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In Tidy Role Reversal, The Lakers Profit From The Wizards’ Dysfunction

2:42 PM EST on January 24, 2023

Rui Hachimura rests.
Rob Carr/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Lakers upgraded their roster Monday afternoon, via trade. For most of the past two years, this was not thought to be possible: General manager Rob Pelinka sold off everything of value in order to acquire first Anthony Davis in 2019 and then [gulp] Russell Westbrook in 2021, leaving the Lakers with one of the most barren, top-heavy, dysfunctional rosters in the league. Any hope of making Los Angeles's rotation younger or bouncier or more promising during the remainder of the LeBron James era, without a complete overhaul, seemed impossibly remote, especially after Pelinka traded 22-year-old Talen Horton-Tucker in August for one season of history's brashest coattail ornament, 34-year-old Patrick Beverley.

But if fortune tends to favor the bold, it is not particularly shy about doing so at the expense of the cosmically stupid. Enter the Washington Wizards, who have an excruciatingly dysfunctional roster of their own to untangle. Where the Lakers have two bonafide superstars surrounded by minimum-salaried flotsam and bottom-rung journeymen, the Wizards roster is deep with largely interchangeable mediocrities assigned to roles that are in all cases at least one degree of aptitude beyond their capabilities. Bradley Beal, a reasonably proficient second-fiddle, is the Face of the Franchise; Kristaps Porzingis, a credible starting-grade center, is The Great Hope; Kyle Kuzma, an adorably well-meaning seventh man, is An Emerging Superstar. This super-extremely impressive Big Three has so far led the Wizards to a 20–26 record this season, good for fifth from the bottom in the Eastern Conference.

Anytime you have a chance to weld your organization to such sturdy building blocks, all other imperatives must necessarily be swept aside. For the Wizards, this has meant setting aside roles and developmental opportunities for the team's youngsters, who under other circumstances might expect a certain amount of leeway and commitment from their team. Rui Hachimura, selected by Washington with the ninth pick in the 2019 draft, has seen his position in the team's future plans shrink by the season, and not only because he has so far failed to diversify his fairly limited skillset during three-plus deeply weird, abbreviated, pandemic-fucked professional seasons. Hachimura started every game of his rookie and sophomore seasons in Washington, then was bumped to the bench when the Wizards traded Westbrook for a package of Lakers that included Kuzma, who plays his same position. Hachimura, playing behind Kuzma, is seeing about seven fewer minutes per game than he averaged in his rookie season, and his role in the offense is now, on most nights, to set screens and stand in the corner, often while Kuzma comports himself like the second coming of Tracy McGrady, if McGrady had been forced to play out his career with hard casts on both hands.

To no one's great surprise, this arrangement has not made Hachimura very happy. For all of his evident deficiencies as a starting swingman in the modern NBA, Hachimura is 24 years old, built like an ox, fast and athletic, and has several perfectly credible strengths as an offensive player. For that matter, he is also on the right side—the cheap side, that is—of restricted free agency, and is therefore naturally concerned with maximizing the value of his first negotiated professional contract. Hachimura's name popped up in trade rumors in mid-January, and when asked recently about his future he all but begged for someone out there to rescue him from the Wizards. “I just want to be somewhere that wants me as a basketball player, and I want to be somewhere that loves my—likes my game, you know?" he said on Jan. 21, after scoring 30 points in 30 minutes off the bench in a win over the Orlando Magic. "I just want to be somewhere that trusts, believes in me. Just I can be myself—that’s my goal.”

On Monday the Wizards traded their imperfect but talented 24-year-old swingman to the Lakers, not for a comparably intriguing young player or for a draft pick of roughly equivalent value, but for the expiring contract of lousy third point guard Kendrick Nunn and three future second-round draft picks of hysterically decreasing value:

This is a very funny turns of events. It was desperation and dysfunction in Los Angeles, following an early playoff exit at the end of their 2020–21 NBA season, that caused the Lakers to pull the trigger on the insanely bad and dumb trade that brought Westbrook to the Lakers, and allowed the Wizards to finally climb out of the hole they'd dug by signing a comprehensively busted John Wall to a supermax contract in July 2019. The Lakers' dysfunction was a godsend for Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard, who'd dealt Wall to Houston in a like-for-like trade for Westbrook, and then got just enough productivity out of his new point guard to flip him for a handful of legitimately useful rotation players. Now it is the Lakers who are benefiting by Washington's habits of self-injury, flipping a puny and unwanted reserve guard on an expiring contract and second-round picks that will transfer approximately one thousand lifetimes from now for a cheap and productive rotation player at a position of need.

Hachimura will make the Lakers better simply by being forward-sized and ambulatory at the same time. Because the Lakers will have right of first refusal on his next contract and Hachimura's all-important Bird Rights (a team-building tool that grants a team the right to re-sign their own free agents without salary-cap limitations), rostering Hachimura today lends some not-insignificant measure of stability to their medium-term future. And going to a team where he is wanted and where he is not ceding opportunities and responsibilities to Kyle FUCKING Kuzma can only be a positive for Hachimura's development. There is no guarantee that Hachimura will work out, long-term, for the Lakers (or, for that matter, anywhere else) but Lakers fans should feel a hell of a lot better about their roster today than they did on Sunday.

As for the Wizards, for having done the hard work of suffocating and alienating yet another young player, they of course get to rid themselves of a malcontent, in exchange for some worthless junk, including the less favorable of two second-round draft picks, five years from now. But, hey, at least now they get to have Kyle Kuz—

Kuzma said he does not expect to sign an extension with the Wizards and plans to decline his player option for the 2023-24 season to become an unrestricted free agent this summer.

Ah. Well, you see, for even the chance of competing for a long-term commitment from Kyle Kuzma—I'm talking about the Kyle Kuzma, here—an organization must naturally grind whatever grist the mill requires.

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