Part of the appeal of the Rui Hachimura trade the Los Angeles Lakers made on Monday was the relatively meager price. Opposing teams have spent the entire season asking the Lakers for one of their two tradable 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-rounders. It seems, however, that the Lakers actually are prepared to make a sizable investment in Hachimura. It just isn’t going to come through the trade itself.
By all accounts, the Lakers are treating Hachimura as if he’s 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 hold all but wipes away their prior cap space ambitions. Of course, that is a decision the Lakers don’t need to make until the offseason. The more pressing matter is Hachimura’s role, and according to The Athletic’s Jovan Buha, the Lakers expect Hachimura to eventually be a starter for them once their rotation settles.
It’s unlikely that Hachimura start in his Lakers’ debut as the team works through his fit. Putting it out there now that he’ll likely eventually wind up in the starting five, however, is a tad dangerous. This team has a poor recent history of awarding starting jobs on reputation and not merit. Notably, they handed Andre Drummond a starting position in 2021 upon his arrival despite Marc Gasol’s superior play and fit with the incumbent roster. That caused issues that ate away at the locker room for the rest of the season. On a team like the Lakers, in which almost everybody is playing for a new contract, handing out a starting job sight unseen is risky.
It’s also dangerous on the court. While the Lakers are incredibly thin at forward, their two best players happen to be in the front-court. They don’t necessarily need forwards 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 trio, the Lakers make it more difficult to maximize their presence with bench lineups. Those lineups, in which Hachimura can show off more of his on-ball scoring, likely need him more than the starters do.
Further, by starting Hachimura, the Lakers are essentially committing to keeping Davis at center for the rest of the year. That’s not necessarily a bad idea. He thrived at center earlier this season and is naturally better at the position than power forward. But with Thomas Bryant thriving since Davis got hurt, there was a legitimate argument for starting both of them moving forward. Doing so would have allowed Davis to defend power forwards, which may help him stay healthy into the postseason. Davis himself has said that he prefers playing power forward for this exact reason. If Bryant is starting next to Davis, fitting in minutes for another strong reserve in Wenyen Gabriel becomes a bit easier as well.
Ultimately, the proper course is to award minutes and starting slots on merit. Hachimura may well earn a starting job just as he may well earn a new contract this offseason. It’s just important that the Lakers don’t assign those things on potential. A team that is below .500 cannot afford to play favorites. Doing so would make the trade far costlier than the three second-round picks they dealt.