers’ future first-round picks in 2027 and 2029, along with a combination of their three moveable non-minimum contracts (Russell Westbrook, Patrick Beverley and Lonnie Walker IV). There have been mixed signals for months about what type of deal the Lakers believe would be worth including. As he did at media day, Pelinka stressed the importance of only including them in the right deal, whether it comes in the next two weeks, this offseason or at some other point in the future.

“It’s a really delicate bill and something the whole front office is evaluating with all the moves,” Pelinka said. “If we see a move that puts us in the front-runner to get another championship here, the 18th here, we’ll make it. And if that move doesn’t work itself out, we’ll be smart and do it at a later date .”

As Pelinka laid out, the stakes are high. The Lakers used much of their future trade assets to acquire Davis in 2019 and Russell Westbrook in 2021, so the 2027 and 2029 first-round picks represent their last chance to significantly improve the roster, at least through 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.

At the same time, standing ovation over the Hachimura trade is akin to pointing at the season. The Lakers don’t have the depth or high-level role players to compete with the West’s elite, much less the East’s. They are running out of time to acquire them.

For all their flaws and limitations, the Lakers may be the only team in the league that can say they have two top-10 players on their roster. When healthy, James and Davis have both played at an All-NBA level in 2022-23. That may not be the case next season, when James will turn 39 and Davis will be on the other side of 30 with a long injury history. There is a legitimate argument to be made that the Lakers should go all-in this season regardless of their current record.

It could just be semantics, but the use of the term “frontrunner” by Pelinka was potentially revealing, even though he used the term interchangeably with “championship contender.” If the Lakers are only looking to make a trade that makes them a title “frontrunner,” their activity on the trade market will likely be fruitless.

It’s hard to see any realistic deal that would vault the Lakers from 13th in the West to “front-runner” status. The Lakers have to leapfrog seven teams just to earn the top-six seed that would guarantee a playoff berth. Even if they landed a high-level difference maker, the Lakers would have at most 34 games to do so. Beyond that, history shows that nearly every champion was a top-three seed, suggesting the Lakers’ championship odds are low with or without a move. If that’s really their barometer for making another trade, there might not be another move coming.

James, who has subtly and not so subtly made his displeasure with the roster clear, distanced himself from the team-building process when he relayed Pelinka’s postgame comments.

“Rob will do his job, that’s his job,” James said. “My job is to be out on the floor and make sure my guys are locked in and ready to go.”

James, who scored 46 points against the Clippers to become the first player in NBA history to score 40 points against all 30 franchises, was more knowledgeable than usual in his postgame media address. He got a lukewarm response when asked about the Hachimura trade.

“I’m looking forward to it,” James said. “The game is played between the four lines and we’ll see what happens when we get him acclimated and on the floor.”

James has made it clear multiple times that it’s the front office’s job to fix the roster, not his. Pelinka agrees with that sentiment and even expressed when asked about running decisions by James and Davis, a departure from his more collaborative tone in the past.

“I think we’ve said before that our captains, LeBron and Anthony Davis, are always involved in what Coach Ham is doing, what the front office is doing,” Pelinka said. “At the same time, I think LeBron said it really well in the press conference the other night when he said, ‘My job is to play basketball. The front office’s job is 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. That’s how we operate and will continue to operate.”

Ham, who always projects a sense of optimism no matter the circumstances, refrained from using a binary lens when discussing the roster.

“We’re going in a great direction,” Ham said. “… In terms of adding to the list, as I mentioned a lot of times, you’re constantly evaluating and trying to see different ways you can improve. 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 available, what we can do. If we’re deadlocked, we’re deadlocked. If we explore and do more, that’s what it is.”

One wrinkle in the Lakers’ deadline plans is their cap sheet this offseason. The Lakers could create about $30 million in cap space this summer, depending on how they handle their free agents. Pelinka said the Lakers have “tremendous flexibility to pivot several different ways” this offseason, indicating they aren’t necessarily tied to one plan.

Since Hachimura is a restricted free agent, the Lakers will have a decision to make about his future. The Lakers made the trade with the intention of keeping him, and Pelinka made it clear that the Lakers view Hachimura as a member of their young core.

“It’s easy to get a veteran at the end of their career with a pick, but when you can get a player who hopefully has a 10-year run of great basketball ahead of him like Rui does, it’s a really unique opportunity at the trade deadline to get,” Pelinka said. “And we wouldn’t trade for a young player without digging deep and studying and hopefully planning to 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 to compete this season.

“We now have a stretch of hopefully a few weeks before the trade deadline where we get a chance to hopefully get healthy with guys like Austin Reaves, Lonnie Walker and Anthony Davis coming back into the mix 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, flanked by Rui Hachimura (left) and Darvin Ham (right): Jayne Kamin-Oncea / USA Today)

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