The Lakers made a shrewd move this past week, adding 24-year-old forward Rui Hachimura from the Wizards for guard Kendrick Nunn and three second-round picks. Los Angeles picked up a young player who has yet to reach his potential but desperately needed a new environment.
Washington, meanwhile, closed the book on another failed first-round pick and received the erratic Nunn, who never worked out in Los Angeles. On the Wizards’ side, this is an admission that Hachimura, the ninth overall pick in 2019, was the latest first-rounder to never find footing with the team.
In the last 12 years, Washington has used first-round picks on Troy Brown (15th), Otto Porter (third), and Jan Vesely (sixth) And their last three first-rounders, Deni Avdija (ninth), Corey Kispert (15th), and Johnny Davis (10th), have not made the expected impact.
More concerning is Davis, the lottery pick out of Wisconsin who was expected to step in immediately as a point guard. He’s played just 50 minutes this season. With Washington never emerging as a popular free agent destination, the Wizards rely on draft picks and trades to supplement their roster with talent.
That’s why losing Hachimura was such a blow to the organization. He began with two solid years as the team’s starting power forward but then took a mental health break and missed the first 39 games of the 2021-22 season and seemingly lost his role and stature with the club. This season, he was relegated to a bench role and played well in spurts but also missed 16 games and then began to express unhappiness with his role.
Hachimura is in the same situation as the Celtics’ Grant Williams from the same draft class. He’ll be a restricted free agent this summer and the Lakers have the right to match any offer or could offer Hachimura an extension based on his performance. With the Lakers wanting to avoid making any salary-cap commitments past this season, acquiring Hachimura allows them to determine whether he’s part of the future without making an immediate long-term commitment.
Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka also did not have to sacrifice a coveted first-round pick for Hachimura. The Wizards were attempting to participate in a three-team deal with the Suns and Bucks that would have included Jae Crowder going to the Bucks, but they did not want to take on any long-term salary.
Nunn, once an all-rookie selection, will be a free agent this summer and his stock has dwindled considerably. He missed his entire first season in Los Angeles with a bone bruise in his knee and averaged 6.7 points on 32.5 percent 3-point shooting for the perimeter-challenged Lakers this season.
“One of the needs we wanted to address with the roster was adding size and depth to the wing position,” Pelinka said. “And this is the time with the trade deadline a few weeks away that we’re canvassing the league on ways to get better, and with me that’s talking to all 29 other teams. We’ve had a great working relationship with the Wizards and [GM] Tommy Sheppard. We felt like this was an opportunity to strike early and address a need in a market that’s proven to be a little bit slow.”
The reason there is a slow market is the number of teams who feel they can compete for a playoff spot. What the play-in tournament has offered is more teams optimistic of making the playoffs. Approximately 60 percent into the season, there appears to be just four teams who have zero playoff chances: the Pistons and Hornets in the Eastern Conference and the Spurs and Rockets in the Western Conference.
The Lakers are trying to improve without making any commitments that would affect their ability to sign a maximum free agent this summer. LeBron James is approaching Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s scoring record and still playing at an All-Star level, but he turned 38 last month and wants no part of a rebuilding plan or having to sneak into the play-in tournament. So the Hachimura move was one of the better transactions in recent years for Pelinka.
“When you get a player that hopefully has a 10-plus-year runway of great basketball in front of him, like Rui does, that’s a unique opportunity,” Pelinka said. “We wouldn’t trade for a young player without doing a deep dive and study and having plans to hopefully keep him here for the long term. If you really study our cap, I think we have a really flexible cap. At the same time, we’re really excited about some of the young guys that we’ve added.”
The Lakers have provided a glimmer of home by going 9-10 while center Anthony Davis was out with a foot injury. They entered Saturday’s game with the Celtics just one game out of the play-in tournament. The Boston matchup is the first of a five-game trip that takes them to Brooklyn, New York, Indiana, and New Orleans.
“I think we talked about this when we hired Darvin Ham [as coach],” Pelinka said. “One of the qualities that was resounding was his competitive nature. That’s been an absolute for Darvin this year is being competitive and playing hard. I think our last game against Portland was an example of that. That’s the nature of our group.
“What we’ve seen in LeBron with his leadership and hard play over the last few weeks. We have now a stretch of a couple of weeks before the trade deadline where we get some guys healthy with guys like Austin Reaves and Lonnie Walker and Anthony Davis coming back into the mix for us and we expect to play very, very hard in those games and hopefully continue to win at a high clip.”
Pelinka acknowledged that every move has to be toward winning a championship. The Lakers knew it would be difficult to compete for a title this season unless the chemistry between James, Davis, and Russell Westbrook improved dramatically. Ham convinced Westbrook to come off the bench and he’s flourished in that role, emerging as a candidate for Sixth Man of the Year.
Davis again was injured, but James has played to an elite level as he chases Abdul-Jabbar’s scoring record. So Pelinka is in a tricky position. He can’t prepare for the long-term future, but he does want to stock the roster with young talent. And he needs that young talent to contribute now.
The acquisition of Hachimura could accomplish both. He showed the potential to be a cornerstone in Washington before being derailed by injury and a change in philosophy. But there are still more moves on the horizon. The Lakers still have a losing record despite having three of the league’s top 75 players of all time on their roster.
The Lakers need shooting. They need capable wings and a reliable bench when James and Davis are resting.
“The calculus for the Lakers is to win a championship or not, there’s no in-between,” Pelinka said. “As we analyze opportunities, we have to do it through that lens. 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 on to. At the same time, the completely unwise thing to do would to be shoot a bullet early and then not have it when you have a better championship move you could make. That’s a really delicate calculus. And it’s something that the entire front office we evaluate with all the moves. And if we see a move that puts us as a front-runner to get another championship, the 18th one here, well make it. If that move doesn’t present itself, we’ll be smart and make it at a later time.”
EVERY VOTE COUNTS
Mockery made of All-Star process
For years, it has been debated whether All-Star voting should be left strictly to the players. Should the media and fans have a say in who are the best 24 players in the league?
All-Star starters are currently determined by a weighted formula in which player votes are worth 25 percent, the media gets 25 percent, and the fans get 50 percent.
The All-Star starters were released Thursday and the best 10 players were chosen with debates about a few. But to see the players who received votes from other players is embarrassing, and the league may need to review how much say the players have in the process. For example:
▪ Indiana’s Kendall Brown received a vote to start in the Eastern Conference frontcourt. Brown, a rookie from Baylor, has played in six games and scored nine points.
▪ Washington’s Vernon Carey received two votes from players. Carey, who has spent most of his season in the G-League, has played eight games for the Wizards and scored two points.
▪ Sacramento rookie Keon Ellis, who was signed as an undrafted free agent, received a vote for Western Conference guards. He’s played in five games.
▪ Donte DiVincenzo, a reserve guard for the Warriors, received seven votes.
▪ Lakers guard Patrick Beverley received two votes.
▪ Cleveland’s Ricky Rubio, who just made his season debut this past week after recovering from a torn ACL, received two votes.
There are dozens of examples of joke voting among the players. Some of them don’t take this process seriously, don’t feel as if their vote counts, so they vote for their buddies or want to do a solid for a teammate by giving him an All-Star starter vote.
What this does is make a mockery of the process. Years ago, players would blame the media for biased All-Star voting, some would accuse media members of denying votes because the player did not want to cooperate or were unapproachable. Media friendliness should have nothing to do with being an All-Star. It’s about performance on the floor.
But players such as Gorgui Dieng (waived by San Antonio and then re-signed to a 10-day contract) or Bulls center Tony Bradley, who has played 10 games this season and totaled 12 points, should be annoyed that one of their brethren thought it was cool or even funny to submit their name for an All-Star starter vote when they are just fighting to stay on a roster.
We can honestly debate why Joel Embiid ranked fourth with the fans or why Jayson Tatum finished fourth for Eastern Conference frontcourt players with the players. But there’s no reason that 93 Eastern Conference frontcourt players received votes, including Milwaukee’s Thanasis Antetokounmpo (no, not Giannis, his brother), who received five votes.
The Players Association and the NBA need to collaborate on a better system for player input into All-Star Games or we’ll continue to get this mockery, while players who deserve votes, such as Embiid or Ja Morant or Jaylen Brown, miss out on votes because their peers want to use the voting process as a parody.
Possible landing spot for Ross?
If the name Terrence Ross sounds familiar to Celtics fans, it should. He’s one of the handful of players who has pestered the Celtics over the years with his production, and he has remained loyal to the Magic despite their struggles. But while the Magic are a rising and improving young team, Ross has watched his bench role dwindle, being held out of three consecutive games, including Orlando’s recent win over the Celtics.
Ross is on an expiring contract at $11.5 million, he turns 32 on Feb. 5, and he could emerge as a Boston trade or buyout target in the coming weeks because of his ability to score off the bench. The Celtics have been searching for an athletic wing who can drop buckets and the two-month slump of Sam Hauser may encourage president of basketball operations Brad Stevens to bolster the bench.
Ross is no longer in coach Jamahl Mosley’s rotation and the Magic are not likely to procure a desired first-round pick, or even a young prospect, for Ross. With Orlando seeking a frontline point guard this offseason, the Magic are highly unlikely to bring back Ross, meaning he could be available.
Boston would have difficulty matching Ross’s salary through trade, so it might have to bank on Ross being bought out after the trade deadline. The Celtics can’t combine their Dennis Schröder trade exception at $5.9 million with let’s say Danilo Gallinari to get Ross. To execute a trade, the Celtics would have to offer Gallinari, Payton Pritchard, and Justin Jackson to match salaries. So the best option for the Celtics to acquire Ross is through buyout.
Finally, if Ross seeks to play for a contender and the Magic want to do their longtime reserve a favor, he could request a buyout and then sign with a team of his choice. Ross will be an interesting name to watch over the next two-plus weeks.
It may a matter of time before the NBA fashion police begins knocking again at the door of players for their attire on the bench while inactive. Former commissioner David Stern was disturbed more than a decade ago by players who began dressing too casually on the bench, such as sporting throwback jerseys and T-shirts. Players such as Indiana’s Tyrese Haliburton and New Orleans’s Zion Williamson were wearing jerseys on the team’s bench, something the league warned players against when it instituted the dress code. After the pandemic, NBA coaches decided to refrain from wearing suits and opted for long-sleeve T-shirts, slacks, and sneakers. While player attire to games is their choice, player attire on the bench is again leaning toward casual. Whether the NBA reacts or attempts to implement guidelines is something to watch . . . There has been speculation about the availability of two Hornets: former first-round pick P.J. Washington and emerging forward Jalen McDaniels. Washington is an interesting case because he’s also in the same situation as Celtics forward Grant Williams and the Lakers’ Rui Hachimura. The Hornets did not agree to a rookie extension last summer with Washington and he will enter this summer as a restricted free agent. The Hornets have the right to match any offer to Washington, but are they willing to invest that money, especially coming off one of the league’s worst records? The Hornets could move Washington for a first-round pick and another prospect. As for McDaniels, he is a homegrown former second-round pick who has blossomed and could eventually take Washington’s place in the lineup. McDaniels drew compliments from the Celtics’ Jayson Tatum after he scored 26 points against Boston on Jan. 16. McDaniels will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, but the Hornets may opt to invest a lucrative deal in McDaniels instead of Washington. Charlotte will have more cap flexibility in the summer of 2024, when the final year of Gordon Hayward’s contract comes off its books. Kelly Oubre, who has missed the last month with a hand injury, could also be available as he’s in the final year of his contract. Look for the Hornets to make several moves near the deadline . . . Meanwhile, the Raptors are the team many GMs are watching over the next few weeks as they decide whether to be buyers or sellers. Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr., each of whom can opt out of their contracts this summer, could be on the market if the Raptors are uncertain of their returns.