The Lakers made their first trade of the season on Monday when they landed Washington Wizards forward Rui Hachimura. The move was solid in a vacuum: three second-round picks and salary filler for a recent lottery pick at a premium position. It's hard to ask for much better, yet it would be hard to argue that Hachimura, alone, solves this team's woes. As much upside as he offers, he's inconsistent on both ends of the "3-and-D" spectrum, which happen to be the two traits this team needs most.
If, at the end of next month's trade deadline, Hachimura is the Lakers' only pickup, their fortunes likely won't change much. But if he's the first domino at an active deadline? Then things get more interesting, and in introducing Hachimura Tuesday, Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka reiterated what he said at the start of training camp: while the Lakers don't plan to deal for the sake of dealing, he is prepared to offer both the team's 2027 and 2029 first-round picks if the right trade comes around.
"I think the calculus for the Lakers is to win a championship or not," Pelinka said. "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. But 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 to make. So that's a really delicate calculus ... If we see a move that puts us as a frontrunner to get another championship, 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."
That language is interesting in its specificity. There likely isn't a deal that makes the Lakers championship frontrunners merely because no team that is below .500 more than halfway through the season is ever realistically going to be considered a championship frontrunner. The Lakers have a flawed roster that probably needs more than a single move or trade deadline to be fixed.
However, the Western Conference is more open than its ever been. Entering Tuesday, the sixth- and 13th-place teams were separated by just a single game in the loss column. The Lakers have stayed in that mix while dealing with more injuries than just about every team ahead of them. They still have arguably the best duo in the NBA in LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Their presence, alone, might put the Lakers within striking distance of the title.
In that sense, Pelinka's definition of "frontrunner" becomes critical. If he is waiting for a superstar to become available that makes the Lakers obvious champions, then he's not going to make a move because no such move is going to present itself. But if he is operating under the logic that a healthy James and Davis already get the Lakers relatively close, trading those picks for two or three high-end role players might be enough to get the Lakers into the inner circle.
Further complicating matters is the salary component of a major trade. Between Russell Westbrook and Patrick Beverley alone, the Lakers have $60 million in expiring salaries to use in trades right now. Those contracts are gone after the season. The Lakers can replace them either by staying above the cap and re-signing their own players to new contracts or by creating roughly $34 million in salaries. Neither scenario gives them the salary flexibility as those two big expiring deals. If the Lakers plan to improve by trading picks, the moment to do so is probably right now.
That is especially true considering James' age. The 38-year-old forward isn't getting any younger. He's an All-NBA player right now. That might not be the case in a year. Even if waiting until the offseason yields a better trade, any value gained might be lost to Father Time. Nothing the Lakers do matters if James isn't one of the best players in the world. He is today. Tomorrow isn't guaranteed.
The deadline is a bit more than two weeks away. There's plenty of time for the right deal to present itself. If it does, Pelinka says he is ready to act on it.