Rob Pelinka sat with Rui Hachimura to his left before Tuesday’s game, the Lakers’ future the topic of conversation as the general manager introduced his newest acquisition.
Hachimura, the former lottery pick acquired in a trade this week, is set to debut Wednesday, when the team also could get star forward Anthony Davis back for the first time in more than a month.
Austin Reaves cleared an important hurdle earlier by having a full-speed workout, and fellow guard Lonnie Walker IV is considered to be even closer to returning.
Soon, the Lakers will be better.
But nights like Tuesday against the Clippers raise the obvious question: Is better going to be good enough?
Despite entering the night just one game behind the Clippers in the loss column, the Lakers showed that the differences between a team trying to figure it out and a team that’s trying to figure out if it has enough were pretty obvious.
By the time coach Darvin Ham gave up on the game, LeBron James sat slumped in a chair on the bench. Russell Westbrook and Dennis Schroder argued. And the Lakers, soon to be beaten 133-115, were soundly defeated.
“We just don’t have room for error,” James said.
The Clippers drained three after three while physically and skillfully dominating the Lakers. In areas they were able to survive against the Memphis Grizzlies and at Portland, the Lakers faltered, James left to do much of the work by himself.
For the first time, James eclipsed the 40-point mark against the Clippers — the last of the 30 teams to hold him under that mark. He did it on a one-handed slam. His next dunk one possession later cut the Clippers’ lead to 14 and an assist on the next to Westbrook got the Lakers within 11. After a Paul George drive, James made his career-high ninth three-point shot to cut the lead to 10. He’d finish with 46 points.
But momentum swung back to the Clippers after two Westbrook turnovers helped trigger an 8-0 run that iced the game, ensuring that coach Tyronn Lue would remain undefeated against his in-town competition.
“I made an executive decision to pull the plug,” Ham said.
The Clippers hit 19 three-point shots, George leading them with 27 points while Kawhi Leonard scored 25 and Norman Powell had 22.
“We were forcing them into really tough shots,” Ham said. “And they were just making them.”
Westbrook scored 17 but shot four for 13 from the field. He committed only two turnovers, but they came at a brutal time, zapping the Lakers’ comeback.
Help could be coming — Ham didn’t say Davis would be available Wednesday against San Antonio, only that he’d be reevaluated by doctors in the morning.
Other topics before the game, though, were less vague.
Speaking about the Feb. 9 trade deadline, Pelinka again reiterated the team’s desire to improve the roster. Rarely, though, has he stated the terms so clearly.
“The calculus for the Lakers is to win a championship or not. There’s no in-between or incremental growth,” Pelinka said. “So as we analyze opportunities, we have to do it through that lens. And, 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 if we feel like that’s there.
“At the same time, the completely unwise thing to do would be to shoot a bullet early and then not have it later when you have a better championship move you can make.”
The Lakers’ best assets in any deal would be their 2027 and 2029 first-round draft picks, and thus far, the Lakers haven’t found a deal that, in their mind, is worthy of putting either (or both) into play.
Hachimura’s acquisition represents something of a compromise, the Lakers able to address some roster needs in the frontcourt now while dealing for a player young enough and promising enough that there’s potential for future value as well.
“You know for me, I think I can shoot the ball — threes, I can shoot midrange, I can attack the rim,” Hachimura said. “Even off the ball, cutting and stuff is good for me. I can get a rebound and push the ball and stuff, so I can do a lot of stuff. I think it’s going to be great.”
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A look at LeBron James’ pursuit of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the all-time scoring record.
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Hachimura, who is Japanese, said playing in Los Angeles while in college at Gonzaga made him want to live in the city.
Pelinka said the hope was that the deal would give the Lakers a chance to re-sign the Hachimura in the offseason.
“First, I like the weather for sure. I have family friends here, a lot of friends here,” he said. “There’s a lot of Japanese people here too. I think that made me feel like this is my home.
“Close to Japan — it’s only nine hours from here.”
For Hachimura, that’s relatively close. For the Lakers, they certainly felt closer to contention before Tuesday’s uneven performance.
And whether it’s a key player’s injured body or the roster, they’re on the clock to fix it.