Tipping off the start of NBA trade season as the league inches closer to the February 9th deadline, the Washington Wizards are sending Rui Hachimura to the Los Angeles Lakers for three second round picks and Kendrick Nunn.
The Lakers, currently the 12th seed in the West, are 22-25 on the season, but have been chipping their way back toward .500 with a 7-4 record since the start of the new year. With Anthony Davis’ impending return and sitting just 2 games back of the sixth seed, the Lakers are gearing up for a mid-season push.
What does Hachimura bring to the Lakers? First and foremost, he’s a longterm talent play by the front office, who reportedly plan on re-signing him as a restricted free agent this summer.
The Lakers traded for Hachimura with the intention of signing him to an extension this summer, sources tell ESPN. Hachimura can be a restricted free agent. https://t.co/TAdM1h8iAH
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) January 23, 2023
The Lakers are fairly strapped for assets with an aged roster. Adding Hachimura, a former lottery pick, brings in a player who they can potentially develop into something more than he has been in Washington. Injuries, personal issues, roster construction, and positional depth in D.C. all contributed to a bumpy third and fourth season in the NBA after a promising start.
A new environment could benefit Hachimura greatly.
Part of the intrigue with Hachimura to the Lakers is his intersection of size and shooting. The Lakers have 4 regular rotation players taller than 6’6: LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Thomas Bryant, and Wenyen Gabriel. Out of those 4, LeBron is the only player who typically gets guarded an outside threat.
Bryant has excelled as L.A.’s starting five-man with Davis sidelined, but the Lakers’ lack of shooting and more importantly, size with shooting ability, has been a problem dating back to last season. Carmelo Anthony was the only frontcourt player on the roster last season that shot above league average from three on high volume outside of James. The spacing woes have been even more apparent this season with Anthony gone.
That spacing issue has led to James playing more minutes at the 4 the past two seasons than he did at any point during his first three years in Los Angeles or during his second stint in Cleveland. While he played 50 percent or more of his minutes at the 4 his final two years in Miami per Cleaning the Glass, 74 percent of his total possessions played this season have been at the 4, with a negligible number coming at the 3.
While James is not as spry as he once was, much of him playing the 4 is a byproduct of not having a capable stretch player who man the 4 spot. LeBron playing the 3 this season has mostly not been feasible, as even when the Lakers play a smaller player at the 4, they don’t get respected as shooting threats — and frankly, they should not be.
At 6’8 and with improved shooting volume over the past two seasons, Hachimura might be part of the answer to L.A.’s lineup construction problems. While his shot has been cold from above the break this season, Hachimura lights up the corners, shooting 48.3% on corner threes this year, and 42.2% on catch-and-shoot corner threes since the start of the 2020-21 season, per InStat Scouting. He’s shot 37.9% from deep (107/282) on all catch-and-shoot threes in that same time frame.
He shouldn’t be expected to hit movement threes or be utilized in sets that require him to do so. That’s not a part of his game at present. However, he has improved at relocating and lifting as ball-handlers drive, something he struggled with in years prior.
This is not something we would’ve routinely seen from him a year or two ago, lifting and shifting into space as Deni Avdija cuts, taking advantage of how the defense reacts. It’s a bit trivial, but it matters. The shot is a miss, but again, the relocation off of the rebound is noteworthy as he gets another attempt up, this time a good look.
Hachimura has never taken more threes than midrange shots in his career, and that’s something I’d expect to change as the Lakers need him to explore and muster greater volume as a shooter, while requiring less of him creating on the ball.
Adding a player with size who can shoot should bring more offensive ability to play LeBron James as the three, which in turn can create a better spread floor and put more strain on a defense. The Lakers have mostly had to rely on James posting up to draw two defenders and hopefully create from there, and while I doubt they go away from that in full, there should have better options to make a defense think when Hachimura and James share the court.
How Hachimura finds his own offense will also be notable. He has the ability to capably face-up and drive, play out of the post, and be effective off of cuts, but I expect the latter of the three to be where he finds his greatest impact. He’s never been a great cutter or impactful offensive rebounder and I’d love to see the Lakers script duck-ins and coax aggression in the paint out of him. He’s shot 75.8% at the rim the past two seasons, and getting Hachimura downhill on the roll or on a cut is the optimal way to get the most out of his frame and touch around the basket.
The ultimate deciding factor for Hachimura’s effectiveness this season will be how he is deployed defensively, and how impactful he is within that role. To put it plainly, Hachimura is not a good defender. He struggles a great deal as a help defender, often getting backcut, losing his man off the ball, and generally with his off-ball awareness. His closeout paths tend to be rough, he takes poor angles getting around screens, and he can get outmuscled by smaller players. Simply put, there is a lot that needs to be cleaned up here and given Darvin Ham’s demands on the defensive end, Hachimura will have to make strides to be a trusted and important rotation piece.
What Hachimura does have going for him is his frame, length, and solid athleticism. I’d really like to see (and expect) the Lakers to try and empower him as a primary defender. It sounds counterintuitive, but using his size and having him focus on attacking the player on the ball, rather than letting him get picked apart off the ball where he can get caught ball-watching, would be for the better. We’ve seen wings/forwards in similar molds take up this mantle in prior years: T.J. Warren in his first season with the Pacers, Kyle Kuzma with the Lakers during their title run, Memphis with Dillon Brooks early on in his pro career. They’re different players to be sure, but the same thought process is there of finding ways to minimize damage to your defense while also finding a role where a player can grow and thrive defensively. While Rui is not yet on the same track, it’s simple enough to envision.
The Lakers gave up a minimal package in this deal, and there’s reason for optimism with an immediate return. More importantly, this is a longterm play for a team in need of some potential and a player in need of a new situation, and it’s possible there’s an even more fruitful upside for both if things break right.