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 on the trade market ahead of 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 roster upgrade.

“I think the calculus for the Lakers is to win a championship or not,” Pelinka said in a news conference before the Lakers’ 133-115 loss to the Clippers. “There’s no in-between or incremental growth. So as 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 get all the way to the end and win a championship, there’s no resource we’ll hold onto if we feel like that’s there.

“At the same time, the completely 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 came after his team made one of the first moves of 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 to go along with additional size, length and athleticism defensively.

“(We) felt like it was an opportunity for us to strike early and address a need in a market that has proven to be a little bit slow,” Pelinka said in the joint news conference with Hachimura. “And (it) doesn’t mean our work is finished: We’re going to continue to monitor the situation with the 29 other teams. Our job as a front office is always to look to improve our team both now and in the future, and we felt like Rui was the perfect way to do that. That’s why we struck early.”

Hachimura will make his season debut Wednesday against the Spursaccording to head coach Darvin Ham. Anthony Davis is expected to make his return as well, barring a setback during pregame warmups, according to ESPN. Davis will be on a minutes restriction. The Lakers went 10-10 in Davis’ absence, treading water to remain in the thick of the postseason race. They’re 1.5 games out of the No. 10 seed and 2.5 games out of the No. 6 seeds.

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

Any needle-moving deal would almost certainly require the inclusion of at least one of the Lakers’ tradeable future first-round picks in 2027 and 2029, along with some combination of their three movable non-minimum contracts (Russell Westbrook, Patrick Beverley and Lonnie Walker IV). There have been mixed signals for months as to the type of deal the Lakers believe would be worth the picks’ inclusion. As he did on 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.

“That’s a really delicate calculus and something the entire front office evaluates with all the moves,” Pelinka said. “If we see a move that puts us as a frontrunner to get another championship here, the 18th one here, we’ll make it. And if that move doesn’t present itself, we’ll be smart and make it at a later time.”

As Pelinka laid out, the stakes are high. The Lakers used many of their future trade assets to acquire Davis in 2019 and Russell Westbrook in 2021, so the 2027 and 2029 first-round selections represent their last shot to significantly improve the roster, at least through next season. Miscalculating their value could potentially harm the rest of the LeBron James-Davis era and beyond, depending on the gravity of the mistake.

At the same time, standing pat beyond the Hachimura trade is akin to punting on 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’re running out of time to acquire them.

For all of their faults 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 All-NBA levels in 2022-23. That might not be the case next season, when James will be turning 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 on this season no matter their current record.

It could just be semantics, but the use of the term “frontrunner” by Pelinka was potentially revealing, even if he was using the term interchangeably with “championship contender.” If the Lakers are only looking to make a trade that makes them the 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 “frontrunner” status. The Lakers must leapfrog seven teams just to achieve the top-six seed that would guarantee a playoff berth. Even if they acquired a high-level difference-maker, the Lakers would only have 34 games, at most, to do that. 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 truly their barometer to make 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 relayed Pelinka’s comments after the game.

“Rob is going to 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 testier 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 played in between the four lines, and we’ll see what happens once 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 voiced 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 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 at 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 regardless of the circumstance, refrained from using a binary lens when discussing the roster.

“We’re trending in a great direction,” Ham said. “… In terms of adding to the roster, as I mentioned a bunch of 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 available, what we can do. If we stand pat, we stand pat. If we explore and do more then that is what it is.”

One wrinkle in the Lakers’ deadline plans is their cap sheet this offseason. The Lakers could create 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 multiple different ways” this offseason, indicating they’re not necessarily tied to one plan.

Given 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 retaining himand 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 that hopefully has a 10-plus year runway of great basketball in front of them like Rui does, that’s a really unique opportunity at the trade deadline to get,” Pelinka said. “And we wouldn’t trade for a young player without doing a deep dive and study and having plans, hopefully, to keep him here for the long term.”

With the trade deadline looming, the next couple of weeks will finally reveal how the organization truly views the team’s chances of competing this season.

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

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