Part of the appeal of the Los Angeles Lakers’ trade of Rui Hachimura on Monday was the relatively modest price. Other teams have spent the entire season asking the Lakers to trade one of their two first-round picks in almost any negotiated trade, but the Washington Wizards were willing to send him to the purple and gold for three second-round picks . However, it appears that the Lakers are willing to make a significant investment in Hachimura. It won’t just come through the trade itself.
By all accounts, the Lakers are treating Hachimura as if he were a significant part of not just their present, but their future. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported after the deal that the Lakers hope to re-sign Hachimura after the season. That makes sense, but it’s worth noting that Hachimura’s $18 million cap hit is all but throws away their previous cap space ambitions. Of course, that’s a decision the Lakers don’t have to make until the offseason. The most pressing issue is Hachimura’s role, and according to The Athletic’s Jovan Buha, the Lakers expect Hachimura to be their starter when their rotation settles.
Hachimura is unlikely to make his first Lakers start as the team works through his fitness. But putting him out now that he’s likely to end up in the top five, though, is a risky proposition. This team has a bad recent history of awarding starting jobs on reputation rather than merit. In particular, they gave Andre Drummond a starting spot in 2021 when he arrived despite the excellent play of Marc Gasol and fit with the existing roster. That caused problems in the locker room for the rest of the season. On a team like the Lakers, where almost everyone is playing on a new contract, giving a starting job to an unseen sight is risky.
He is also dangerous on the court. Although the Lakers are extremely thin at forward, they happen to have their two best players in the front court. They don’t necessarily need a lead when LeBron James and Anthony Davis are on the floor together. They need them when one or both of them are absent. By starting the three, the Lakers make it more difficult to maximize their presence with bench lineups. Those lineups will probably need more, where Hachimura can show more of his scoring on the ball than the starters do.
Additionally, by starting Hachimura, the Lakers are essentially committed to keeping Davis under center for the rest of the year. That’s not necessarily a bad idea. He had success in the middle earlier this season and is naturally better at the position than power forward. But with Thomas Bryant thriving since Davis’ injuries, there was a legitimate argument to start both moving forward. Doing so would allow Davis to guard power forward, which could help him stay healthy into the postseason. Davis himself has said that he prefers to play in power for this exact reason. If Bryant is starting next to Davis, fitting in minutes for another strong backup in Wenyen Gabriel becomes a little easier.
Ultimately, the right course is to award minutes and starting slots on merit. Hachimura may be earning a starting job just because he could earn a new contract this offseason. It’s important that the Lakers don’t assign those things to potential. A team below .500 cannot play favorites. Doing so would make the trade much more expensive than the three second-round picks they dealt.